Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
"Kiss me, Mike. Kiss me. The liar's kiss that says, 'I love you' but means something else."
1 as 1955's number one menace to American Youth, Kiss Me Deadly didn't do much box office and disappeared from sight soon after it opened. It was not until the critical Film Noir reassessment of the early 1970s (in particular an essay by Paul Schrader for the 1971 Filmex Film Noir retrospective) that Kiss Me Deadly got hot again: Va-va-voom, pretty POW!
Kiss Me Deadly is probably the film noir title most written about. It has everything for the trendy film critic. It's a hardboiled detective story with an extreme visual look and an eccentric directorial style. It's openly subversive, showing no faith whatsoever in any kind of authority or moral code. It's Robert Aldrich's first wide-open anarchic masterpiece, as bitter and sardonic as anything he's done ... as much a visceral shock as the horror dog food commercial that ends his later The Legend of Lylah Clare. With its re-found true ending, it also takes its place as a genre-bending Science Fiction movie, a radioactive monster epic from the middle 50s, only for adults. Except for being singled out by the Kefauver Commission
Sleazy, cynical detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) makes his living with divorce cases, often unleashing his sexy secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) as an agent provocatrix on straying adulterers. When he picks up naked-under-a-trench coat hitchhiker Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman, in her first movie) and she's later tortured to death, Hammer decides to ditch the bedroom work and pursue the secret behind the brutality, purely for profit. His government agent friend Pat Chambers (Wesley Addy) warns him off, but Mike slowly pulls the case apart by threatening witnesses and putting Velda and his best buddy Nick (Nick Dennis) in harm's way. When the secret turns out to be a mysterious box stolen from a government science lab, Hammer finds out too late that he's latched onto something far too big, and too hot, to handle.
Kiss Me Deadly is a cultural hand grenade, circa 1955. Acid-sharp screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides takes Mickey Spillane's thug Galahad and inverts him ... instead of a hardboiled, woman-hating, commie-punching, homophobic killer, this Hammer is more of a Playboy-inspired dream guy, a proto-James Bond who has to fend off dishy dames with a club. He sneeringly enjoys a punch-up in a dark alley and tortures helpless witnesses to loosen their tongues. This Hammer likes fancy sports cars, and has a reel-to-reel tape recorder rigged as (the first?) phone-answering machine. In an incredibly potent image, one scene begins with Hammer, the ultimate 50s detective, pulling up under L.A.'s Angel's Flight railway, in a brand new, early model Corvette roadster.
Hammer definitely has something against high culture. He gets his kicks snapping an opera lover's Caruso 78's in half, one after another. His everyday opponents have names like Sugar Smallhouse, but the Mister Big behind it all is an effete, classical-allusion spouting arch-villain. The main clue is an enigmatic, haunting poem: "Remember me ..." The Mike Hammer character in Kiss Me Deadly is actually a critique of the reactionary Spillane and everything he stands for.
Robert Aldrich gives his show everything he's got. Not the greatest director of actors, Aldrich has a great bunch here. The man-bait buxom Playmate Friday (Marian Carr) has to be taught that she actually could say 'no' once in a while. The incredibly oily Carl Evello (Paul Stewart) has the film's nastiest line of dialogue: "Why don't you take your talent back to the gutter you crawled out of?" The waiflike, perverse Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers)'s curiosity turns her into the Pandora of the Atomic Age.
Rough-edged and out-of-control, Aldrich's camera flies along in the back seat of speeding sports cars and peers through staircases that look like Escher mazes. There are almost as many "X" compositions as in Howard Hawks' Scarface, except instead of merely signaling death, these X's indicate 'x'istential anguish. The inverted, bizarre main titles express the vision behind the anarchy, a genre turned on its head.
Then there's the violence, which appalled the PTA committees: women tortured with metal-working tools, a man crushed under an automobile jack, a trussed victim dispatched by a stiletto to the heart -- slowly. One thug (the always-dependable Jack Lambert, the luckless 'Charlie' from Vera Cruz) goes up against Hammer, and all we see is Jack Elam's dumbfounded reaction, as if his pal had been twisted into a pretzel.
Hammer is a man totally at home with the garden-variety vices of the mid-20th century: organized crime, sadistic extortion, blackmail and just plain opportunistic crassness. But in Kiss Me Deadly he comes up against a whole new ball game, and discovers too late that he's totally out of his league. Billy Wilder's wonderful The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
pointedly put Sherlock into a new kind of espionage mystery he was totally unqualified to solve. Bezzerides and Aldrich thumb their noses at Spillane by declaring Mike Hammer obsolete in a world where the usual criminal evils are so much petty pilferage against what's really going down at the federal level. They turn Hammer into a wailing Mama's boy, reduced to an infantile clown in the face of a doomsday power so awesome that it neutralizes all human values. The Pandora's Box myth combines with the fate of Lot's wife to top the sadistic bonfire of Spillane's novel with an aggressive, growling radioactive conclusion. 2
If you haven't been clobbered enough by Savant's
Kiss Me Deadly restoration article, this is the link.
MGM Home Entertainment's DVD of Kiss Me Deadly is a plainwrap recycling of the good elements used for their restored VHS and laser disc releases of 1997. The picture is 1:66 matted, which is an acceptable framing, although it would look even better had they used anamorphic enhancement. The sound is punchy and clean. Collectors might want to hang onto their laser discs, which have a discrete music & sound efx track on an extra channel. It contains several cues not mixed into the final composite. This track includes the terrifying science fiction-ish electronic screaming, that represents the radioactive maw of the mystery box disgorging its evil horror.
A trailer is included, the textless one with the key cut of Velda and Mike in the surf, that spurred the restoration search. Also included is the 'old, wrong' ending (that some still prefer, with its implied anarchic Armageddon). The DVD has retained Savant's text intro graphic opening.
Certainly a startling experience, Kiss Me Deadly is a key Noir and a turning point in American culture ... one that was ignored when first released but now seems to be a touchstone, a sacred object, "As the world becomes more primitive..." Martin Scorsese expressed this feeling in his three-part show on American Cinema, when he placed it above Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life as the prime example of subversive American cinema.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kiss Me Deadly rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: trailer, conventional ending
Reviewed: July 20, 2001
1. The Kefauver Crime Commission was a federal investigation which in 1955 extended
its damning gaze on movies and comic books (remember Comic Book Confidential), banning Horror and Headlight comics and looking for corrupting influences on America's youth in the movies too.
2. The adaptation of the book, which was originally about drug
simply brilliant, especially the way it (spoiler) creates a new source of fire for the final-curtain immolation of the treacherous female. The character inversions are terrific. Hammer is best known for cooly shooting women in the stomach with .45 automatics, but here he is the one who ends up shot like a flatfoot dope. Spillane also seems to have invented the sadistic quip during killings -- but Bezzerides gives this role to the deadly female instead. This Hammer understands nothing, is in control of nothing.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson