Movie: Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

Billy Wilder wrote or directed some of the best movies of the twentieth century, often handling both duties for the same film.  Movies like Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity and Some Like It Hot.  I felt he started losing his way in the 1960’s and, for most of the time I was watching 1964’s Kiss Me, Stupid, I was certain I would be writing a negative review of it.

To my considerable surprise, I ended up liking this movie.  Among the reasons I was I reluctant to do so include annoying characters and an idiot plot.

The idiot plot is a term I think I first heard in some of Roger Ebert’s reviews.  I may be remembering it incorrectly but the phrase has, for me, come to mean a movie where the plot would be demolished if any one character relayed a piece or two of information to another character.  What makes it worse is when there isn’t any compelling the reason for that information to not be communicated.

Ray Walston plays a piano instructor in Climax, Nevada, where I can’t imagine there’s much demand for his service from the town’s approximately two thousand residents.  He is married to Felicia Farr, a beautiful woman who loves him madly.

Walston’s appeal to Farr was completely lost on me.  He is always anxious and overly excitable, forever thinking his wife is having an affair with every man in town.  In the span of a few minutes, he has accused the milkman and the paper boy.  I wondered whether he regularly accuses the same people or is it a different person each time.  If that’s the case, it seems like he had to have gone through the town’s male population at least once.  I mean, that’s a really small town.

Cliff Osmond plays the town mechanic and Walston’s friend.  Together, these two write terrible songs they think are brilliant.  This reminded me of the deliberately bad songs in Ishtar, with the major difference being the songs here are by George and Ira Gershwin.  In the same way it takes a smart writer to write a convincingly stupid person, it takes great songwriters to come up with a title like “Pretzels In The Moonlight”.

Many opportunities will present themselves when Dean Martin ends up stranded in their town.  Mind you, he’s only stranded there because Osmond secretly disabled his car.  So, Osmond thinks he’ll be able to sell Martin on some of the songs he’s written with Walston.  An entirely different set of opportunities will arise from a deeply stupid ruse the two come up with to sweeten the deal.

Martin plays “Dino” here, so he’s basically playing an exaggerated version of his public persona.  He’s a lush and a lothario.  It’s a shtick that quickly wore thin for me but, if you’re a fan, you’re likely to appreciate his performance.

Osmond and Walston decide Martin can overnight at the latter’s house.  The ever-suspicious Walston is terrified Dino will seduce his wife.  For a change, he has good reason to be fearful.  Farr used to be the president of the singer’s fan club.  Also, Martin is so desperately horny that he seductively eyes a dressmaker’s dummy at Walston’s house.  That’s right, this man wants to bone what is basically a torso.

Kim Novak then enters the picture as a dimbulb server at the town’s watering hole.  Also, without using the exact word, it is made very clear she is also a prostitute.  That is surprisingly bold for a feature of this era. 

They hire her to pretend to be Walston’s wife and allow herself to be seduced by Dino.  They don’t give her the full story of their intentions, because idiot plot.  Walston starts a fake argument with his wife, forcing her out of the house and to her parents.  He doesn’t just tell her what they’re planning, because idiot plot.

Novak has been so incredible in movies like Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle, that I was surprised by how unbelievable she is here.  I think the problem is she’s too smart to play this dumb.  Or maybe she’s just unwilling to.  Something about her performance reminded of Catherine O’Hara in something I have seen her in.  I can’t remember what it was, but I would rather see that actress in the Novak role.

So the biggest, and most pleasant, surprise for me is how, by the end of the picture, Novak became the reason this is worth seeing.  Here is a character that has only been wanted for her body.  For one night, she gets a glimpse of what it would be like to have a pedestrian home life and you can tell she’s thinking she could do better for herself.  Her self-esteem grows over the course of the evening, making her increasingly repulsed by Dino’s advances.

There isn’t more I can say about Kiss Me, Stupid without giving clues for how it ends.  And that ending is a series of surprises that keep unfolding like one of those nested Russian dolls.  Similar to how blatantly Novak’s character is presented as a prostitute, elements of that ending are far more mature than I would have expected from a movie of this vintage.  I was almost angry with how thoroughly the movie made me do a 180 degree turn from my opinion in its first two acts.  In the end, this is a winner, and an unexpected one.

Dir: Billy Wilder

Starring Dean Martin, Kim Novak, Ray Walston, Felicia Farr

Watched on Olive Films blu-ray