In the credit sequence of Billy Wilder’s scathing sex comedy Kiss Me, Stupid, the chauvinist performance of tipsy swing vocalist Dino (Dean Martin) is intercut repeatedly with a group shot of male bartenders laughing hyena-like at his sexist jokes. The message—men are a predatory and cowardly bunch—is clear and the tone-setting mode of address even clearer: caricatured, repetitive, and pitched right at the threshold of burlesque humor and discomfort. (It takes a small cognitive leap to consider how David Lynch, an admitted Wilder fan, took this approach and ran with it in his own discomfiting suburban nightmares.) Things get pointedly faker from there. Hightailing it from his desert gig for another high-profile opportunity in Hollywood, Dino quickly finds himself broken down in Climax, Nevada (“The only way to go,” quips the horny celeb), a lifeless block of residential land envisioned by Wilder as one of those emblematic Smalltown, USAs the likes of which we only see in 1950s sitcoms and cinematic state-of-the-middle-class addresses. Background sound is hushed, sets are immaculately dusted, and, with the exception of the single-story eyesore and gas station where most of the film is set, the entire population seems to be holed up in the local nightclub.
In 1964, with American cinema’s popularity in limbo as radical new forms lurked on the horizon, this sparse aesthetic patina might have looked bleakly televisual, and Kiss Me, Stupid’s meager box-office returns and damning critical notices only substantiate this suspicion. But Wilder, too clever a craftsman to employ a directorial strategy wantonly, uses the production’s artifice to his advantage, cultivating a hermetic atmosphere in sly correlation to the film’s commentary on the vacuity of domestic life and the folly of star worship. An ominously descending crane shot of Dino’s encroachment on Climax via shiny convertible is instructive: Wilder views a celebrity stopover in suburban America as a gradually destructive charade, not an enlightening event. In this case, Dino’s unwitting victims are a pair of middle-aged pop-star hopefuls: erratic piano teacher Orville Spooner (shrilly performed by Ray Walston, though perhaps crucially so) and his songwriting partner, the portly gas station attendant Barney (Cliff Osmond). Dino’s arrival offers a possible stepping-stone to professional success, but by the end of Kiss Me, Stupid this prospect is cruelly inverted in the form of a stolen hook beamed out to adoring listeners nationwide.
Alas, Martin’s soulless character is more than just a petty opportunist. Thoughtlessly driven to empty sexual encounters and all too willing to capitalize on his larger-than-life presence, he’s also the smug vessel for Wilder’s adamant take on male sexual dominion. (Martin’s close-to-the-bone portrayal, it must be stated, is a tremendous act of daring.) Orville is Dino’s pitiful foil, as cautiously aware of Dino’s ballooning id and threatening sex appeal as Dino is assured of his knack for philandering. When this slick singer shows up in town for a pit stop, Barney deliberately impairs his automobile to buy time for entrepreneurial efforts—a plan which Orville is game to follow as long as he can evacuate his wife, Zelda (Felicia Farr), from the house in the interim, so incredulous is he of his spouse’s restraint when faced with what he sees as the inevitable advances of Dino. An early, standout scene of comedic exposition featuring a wrongly accused dentist—a classic Wilder bit of briskly paced social misunderstanding—has already established that Orville’s jealousy tends to neurotic extremes. But whereas he’s consistently off the mark with regard to his fundamentally good-hearted wife, it turns out his worst suspicions of Dino are confirmed in an evening of barnstorming promiscuity, a trajectory that points to the socially progressive angle of Wilder’s critique.
Women in Kiss Me, Stupid—and that includes a local waitress-prostitute named Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) who falls into Dino and Barney’s scheme as Zelda’s surrogate for a night—are always one step ahead of their male tormentors and heroically forgiving regardless. The guys just want a good lay, a quick buck, or a shot at fame, and when it comes to dealing with the truths of their relationships, they’d rather remain consciously in denial, as confirmed by more than a handful of close-ups of blinds being closed and a striking single-shot sequence of Orville shutting doors to conceal a view of an object that reminds him of Zelda. Were it not for this crucial gender distinction, Kiss Me, Stupid’s methodical, socially awkward screwball routine might seem miserably misanthropic. As it stands, the Legion of Decency’s official denunciation of it as toxic smut was an unfortunate assessment. The film’s surface provocations, its musty scent of sex, point not to offensive gender politics, but to a clear-eyed condemnation of reckless male bravado and jealousy, topped off with a final stinger that now goes toe-to-toe with Eyes Wide Shut in arguing for extramarital adventures as a perverse, indirect route to marriage therapy.
Echoing protagonist Orville’s paranoid degrees of jealousy, Kiss Me, Stupid is replete with deep-focus wide shots, the layered details of which are done full high-fidelity justice by Olive Films’ digital scan. Dynamic range is preserved beautifully in a number of desert vistas that comprise both the blinding whites of neon marquees and the fading light of dusk on the horizon, and impressive gradations of exposure are apparent even in the film’s many evenly lit daytime exteriors. As previously mentioned, with the notable exception of a ticking metronome and the occasional interjection of a minor-key melody, the film’s sound design is decidedly austere, so vocal clarity’s never compromised.
Unfortunately, in keeping with the relative neglect of Billy Wilder’s lesser known works and critical flops, this is a barebones set. Olive Films only includes a hokey trailer, the origins of which are unclear. In it, a brash male narrator is heard talking through the plot to a curious female, a power dynamic that mimics that of the film.
Billy Wilder’s misunderstood flop probably could have used some love in the extra features department, but Olive Films makes no sacrifices in presenting the film itself in all its uneasy afternoon clarity.