Director: Robert Aldrich
Stars: Ralph Meeker (Mike Hammer), Cloris Leachman (Christina Bailey), Maxine Cooper (Velda Wickman), Albert Dekker (Dr G. E. Soberin), Fortunio Bonanova (Carmen Trivago), Paul Stewart (Carl Evello), Marian Carr (Friday).
Genre: Film Noir
Well, what a nasty piece of work this is. Deliciously so. Based on Mickey Spillane’s bestseller, Robert Aldrich’s film of Kiss Me Deadly may have come late in the cycle of film noir, but is one of the genre’s key movies, and one of the darkest, most misanthropic you could hope to find.
Right off the bat we’re in deeply inhospitable territory. It opens with one of the most unusual and harrowing credit crawls ever to announce a movie. A barefoot and tormented woman, Christina, runs along a highway at night. She is panting, desperate. She is nearly run over by private eye Mike Hammer, who snarlingly offers her a ride and the credits roll… down the screen. The thick white letters are nearly blinding against the dim background of Hammer driving, but it’s the soundtrack that’s unsettling. Nat King Cole sings quietly on the radio, but higher up in the mix are Christina’s pitiful sobs. There’s little else to distract you from her trauma. It’s the first indication that Kiss Me Deadly isn’t about to give you an easy ride.
Hammer, as portrayed by Ralph Meeker, is about as hard-boiled an anti-hero as you can find. He’s tough, confident, unapologetically mean. A realist. A square-faced American tough guy. As Christina notes, “You’re the kind of person who never gives in a relationship.” Throughout he is brutish, sadistic even. It’s fortunate (crucial even) that Hammer is also strangely sympathetic for his honesty, admirable for his pursuit of the truth in a world that’s actively hiding it. Without it we might never have the will to follow him through the movie. His sheer belligerence and hostile determination inspires our faith.
When they’re run off the road by unseen thugs Hammer is dazed, and, in a truly unsettling sequence, Christina is molested (it is suggested sexually). She is murdered and Hammer wakes up in the hospital. In part because he is haunted by Christina, in part because – despite himself – he can’t let such a crime go unpunished, Hammer pursues the truth to the bitter, twisted, nay apocalyptic end.
Along the way Kiss Me Deadly ticks all the boxes classic film noir should. Tough talk, oddball sidekicks (Hammer’s lively mechanic Nick), wise guy heavies and a vulnerable but untrustworthy femme fatale. There’s even room for the doting, under-appreciated partner in Velda, played brilliantly by Maxine Cooper ( “Stay away from the windows, somebody might blow you a kiss”). Aldrich has all the genre staples he needs and quickly blends them to create a heady atmosphere of paranoia and menace. Kiss Me Deadly feels hot and sleazy. The very finest pulp fiction.
No one character here feels altruistic. Everyone has something they want. A motive or desire, even if it’s just to quiet the ghosts in their head. Even the mortician is on the make. Kiss Me Deadly feels like a caustic reflection of the American dream; do what you gotta to get what you want. Set in sun-bleached Los Angeles, Aldrich paints a portrait of a city that runs – and thrives – on ambition and selfishness, from the sweaty downtown boxing gyms to the glamorous art-deco hillside mansions.
Aside from its tough take on a tough genre, Kiss Me Deadly stands apart from its peers through the unusual ambition of the plot as it makes its final turns, defining itself firmly in the atomic 50s as opposed to the genre classics of the war-time 40s. Aldrich’s ace is that his movie mutates from film noir to pot-boiled espionage thriller with an almost sci-fi flavour. It’s eventual what’s-in-the-box mystery culminating in an unforgettable conclusion. It feels contemporary for its time, as opposed to a love letter to the decade before. Just as the nuclear threat was permeating the horror B-movie, so its radioactive tendrils sought to change the temperature of film noir.
The finale, which I’m struggling not to spoil for anyone not familiar with it, echoes down cinema history to this day. Deleted scenes from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master include what appears to be a direct homage of Kiss Me Deadly‘s dastardly reveal.
Watching Kiss Me Deadly now is a pleasure because it has that transporting effect of all successfully atmospheric cinema. It builds a world and draws you in to it. It’s sinfully enjoyable to walk in the shoes of Mike Hammer, stalking through a mystery with bullish confidence. To live in Aldrich’s world would be a fearful, nihilistic experience, but to watch it is a joy. A slick fiction that’s at once classy and seedy. It’s most recent contemporary might be Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. They’re different films to be sure, but they feel connected through tone. How graceful the dark can be.
And what lingers long after is the bitter taste of a dark world revealed. Christina’s haunting cries in the dark of Mike Hammer’s car at the beginning. Another woman’s dramatically lit face screaming at the end. Sandwiched between are a carnival of heavies and dames. Kiss Me Deadly looks fabulous, too. Ernest Laszlo’s stark black and white images are vital to Aldrich’s film, as integral as the moves of Spilane’s story or the memorable performances.
It all adds up to a classic film. The plot might be appropriately labyrinthine, but it’s as simple as that.