Warning: This review contains potential spoilers. If you have not seen the film then I advise you to not read any further.
Pulp novelist Mickey Spillane’s 1947 potboiler I, the Jury is not only notable for being his first novel, but it also served as our introduction to the character of Mike Hammer. Unlike the anti-heroes of Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade) or Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe), detective Hammer came off as a vulgar brute and Spillane’s stories were made all the more sexier and violent as a result. Regardless of what literary critics thought about Spillane’s Hammer books, the public quickly gobbled up each entry while eagerly awaiting the next one. Eventually, Hammer would make the leap from the page to both screen and television beginning in the 1950’s with arguably hit or miss results. However, If I were to single out only one film adaptation of his as an unqualified success, it would be 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, the sixth installment in Spillane’s Hammer series.
Los Angeles private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is driving on a road one night and discovers an escaped female mental patient (Cloris Leachman) on the street clad in only a trench coat and in desperate need of both help and a ride. Hammer picks her up and shortly after introducing herself as Christina and reminding him to “remember me”, she and Hammer are ambushed by what appears to be three seedy criminals. Eventually, Christina is tortured to death (offscreen) and along with a slightly unresponsive Hammer, the gang places both of them in Hammer’s car and then dumps it off the cliff leading to it’s destruction. A few days after the incident, we learn that Hammer has miraculously survived as he awakens in a hospital room. Shortly after leaving the hospital, Hammer is questioned by members of the Interstate Crime Commission in regards to the events that unfolded on that night. Hammer believes that the now deceased Christina (last name Bailey) had to be involved in “something big” as he puts it.
Ignoring the advice of his superiors, most notably that of Lt. Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) and (later on) a stranger who warns him (via a phone message) to not go any further with the case, Mike Hammer goes out to solve the mystery. Thanks to a science reporter by the name of Ray Diker (Mort Marshall), Hammer is able to track down information on the names of Leopold Kowolsky and Nicholas Raymondo via two people: Harvey Wallace (Strother Martin) and Carmen Trivago (Fortunio Bonanova). Kowolsky is a pro fighter and Raymondo is an atomic scientist. Hammer learns from both Wallace and Trivago that along with Christina, Kowolsky and Raymondo were killed as well. In between those two meetings, Hammer is led to two gangsters by the names of Charlie Max (Jack Elam) and Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert), who both work for kingpin Carl Evello (Paul Stewart). Even though the gang is responsible for the killings, at the same time, they may have been ordered to murder them by the mysterious Dr. G.E. Soberin (Albert Dekker). In addition to all of this, Hammer learns that the real name of Christina’s roommate was not Lily Carver, but Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers) and that she was hired by Soberin to get the key from her since it belongs with the mysterious box acquired by him.
Directed and produced by the two-fisted Robert Aldrich (Vera Cruz) and written by tough as nails novelist turned screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (Thieves’ Highway and On Dangerous Ground), Kiss Me Deadly is both intended (from Aldrich’s point of view) and unintended (from Bezzerides point of view) as a political allegory for it’s then current time period. Nevertheless, Aldrich and Bezzerides remained united in their loathing for Mickey Spillane’s 1952 novel of the same name and under the eye of Aldrich, Bezzerides was more than happy to deconstruct the source material. Likewise, Spillane reportedly hated their version of his book as well. Speaking for myself, I see Kiss Me Deadly as a 1950’s film noir with openly anti-fifties tendencies.
As entertainment, Kiss Me Deadly feels and moves like a joyride. Blissfully unaware of anything relating to political or social comment, screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides is only interested in having a lot of fun in regards to where he goes with each colorful character and situation. Coincidentally, we as the audience connect to the material in the same way he does. On film, Ralph Meeker’s portrayal of Mike Hammer comes off as the detective we hate to love. When he is not casually and suddenly roughing up a bunch of thugs; leaving another genuinely frightened, he similarly closes a desk drawer on a poor sap’s hand. If that is not enough, Hammer also tricks another thug into killing one of his own (under the false impression that he is killing Hammer). Hammer’s interrogation methods are not so much rooted in rage (though that is part of it) as much as it is in getting the job done. To put it in other words, Hammer debatably makes Harry Callahan (a.k.a. Dirty Harry) look like a Social justice warrior (SJW) by comparison. Our devilish grins at this kind of behavior feels wrong, but for some odd reason, it doesn’t thanks to the film’s extremely dry sense of dark humor. As for the women Hammer converses with on his trail, we go from Cloris Leachman’s semi-crazy, but sweet-natured Christina to Maxine Cooper’s sexy secretary Velda (Hammer’s assistant) to Marion Carr’s even sexier Friday (“a very loose woman”) and finally to Gaby Rodgers deceiving Lily Carver/Gabrielle. On a personal note, Lily Carver/Gabrielle may just be the femme fatale to end all femme fatales within the film noir genre. We (the audience) are enjoying ourselves immensely on this joyride so much that we are expectedly or unexpectedly (yet intentionally) thrown off by the explosive finale. In my view, this symbolizes the car crash made inevitable by our recklessness (i.e. by applauding all of this onscreen anarchy).
On the outside, A.I. Bezzerides script for Kiss Me Deadly may resemble the mentality of a prankster, but on the inside, it represents (by design) the work of a killjoy courtesy of director Robert Aldrich. Screenwriter Bezzerides may have had a ball writing it, but Aldrich saw it as something more radical. One might get the feeling that the overall film gives off a sense of nihilism, but a significant portion of that quite possibly stems from Aldrich’s personal feelings about the 1950’s in general. Hardboiled writer Mickey Spillane may have been a staunch anti-communist, but this fact did not stop Aldrich and Bezzerides (both left-wingers) from intentionally and unintentionally deconstructing one of his Mike Hammer books and in the process, unapologetically subverting the conformity that shaped that decade as a whole. Considering the setting’s relocation from New York (in Spillane’s novel) to Los Angeles (in Bezzerides script), this gave Aldrich the opportunity to take all of the Cold War era paranoia ripped from the headlines and bring it closer to home in more ways than one. Detective Hammer’s vigilantism (for better or worse) truly appealed to fifties readers and as nasty as he was there, he is even nastier here. Aside from violently beating up criminals simply for the sheer joy of it, Hammer reveals himself to be a sociopath as he also blackmails the men and women involved in the divorce cases he takes on. Not only that, but Hammer seems to be motivated more by self-interest than in justice for Christina Bailey. Unlike the revelation used in Spillane’s story (a briefcase supposedly full of illegal drugs), the MacGuffin here comes in the form of a glowing Pandora’s box containing deadly radioactive material. The inevitable unleashing of it is symbolic of the American public’s then current fear of nuclear war, as well as the atomic bomb and other weapons of that magnitude.
When he is not gleefully wallowing in sadism for our delight or engaging in politically charged theories, director Robert Aldrich allows us to appreciate the even finer things that Kiss Me Deadly has to offer. Shot in a gritty black-and-white by cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, the film’s tone is set close to after two minutes into the beginning as we are introduced to the opening credits scrolling backwards down instead of up while Nat King Cole’s “Rather Have the Blues” plays on detective Mike Hammer’s car radio. Cole’s song coincidentally and eerily foreshadows the chain of events Hammer (Meeker) will unexpectedly get himself into after picking up the frightened Christina Bailey (Leachman) whose life is in danger. Prior to all of this though, Hammer and Bailey share a lighthearted moment together where she gently teases him with her theory about him being one of those “self-indulgent males” who only thinks about himself. Finally getting on his nerves, a mildly annoyed Hammer hilariously tells her to “let it go.” This sweet moment only makes Bailey’s death at the hands of her pursuers all the more tragic. As viewers, we notice that this scene marks the only time that Hammer expresses his softer side even If it is all too subtle. Last, but not least, Aldrich treats us to a grand tour of what the city of Los Angeles looked like at that time. Highlights for me include (but are not limited to) some of the Bunker Hill locations (read here and here) that were torn down during the late 1960’s.
Operating under it’s thinly disguised status as the definitive Mike Hammer movie/adaptation of a Mickey Spillane property, Kiss Me Deadly actually starts off as an unconventional B film noir and for a while, that is where it seems to be heading. Once the plot gets into high gear though, it suddenly turns into an anti-noir with implicit political overtones and elements of science-fiction blended together into one. In the end, the apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly finishes up as a genuinely unclassifiable American cult classic with a distinctive European or semi-European flavor.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
29 thoughts on “John Charet’s Take On: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)”
It’s great to read a feature length review here John, great stuff. In addition to being film noir at its best, pulpiest, and most explosive. like you I love Kiss Me Deadly for the way it inadvertently documented a Los Angeles that no longer exists.
Great job on this, John. Like Paul S. writes above, I was happy to read a full length review by you, especially about a film that I never really knew what to make of. I particularly like that you call it unclassifiable. Too often critics are caught up in pigeon-holing genres, as if Aldrich said ‘I’m going to make the definitive film noir now’.
I generally find film noir tiresome, but Kiss Me Deadly is most definitely NOT a noir film in the way that Whatever Happened To Baby Jane is not a noir film. They are both unclassifiable, and I like that.
As you always say, ‘keep up the good work’ and keep those reviews coming.
Why thanks you for the kind words Mitchell 🙂 Although I love film noir deeply, I agree with everything else you just said. Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂
Thank you for the kind words Paul 🙂 Here is an interesting bit of trivia: Kiss Me Deadly was the last film Alex Cox introduced on Moviedrome in 1994 when the series ended. A perfect film to close the series with as well. Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂
I saw this in my teens, and enjoyed the way Meeker played Hammer as little more than a thug with a supposed ’cause’. I thought he was perfect for the role, so much better than Stacey Keach in the much later TV series. To me at the time, it was another American film noir, though I later got some of the references, and the many differences in the style and intentions of Aldrich. Your review pretty much nails it, John, and was an enjoyable read indeed.
Best wishes, Pete.
John, I’m doing the slow clap right now. The clap that says, “Yes!” Like Paul and Mitchell, I am already looking forward to your next review–when you are ready. I know you put a lot of work into this–as you do with your listings, always thoughtful–and your care shows in this immaculate review of one of the great noir’s of all time.
Yet, I see Kiss Me Deadly a little differently–I consider it a noir with strong satirical leanings. And I completely agree with what you said about the ending…”We (the audience) are enjoying ourselves immensely on this joyride so much that we are expectedly or unexpectedly (yet intentionally) thrown off by the explosive finale. In my view, this symbolizes the car crash made inevitable by our recklessness (i.e. by applauding all of this onscreen anarchy).”
Ralph Meeker is absolute perfection in the role of Mike Hammer–and yes, he is the prototype that Clint Eastwood exploited without the tongue in cheek charm (i.e. the satire) in the Dirty Harry series (of which–the original– I’m a big fan). I never thought about that before, but you’ve enlightened me.
As Velda, Maxine Cooper is the satirical makeover of the loyal girl Friday–so sexy, so compliant, so loyal. She exudes these qualities–they ooze from her pores. It is only in the moments before her and Hammer’s inevitable demise that the satirical mask slips and we see their potential. A real man. A real woman. It is shocking–and disturbing.
Wonderful review, John. I love it.
I wasn’t aware of that piece of Moviedrome trivia. Yes, Kiss Me Deadly was a fine film for Alex Cox to bow out on.
I haven’t seen it yet, so I will heed your spoiler warning and return when I’ve seen it. It’s on YT so hopefully that will be making its way into my brain very soon. I’ll be back
I hear ya 🙂 I mean I think Stacey Keach is a great actor (did you ever see The Ninth Configuration?), but Ralph Meeker is the ultimate Mike Hammer regardless of what Mickey Spillane thinks. Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂
Thank you for the kind words Pam 🙂 I love how you see the film as well. I think the film does have “strong satirical leanings” as you so eloquently state and I think that comes from our enjoyment of the film as a “joyride” as I put it. Also, who can forget Cloris Leachman at the beginning. She was pretty young at the time and it was so sad that her Christina Bailey character had to die because as I imply in that one paragraph, their was an undeniable sweetness to her. Your thoughts? 🙂 Anyway, thanks for dropping by and keep those comments coming 🙂
You will love it 🙂 Believe it or not, it was actually the last film Alex Cox introduced for Moviedrome before it ended in 1994. Of course it was revived in 1997 with Mark Cousins as the host (1997-2000). Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂
This one turned me on the to the 50’s work of Ralph Meeker. Not sure what happened as the 60’s came along but he lost that “edge” he had in the 50’s and worked less as the years went on. Nice to see Aldrich cast him in The Dirty Dozen years later though. Well done here on Kiss Me Deadly.
I’m a Cloris Leachman fan. Let me clarify that: I am a fan of Cloris Leachman the actor. I can barely stand to watch or listen to her otherwise.
Her performance was very sympathetic. Yes, there was a sweetness to her and the scene that you reference was poignant. She got under Hammer’s skin and he resented her for it. There is no place in his world for someone so vulnerable. He hates the impulse to take care of her because he only takes care of himself. He sees her as weak and, yet, in spite of his sociopathic tendencies he does care–a little bit. It is “part” of the reason he keeps investigating when he knows he should “let it go”. But, of course, the big reason he does it is what he hopes to gain–and that has nothing to do with sentiment or self respect.
I really love this movie. It is a joyride. I think your average action movie aficionado would enjoy it just fine, although they would be puzzled and put off by the ending. But, of course, it’s more. That’s why it so special.
Really great review.
I deleted that one part where I imply that Hammer’s investigation now packs an emotional wallop because it would have gone against everything I had previously said. I also added in the sixth paragraph, a sentence about Hammer’s investigation being driven more by self-interest than by justice for Christina Bailey despite his caring about her just a teeny tiny bit as you so eloquently imply 🙂
Keach has played some very good roles, but that TV series was too glossy and formulaic for me. 🙂
Aldrich reverses the typical noir scenario of a good man wrestling with wicked tendencies. Here Hammer wrestles his razor thin streak of good. He is not a sympathetic protagonist. This is paramount to the movie’s plot and theme. You conveyed this brilliantly in your review. There is nothing that I would add or take away from what you have written. I only expound on it here because that is what we do.
Why thank you for the kind words Mike 🙂 Prior to Kiss Me Deadly, Ralph Meeker had a supporting role in Anthony Mann’s 1953 psychological western The Naked Spur and two years after appearing in this film, he had a supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war classic Paths of Glory. Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂
No way I didn’t realise. Once I’ve seen it I must pop on back to my Moviedrome post and update the how many from the list I’ve now seen out of the 207. Think I’ve ticked a few more off since writing it.
Naked Spur a really good one but then most of his Jimmy Stewart westerns were. Like his 1940’s Noir efforts as well.
I went off and watched it John and as you can see you inspired me to do a post on it, I thank you for that. What a great movie, I’m a sucker for a these kind of movies with a little Cold War twist. Just read your review now and it’s an absolutely fantastic educational read. Brilliant.
It’s such an intriguing and well written story, there’s a lot going on and your review clears up the pieces of the story perfectly. The box was just a pure joyful wonder when he first opened it in the locker room. An instant WTF moment.
LOL Hammer makes Dirty Harry a SJW that made me laugh.
Best thug name ever “Sugar Smallhouse” lol love that.
Thanks again for giving me the heads up on this little gem of a movie. A couple of shout outs to you on here. 🙂
Speaking of the glowing box, did you know that it influenced that one plot element in Alex Cox’s Repo Man revolving around that car with the glowing green substance in the trunk? Interesting isn’t it? 🙂 Anyway, thanks for dropping by and thank you for the kind words 🙂
Seems like everyone is writing about this film this month. Sadly the only Mike Hammer I have experienced was the Stacy Keach TV show which I liked until CBS insisted on toning down the violence and thus de-fanging Hammer. Enjoyed reading your review and I will put “Kiss Me Deadly” on my mental “to watch list”.
You will love Kiss Me Deadly, I guarantee it 🙂 Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂
Sorry for the late replies, I’ve got behind and am just catching up. Oh yes the Repo Man scene. Haha I always loved the surrealness of that in that quirky film. tbh it’s in much need for a revisit………. Over influences could be the Pulp Fiction Macguffin and even maybe Raiders Of The Lost Ark and the melting scene?! Sure there’s lots more. What a great film, I going to have to rewatch it soon. Hope so
Crazy flick! One of the best Noir films in my opinion. It’s certainly one of the darkest and most violent. The opening title sequence sets the tone for the film we are about to see. Great review of this one.
Why thank you for the kind words 🙂 Both the opening title sequence and that Nat King Cole song set the mood perfectly 🙂 Anyway, thanks for dropping by 🙂