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 * * * *)