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Robert Aldrich and A.I. Bezzerides' Kiss Me Deadly has become a Criterion release thanks to a licensing agreement allowing the premiere boutique label to cherry-pick classic titles from the United Artists video library. It's a stroke of good fortune for this truly significant picture. Trounced by the Kefauver Commission as unfit for American consumption and poorly distributed due to resistance from a bloc of Southern Baptist censors, Kiss Me Deadly had a short life on screens in 1955, and was only infrequently shown on television.
MGM's legal files show that the violent film was dropped from more than one UA TV syndication package, presumably after being rejected by local stations. Director Aldrich sold his rights to his UA films back to the studio whenever he needed to gather cash to launch another movie. He apparently never saw Kiss Me Deadly again on a big or a small screen, and was unaware that its ending had been crudely truncated. Although private collectors apparently held intact prints, the film world was equally unaware of the mutilation. The 1997 restoration of the real ending overturned thirty years of film criticism lauding the bizarre altered finale as Aldrich's doing. Film experts and collectors Martin Scorsese and Bertrand Tavernier were surprised as well -- Scorsese's 1995 documentary about subversive movies of the 1950s showcased the abridged ending, without comment.
The nightmarish Kiss Me Deadly begins as a standard private eye yarn. Detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a frightened asylum escapee Christina (Cloris Leachman) on a dark road. Captured by sinister killers, she is tortured to death and Mike barely survives. Realizing that Christina knew the whereabouts of a fantastically valuable scientific secret, Mike ignores the warnings of his police pal Pat (Wesley Addy) that national security is at stake. He instead enlists the help of his secretary (Maxine Cooper) and mechanic friend Nick (Nick Dennis) to pursue a big payoff. This brings him into contact with mob hit men and another waif-like victim (Gaby Rogers). A poem leads Mike to a key, which fits a locker at the Hollywood Athletic Club. The locker is unaccountably warm...
Criterion's new Blu-ray is an ideal opportunity to appreciate what a shock to the system Kiss Me Deadly was in 1955. Robert Aldrich's earlier pictures for Burt Lancaster & Co. had displayed a broad liberal streak, and his first semi-independent effort World for Ransom (fantastic title) played fast and loose with genre boundaries by grafting a wild atomic threat theme onto a 'foreign intrigue' adventure. Aldrich must have had little interest in doing a straight Mickey Spillane adaptation. His chosen writer A. I. Buzz Bezzerides thoroughly despised Spillane's Mike Hammer and everything he stands for. He reinvents America's favorite anti-Commie pulp avenger as an amoral, corrupt and slimy opportunist. Although author Spillane never denounced the political spin given his character (one of the most commercially successful in 20th-century publishing), he reportedly thought the movie was terrible. 1
Bezzerides' subversion of Spillane's Mike Hammer will shock readers of Spillane's books. Ralph Meeker's Hammer is little more than a sneering thug who adheres to no professional or patriotic code -- he's in the game for what he can get. He delights in pummeling bad guys, tortures information from contacts and beats up an old man. He uses his secretary Velda as date-bait for divorce evidence and puts both her and his best buddy Nick directly in harm's way. Bezzerides is clearly using the Hammer character as a sponge for everything vile, venal and unprincipled in '50s America. When the Mob administers a dose of truth serum to learn what Hammer knows, the drugs unleash what's really inside his mind -- a wad of incoherent babbling. The infantile Hammer yells for Velda, but it sounds like he's wailing for Mommy. A.I. Bezzerides inverts the classic misogynistic Spillane ending: this time Hammer takes the bullet and the femme fatale delivers the final valediction: "Kiss me Mike. Kiss me. The liar's kiss that says 'I love you' but means something else."
Compared to any normal movie of 1955, the film's visual treatment is... well, insane. We've all heard about the disturbingly twisted main title scroll. Aldrich tosses in confusing compositions at every opportunity, Escher-like views down staircases and a shot where Lily Carver/Gabrielle aims a gun that almost seems to be in somebody else's hand. As in Howard Hawks' Scarface a graphic "X" marks the spot in many shots, from Christina's pose on the highway, to Hammer's body splayed on the bed, to patterns in artwork and in the exteriors of both Hammer's apartment and the beach house. Bezzerides tosses in plenty of classical allusions, linking "The Great Whatzit" to Pandora's Box, Cerberus and the Gates of Hell. A Christina Rossetti poem about death leads Mike to The Great Whatzit, Kiss Me Deadly's answer to Hitchcock's fabled MacGuffin. Unlike the MacGuffin, the Whatzit isn't an irrelevant gimmick but a modern horror that renders all human values irrelevant.
The movie abounds with cruel violence. Hammer beams with satisfaction as he crushes a morgue attendant's fingers in a desk drawer. His dirty fighting tricks terrify hardened mob killers, and he fools one hoodlum into killing his own boss with a switchblade knife, sl-ow-ly. But the various beatings dispensed by Hammer pale before the elemental force his greed unleashes on the world. This ultimate terror is whispered in secret government code words that lead to a stolen nuclear secret. Once set free, it cannot be put back in its box. The burn on Hammer's wrist may in itself be a lethal dose in itself, and what happens on that fateful Malibu beach might annihilate the whole planet, we can't be sure. Bezzerides appropriately leaves the world's fate unresolved, just as the "the atomic genie" was a scary mystery in 1955.
Aldrich's World for Ransom was mostly an amped-up nuclear extortion story like Seven Days to Noon or even Thunderball. Kiss Me Deadly does more than cross genre lines, it's a prophetic pulp mixture that pushes Spillane into the realm of science fiction. The light from the box doesn't just burn. Its growling, clicking synthetic voice sounds like an air raid siren from hell crossed with the electronic chirping of the atomic-age monsters from Them! or the roaring of the Monster from the Id. Mike and Velda end up "On The Beach", the chosen place to meet eternity in the apocalypse subgenre. Most of Kiss Me Deadly plays out on locations familiar from older noir thrillers, yet everything bears a post-atomic feeling of moral decay. The most "accidentally iconic" image of '50s noir may well be the sight of Mike Hammer driving his new Corvette Roadster down a crowded Bunker Hill street, as a funicular Angel's Flight cable car passes in the background.
Kiss Me Deadly is probably Ralph Meeker'ss best-known role; he never found his place in the movies. Aldrich flanks him with a cast of seasoned veterans (Albert Dekker, Juano Hernandez, Fortunio Bonanova, Paul Stewart) and eager genre talent -- Nick Dennis, Jack Elam, Jack Lambert, Percy Helton, Strother Martin. Actresses Cloris Leachman, Marian Carr, Maxine Cooper, Gaby Rogers and Leigh Snowden are the woo-bait in Mike Hammer's world, playgirls for Hugh Hefner's new bachelor's paradise. Hammer's buddy Nick expresses the hopped-up "kicks" of this new mythological landscape in a single sex-charged explosive catchphrase: "Va Va Voom! Pretty - Pow!"
Criterion's Blu-ray of Kiss Me Deadly gives this radioactive masterpiece a proper 1:66 HD transfer with carefully authored audio, making it much more impressive than the previous DVD and far, far better than the awful TV prints that once circulated. Most revival screenings were in ratty 16mm as well, and all had the suspicious chopped-up conclusion. On a big video display Aldrich's picture regains its impressive visual impact. The wild sound effects at the end sound as if one's audio amplifier has been tossed into an electronic garbage disposal.
Disc producer Susan Arosteguy's extras begin with a design motif that mimics sleazy '50s pulp men's magazines, using the most provocative stills of Ralph Meeker and his harem of hip chicks. The menus, etc., scrupulously avoid spoiling the film's conclusion, which can still be genuinely frightening for first-time viewers.
Alain Silver and James Ursini commit their authoritative commentary to a stylistic breakdown of potent images and their meanings. Silver emphasizes the film's speed-obsessed surface charge; MGM's film restoration expert John Kirk once pointed out that its original French title is En quatrième vitesse, which translates as "in fourth gear" but really means "Going like Hell". Mr. Kirk restored missing and censored scenes to scores of United Artists films, usually on his own initiative. Without him we'd still be looking at the butchered ending to Kiss Me Deadly.
Director Alex Cox delivers an expressive, enthusiastic intro to the film's peculiar weird qualities, explaining that it inspired his own oddball L.A. crime tale Repo Man. Cox's film raised awareness of Aldrich's nearly forgotten thriller among non-Noir film hipsters.
The extras also include a full documentary about Mickey Spillane and his incredibly lucrative books, which were among the first fiction to be initially printed in the pocketbook format. An excerpt from the 2005 docu The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides gives us the writer talking about his relationship with director Aldrich and his loathing of the Mike Hammer ethos.
A pair of videos covers the film's locations on Bunker Hill, almost all of which are now long gone. Not referenced is the film's striking beach house. It also made an appearance at the end of Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, prompting critics to reassess other Aldrich films from an apocalyptic viewpoint. Critic Andrew Sarris remarked on the threatened and real explosive endings in Ten Seconds to Hell, Sodom & Gomorrah, World for Ransom and Twilight's Last Gleaming. Even the title The Last Sunset has a fatalistic ring to it. If one stretches the point, The Legend of Lylah Clare ends with the mythological dog "Cerberus, barking with all his heads."
Criterion also shows us the false ending that almost became the film's only ending. Its haphazard string of exploding-house jump cuts might come straight from the film's trailer. A textless copy of this original trailer is also included. One shot shows Hammer and Velda stumbling in the surf. When the trailer surfaced on a VHS release in 1992, it provided the first hard evidence to prove the existence of the lost, seemingly forgotten ending.
The disc's insert booklet has an insightful essay by critic J. Hoberman and a 1955 article by Robert Aldrich defending the surfeit of violence in Kiss Me Deadly, apparently against the fierce Kefaufer Commission backlash.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kiss Me Deadly Blu-ray rates:
1. Although the book Kiss Me, Deadly is not one of Spillane's best efforts, the galling truth is that his exaggerated hardboiled prose, born in comic book writing, communicates extremely well. Spillane's text is full of bile and venom, but the words flow beautifully and his tough-guy descriptions have an impressive pulpy impact. Spillane's selling an ugly, vicious worldview, but he clearly believes every word he writes, and this intensity shows.
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T'was Ever Thus.