Monday, November 17, 2014


Robert Aldrich, 1955
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman, Maxine Cooper

“Remember me.”

Mike Hammer, a private detective, nearly hits a woman one night while driving on a country road outside of LA. The woman, who eventually gives her name as Christina, is wearing only an overcoat and explains that she has escaped from a mental hospital, where she was held against her will. Hammer agrees to help her get to a bus station, but on the way they’re attacked. Christina is tortured to death and Hammer is nearly killed. He wakes up in a hospital alongside his voluptuous secretary, Velma, and is determined to take Christina’s case. He meets Christina’s roommate, Lily, who is looking for a mystery box. The box, which Velma dubs, the “great whatsit,” moves to the forefront of Hammer’s increasingly dangerous quest.

Director Robert Aldrich (The Big Knife, The Dirty Dozen, What’s the Matter with Baby Jane?) helmed this classic and unusual film noir effort. Based on Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly, a Mike Hammer novel, screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground, Thieves’ Highway) added several changes and twists to Spillane’s beloved novel. For starters, the novel’s original plot focused on drugs and organized crime. Bezzerides brilliantly shifted this to a mystery about nuclear power and the red terror. Hammer, originally a tough detective with a heart of gold who gets roped in by voluptuous dames, is transformed into a sadistic jerk with little to no morals. Though he remains a private detective in both stories, in the novel he takes on various clients, while in the film he specializes in divorce cases. He manipulates the outcome with the assistance of his beautiful secretary, Velma, who he essentially pimps out to seduce husbands.

Ralph Meeker (The Dirty Dozen, Paths of Glory) as perfectly cast as Hammer – a solidly built force of nature oozing violent sexuality. This Hammer is a far more cynical and sadistic detective, a postwar model for the beginning of the Cold War. Unlike Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, the detectives of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Hammer is grim and nihilistic, taking a living and indulging in vice, rather than playing by a white-knight code of honor. Because of Hammer and the even worse villains he is up against, Kiss Me Deadly is an extremely subversive film, full of violence, sex, and torture. It’s amazing that several of the scenes made it past the censors, including the central mystery which involves a woman being tortured to death in a machine shop.

The women are a surprisingly large presence in this film, perhaps more so than most noir. First is Velma, played by sexy brunette Maxine Cooper (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) in her first film role. Velma is as immoral as Hammer, willing to entrap men with her sexuality. She also tries to seduce Hammer and, in one surprisingly sexual scene, rubs herself all over him as they almost kiss, but don’t quite. As in the novel, she obviously has feelings for him and is willing to put her life on the line. Another unforgettable woman is Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein), also in her first role, as the enigmatic Christina. Her death is not only the central mystery, but she sets the stage for the rest of the film – a woman naked beneath an overcoat, stranded on the highway after an escape from a mental hospital, where she was held against her will. Christina is brave and humorous in the face of death and asserts awareness that the world is treacherous and brutal; despite this, she still wants a chance at life.

Christina and Velma are balanced out by buxom blonde B-movie actress Marian Carr (Indestructible Man) as Friday, all sex appeal and no brains. The film’s villainess, Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers of The Big Break), is a femme fatale in a loose sense of the term. She doesn’t really desire wealth, power, or sex; she has an insatiable curiosity which, in a spin on the Pandora myth, requires her to open the suitcases, even if it means death and disaster.

The “great whatsit,” the glowing suitcase that both Hammer and Lily track through the film, is a symbol of Cold War paranoia and nuclear terror. Somewhat curiously, this takes a backseat to the scenes of sex and violence and, if it wasn’t for the film’s conclusion, it would feel like little more than a MacGuffin. But Kiss Me Deadly has an ending unlike any other — it is absolutely chilling and signals what seems to be the apocalypse. This portrayal of film noir blended with sci-fi and apocalyptic horror is certainly unique for the time period. It’s easy to see the film’s influence on everything from The Night Strangler to David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.

Kiss Me Deadly comes with the highest recommendation and should be at the top of your list of film noir to watch immediately. In addition to its grim plot, brutal violence, and unique instances of sci-fi, it’s also a fascinating portrait of ‘50s LA with much of the film shot on location – some of which no longer exist. Check out the
Criterion Blu-ray
to learn more about this masterwork and its history, including the alternate ending — Aldrich’s original conclusion was removed and not restored until several decades later.

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