Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Kiss of Death (1977)

And so to a rewatch of what continues to be the only Mike Leigh film I have a less than sure grasp of, The Kiss of Death.

Leigh himself claims this is one of his favourite films, certainly of his TV Play for Today output of that era. He cites David Threlfall's Trevor as an offbeat guy who sees through the bullshit of everyday life and perceived custom and ways of living that the girls he knows have already fallen foul of. Leigh claims that the women - Angela Curran's Sandra and Kay Adshead's Linda - are examples of 'the predatory female syndrome', perhaps the first instance of such a character in his work. It's true the girls are atrocious; they're judgemental, old before their time and disapproving of what they view as fecklessness in men, specifically both Trevor and his friend Ronnie (John Wheatley)  yet still determined to have a youthful good time. 

And yet...for all their characters small minded and small town horridness I personally can't help share their frustration at times with Trevor; his gaucheness, his giggling at their statements or actions are a little infuriating.

It's said by both Leigh and critics that Trevor, for all his respectable and unusual job (he's a junior at an undertakers) is - as befits the year the film was made - a bit of a punkish character, unfulfilled with life and feeling that there's something out there beyond this northern town and its people that's clearly dead from the neck up. I guess that's a true enough reading, but unlike Leigh's subsequent characters such as Meantime's Mark or Naked's Johnny (who steals Angela Curran's car in the film's opening moments to escape to London; Curran playing Sandra once again as a little Leigh in-joke), he doesn't seem to have the flair or the vocals to back up his attitude or stance. He's impotent, resorting to snickering up his sleeve in an unattractive way instead of outwardly challenging behaviour and ideas in those he comes across. I'm reminded of the phrase 'it's always the quiet ones' and there is something almost sinister about Trevor, with his lending library satanism (a paperback Dennis Wheatley is perpetually being read and stuffed into his jacket pocket) and his overall coldness which goes hand in hand with his line of work. Ultimately its that aloofness that keeps me personally at arm's length from the character and the film.

I'm not a fan of Carl Davis' intrusive score either. The music itself is all well and good, but it shatters the sombre shock of one pivotal scene - the film's most impressive and affecting in fact; when Trevor and his boss played by Clifford Kershaw have to collect the body of a baby from a house on a middle class estate - by striking up it's harrumphing comedic sounds immediately after it. I also could have done without its Scottish 'You Take The High Road...' riff during the close up of the sign in Trevor's loo with the Robert The Bruce quote 'if at first you don't succeed, try and try again'. Jokes immediately lose their humour to me when they have to be so clumsily and heavy handedly signposted as it suggests a lack of faith in the material.

All that said, it's still a good piece of work but not one I can - as yet at least - share Leigh's vaunted view of. Still, a cup of coffee, a couple of Jaffa Cakes and your feet up with even the most sub par Mike Leigh is not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

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