It has often been pointed out by various scholarly film critics that during the 1950's movie genres increasingly broke with their tried and true criteria in an effort to win back theater audiences who had begun to stay home and watch television instead. While no one can deny that various hybrids emerged throughout the decade the reality is most genres remained fairly close to the values and aesthetics that had initially made them popular with fans. This is how I regard Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955): a grittier than most crime thriller that borrows both its title and central character from a novel by Mickey Spillane but precious little else, in favor of a totally original screenplay by A.I. Besserides.
Spillane's Mike Hammer became a cultural phenomenon after WWII with Spillane himself playing the character he created in several movies based more closely on his own pulp fiction. In retrospect, the character's appeal is easy to understand amongst its male readership. Emotionally, physically and socially emasculated by those terrible years of war, and furthermore displaced in their lives and careers upon their homecoming, American G.I.'s were hungry for the sort of ‘take charge’ guy not beholding to anyone but himself. Spillane's Mike Hammer is such a brute – a vane bastard, though one with an irreprehensible penchant for womanizing the wrong kind of gal, seemingly without ever allowing her to get under his skin.
Aldrich's Mike Hammer takes the character one step further to his inevitable devolvement into a narcissistic lesser of two evils. Just what the 'other evil' is in the world of Mike Hammer will be explained in lurid detail by Aldrich and Besserides in short order. The screenplay opens with a girl, Christina Baily (Cloris Leachman) running barefoot and wearing only a trench coat on a lonely stretch of open road late at night. She manages to hitch a ride with L.A. private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) but only after damn near being run over by his sports car. Hammer is a hard boiled self-absorbed man about town; a breezily arrogant son of a bitch with absolutely nothing to lose...except, perhaps his livelihood and a few friends; the latter few and very far between.
After learning Christina is an escapee from a mental hospital Hammer helps her elude police. He stops at a gas station where Christina asks the attendant to mail a letter for her. He does and she and Hammer are on their way. But their car is forced off the road by men who are searching for Christina. Hammer is beaten unconscious while Christina is tortured to death inside a seedy motel. Afterward, the thugs (whose faces we never see) place Hammer and Christina in Hammer's sporty Jaguar and push it off the side of a cliff where it meets with a fiery end.
To Hammer's amazement he has survived the ordeal and wakes up inside a local hospital with dutiful secretary and sometimes lover, Velda (Maxine Cooper) leaning over his bedside. Hammer quickly learns from his fair-weather friend, Lt. Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) that he is part of a federal investigation. The task force ruthlessly grills Hammer. He keeps his cool – just barely - without telling them anything. Pat warns Hammer to stay away from the investigation. But Hammer, sensing a nice fat retainer at the other end, decides instead to ambitiously pursue it on his own term and with his usual lack of tact.
Reunited in his apartment with Velda, Hammer encourages her to work an angle on their latest divorce case. It seems Velda uses her feminine wiles to seduce wayward husbands whereupon Hammer employs his oily charm on the wives, thereby playing both against the middle to secure his fee. While Velda is off on her latest seduction, Hammer goes to see friend, Nick (Nick Dennis) a garage mechanic who informs him that his Jaguar is totaled. Next, Hammer follows a lead to Christina's apartment where he meets waif-like sex kitten Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers) who is posing as Christina's ex-roommate.
Lily tells Hammer that she moved out of the apartment they once shared because she was afraid for her own life. But Hammer suspects something more sinister is afoot when he is attacked after leaving Lily's. Christina's letter arrives at Hammer's apartment with the cryptic message 'remember me'. Hammer links this clue to a book of poems found in Christina's apartment and slowly begins to unravel the riddle behind what he and Velda have nicknamed 'the great whatsit.'
With Lily in tow, Hammer goes to the coroner's office, realizing that a pivotal passage in the poem makes reference to a key. The coroner, Doc Kennedy (Percy Helton) agrees but demands half of whatever the treasure might be in exchange for giving Hammer the key he's discovered on Christina' s person. Instead, Hammer breaks the man's fingers by closing them in a desk drawer, then takes the key with the initials H.A.C. to the Hollywood Athletic Club. Inside one of the lockers Hammer discovers a mysterious box containing a terrible force of nature. He attempts to pry the lid open but is severely scalded on the wrist.
Hammer tells the club's proprietor to keep the contents of the box and the locker a secret but late the proprietor is found murdered at the club by Pat Murphy. The box has vanished. Meanwhile, Velda has been kidnapped in an attempt to silence Hammer once and for all. Determined to know how much of the mystery Hammer has already figured out Dr. G.E. Soberin (Albert Dekker), the criminal mastermind behind these baffling murders, has his thugs bring Hammer to a remote Malibu beach house. Hammer is injected with sodium pentothal but manages to divulge nothing to his captors.
Lily is revealed as Gabrielle, Dr. Soberin's nymphomaniac mistress. After Hammer escapes and realizes that Velda is being held captive at the beach house he returns to rescue her, only to discover that Lily/Gabrielle has murdered her lover out of greed for what's in the box. She wounds Hammer in the gut, then opens the box in front of him, inadvertently releasing the government's top secret H-bomb into the room. Wounded but still very much alive Hammer manages to crawl to an ajoining bedroom where Velda is tied up. He save her and himself from presumably toxic amounts of radiation, the pair escaping into the surf moments before the beach house is consumed in a radioactive fireball.
I suppose we must forgive Adlrich and Besserides this utterly implausible last act, especially since at the time of the film’s release no one knew how destructive splitting the atom could be. Under this pretext, it is enough that Hammer has diffused the situation, solved the crime, dispatched the criminal element and barely escaped with the woman who really means more to him than anyone else – except, of course, himself. Even so, Kiss Me Deadly is a bizarre film noir. At once it marks a revisionist beginning and sadly, an end to the movement begun nearly two decades earlier with The Maltese Falcon and I Wake Up Screaming. It dabbles in the then Cold War paranoia over nuclear annihilation but never quite explains how so many lowlifes and disreputable underworld characters have been able to get so close to a top secret technology that, at least in 1955, would have been largely unknown to all except a handful of top U.S. government physicists and engineers.
If anything, director Aldrich's Mike Hammer is even less appealing and more of an egotist than Spillane's original incarnation, and it is saying much of Ralph Meeker's performance that despite his retention of those repugnant qualities he manages to exude a strange and seductive appeal the audience can root for. It is a genuine pity the film was a flop back in 1955 because we might have seen more Aldrich/Meeker collaborations and more Mike Hammer movies as a result. There really is no point picking apart the discrepancies between the film and the novel. The two are irreconcilable. The book isn't the movie and vice versa. The film's release proved an uphill battle for Aldrich who had to fight like hell, first with the MPAA to secure a general rating and then with The Legion of Decency, who condemned its ultra-violence. However, like Hitchcock's Psycho all of the murders that occur in Kiss Me Deadly happen off camera.
The most shocking moments in the film are Hammer's brutalization of one of Dr. Soberin's thugs whom he sends flying down a steep flight of cement stairs, and Lily/Gabrielle's demise at the end; rather graphically torched using a wax body double. Otherwise, Aldrich and the film stay fairly close to the familiar noir detective/crime story we have come to know and expect. In the final analysis Kiss Me Deadly is a fond farewell to film noir. Its failure at the box office and the gradual decline in popularity of the B-movie ultimately put a period to dark thrillers like this one; a real shame because Kiss Me Deadly is one of the best.
Criterion's Blu-ray leaves something to be desired. The disc's extensive linear notes do not detail whether this is a 2k, 4k or 6k transfers, although judging from the results 2k is probably more like it. The B&W image is often crisp but contrast levels occasionally appear slightly boosted. Many scenes are softly focused with a loss of fine details. Grain looks very natural in some scenes, but too heavy and slightly digitized in others. I have my suspicions that Criterion struck this 1080p transfer from existing digital files rather than a new image harvest from original camera elements. Too bad.
The audio is mono and acceptable for this presentation. I can't say I much care for the extras. Alain Silver and James Ursini's commentary is the best of the lot. A brief video piece featuring Alex Cox's reflections on the film begins and ends abruptly while its image is riddled with edge enhancement effects. We get only excerpts from a 1998 and 2005 documentary instead of the whole documentary. The advertised 'controversial ending' is less than thirty seconds long and is not at all 'controversial'. Bottom line: Kiss Me Deadly is deliciously subversive and perverse film noir. It's a must have blind purchase. Despite the aforementioned difficulties with this transfer, this is by far the best the film has ever looked on home video. Enjoy.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)