Kiss Me Deadly (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett
Produced and directed by Robert Aldrich; executive producer Victor Saville; screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides; cinematography by Ernest Laszlo; music composed and conducted by Frank Devol; edited by Michael Luciano; with Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Nick Dennis, Wesley Addy, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rogers. Blu-ray & DVD, B&W, 106 min, 1955. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment.
Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is often seen as a capstone to the great period of film noir that began in the early Forties. But if so, it is also a preamble for a new breed of neurotic male heroes who dominated the color noirs of the following decades, like Lee Marvin’s disoriented ex-con trying to find his elusive payoff in John Boorman’s Point Blank(1967), or Gene Hackman’s hysterical detective, who ends up literally traveling in circles in Arthur Penn’s superb Night Moves (1975). As if he foresees his unstable heirs, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), the nominal hero of Aldrich’s film, is an especially obnoxious incarnation of the tough guy, a ruthless, unsavory version of masculinity that sees itself threatened and on the verge of extinction. He is a shambling, sadistic thug, a degraded version of the men who went down mean streets but were not themselves mean. Hammer is the creation of Mickey Spillane, whose vile pulp novels captured an especially vicious tone of the Cold War and postwar male culture. In rubbish like One Lonely Night, Hammer laughs out loud as he machine-guns a gaggle of Commies. Mike Hammer perfectly represented his creator, a racist and misogynist, an unreflective, smug man who appealed to a sizeable portion of the Greatest Generation’s depleted sense of self, as the Organization Man defined a new way of life for the postwar wage slave.
Aldrich isn’t in love with Spillane’s creation. He simply puts Hammer on display, without flourishes to make us love him. Unlike all other incarnations of Mike Hammer, Kiss Me Deadly offers little possibility for audience identification. Hammer tortures a squeaky, aging coroner who won’t cough up information, and slaps around another old man who won’t take a bribe. He pointlessly breaks a priceless Caruso 78rpm record of an uncooperative opera buff, and seems ready to drown him in boiling spaghetti. He beats a hoodlum senseless by bashing his head on a wall, then, when the dazed man won’t quit, Hammer punches him down an endless flight of concrete steps. Aldrich is insistent that Spillane’s creation is a miserable joke, and while one could argue that Aldrich’s Hammer has the characteristics of Spillane’s protagonist, it’s hard to see Aldrich’s version as anything virtuous, and nothing less than a deflation of the triumphalism that informed so many postwar movies heroes. In case we miss the point, after Hammer is interrogated by the Interstate Crime Commission, and he leaves the room, its chairman says, “Open a window!” And yet, as Alain Silver and James Ursini remark on the disc’s commentary track, the Commission is Aldrich’s version of HUAC, a bunch of smarmy, intrusive men who like to humiliate people—no one gets a break (nor should they) in the director’s scathing vision of often-romanticized Fifties America.
Mike Hammer isn’t a Philip Marlowe-style private eye driven by existential impulse to penetrate the mysteries of the night-shrouded big city. He is a “bedroom dick” who works divorce cases (in other words, he is close to what private eyes actually do), using his mistress/secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) as a prostitute to lure errant husbands, while Hammer seduces frustrated wives. He savors his work, telling Velda he thought the “honey talk” she extracted from a tape-recorded philanderer was “nice.” When the sucker doesn’t quite take the bait, Hammer instructs her to “give ’em that sincerity,” the point being that honest emotions are something Hammer holds in contempt.
A crimp is thrown into Hammer’s degenerate routine at the film’s opening, when his sports car is driven off a dark country road by a semiclad woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman, in her film debut), an escapee from what Hammer calls “the local laughing house.” Hammer’s first concern isn’t the woman’s plight—he complains, “You almost wrecked my car!” Christina is a pawn of a Communist spy ring trying to get atomic secrets out of the country, led by arch-villain Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker), clad in a pinstriped suit, impossible toupee, and the shiniest wing-tipped shoes ever registered on celluloid.
Hammer and Christina are captured by the Commies; she is stripped naked and tortured to death by a man photographed from the waist down, one hand holding pliers (Aldrich lets us figure how the pliers are used), Christina's flailing legs dominating the image as her amped-up screams overwhelm the soundtrack–it is a miracle how the sequence survived the Code. The scene establishes the hysterical tone of the film; the filmmaker's artifice is highly expressionistic to underscore the panic and dread that informs every frame of the film. In Hammer's world, reason has vanished, making space itself off-kilter, emphasized by the Dutch angles and the reverse crawl of the opening titles.
As Hammer recovers in the hospital after a near-fatal plunge off a cliff with the already-dead Christina, he ignores questions from policeman Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy), his friendly enemy, and resolves to find the meaning of Christina’s admonition to “remember me.” What follows might be seen as a typical noir investigation, as Hammer fades into an especially black and brutal Los Angeles night, but there are crucial innovations. Hammer doesn’t withhold information from the cops because he wants to go it alone, but because he figures on some sort of big payoff that might not come his way if he helps the law. Murphy tells Hammer that he has outright contempt for the law, making him a vigilante or a jungle beast. Hammer doesn’t flinch; has only a vestige of the traditional detective’s compunctions and driven intellectual curiosity. His compulsion to work the case, to find out who his enemies really are, is compelled by bullheadedness rather than the pursuit of truth. The hero’s archetypal search for the Holy Grail is caricatured by Velda, who, fed up, excoriates the amoral Hammer for his pursuit of “the great whatsit.”
Kiss Me Deadly is known for its impossible plot holes; in fact, the film is less a sequential narrative than a series of set pieces that establish the film’s environment of sex, violence, paranoia, and nuclear anxieties. The sexual politics of the crime genre are scrutinized by Aldrich, and by screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (who took apart the male psyche many times in noir, most spectacularly in On Dangerous Ground ); women are used and discarded by the hero, but he ends up brought low by fatal woman Gabrielle (Gaby Rogers), and is ultimately rescued by Velda (the woman he was supposed to rescue) as nuclear hell breaks loose, closing the film with one of the cinema’s all-time bleakest endings.
One can easily argue that the film is resolutely sexist—it even ends with a Pandora/Eve motif, as a villainess’s curiosity launches Armageddon. It doesn’t help that the villainess has already been coded as a lesbian. But the film is equally resolute in debunking the myth of the playboy; while women seem to want to have sex with Hammer at first sight, the consequence is usually death or brutalization, as the world of Kiss Me Deadly relentlessly merges Eros with Thanatos, insisting that healthy human relations of any sort simply cannot thrive in the present world. The only time Mike Hammer comes close to showing a real emotion is when his only buddy, the eccentric Nick (Nick Dennis), the auto mechanic, is murdered by Soberin’s hoods.
Enough has been written about the film’s many allusions to high culture, from Greek myth to modern painting. The point is that the cultural past is indeed past, with its remains stomped on by Hammer, the American as bull in a china shop. He breaks phonograph records and knocks over a table after breaking into Mist’s Gallery of Modern Art. The modernist paintings in his apartment are up-to-date decorations, alongside his reel-to-reel answering machine. He is the American as postliterate consumer. He can memorize a poem (it is a clue in the case) but he understands it not at all. When Christina asks him in the opening scene if he reads poetry, Hammer simply glares at her. In one of the film’s final scenes, after burning himself on the Great Whatsit (a box of glowing, howling nuclear material that has been used in every postmodern film from Repo Man to Pulp Fiction), a rumpled Hammer is treated like the overgrown child that he is by a hostile Pat Murphy, who decides to recite decontextualized words (“Manhattan Project!, Los Alamos! Trinity!”), as if he were instructing a first-grader, establishing, once and for all, that Mike Hammer is a dumb brute. He at least realizes, at the end, that he has run his course and is clearly overmatched. Murphy’s answer to another cop about what to do with Hammer is Aldrich’s final statement about the wretched creation Spillane so loved: “Let him go to hell,” which is more or less where he goes. The ending of Kiss Me Deadly matches that of Vertigo in its unrelieved pessimism. It is extraordinary to think that such an uncompromised visions of gender relations and the American landscape were offered in the conservative Fifties.
Suffice it to say that the Criterion restoration of Kiss Me Deadly is exemplary; the Blu- ray image is especially dazzling, but even the standard DVD does a fine job in rendering cinematographer Ernest Laszlo’s beautiful, eerie, high-contrast black and white. The supplements include the useful Ursini/Silver commentary, a short film about screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides, a slide show of the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles where some of the film’s key action occurs, and a documentary about Mickey Spillane that mostly reminds us how tiresome he was. My only concern is that Kiss Me Deadly, although a significant film, probably should not have been a Criterion priority, since a passable DVD of the film already exists. The same is true of another recent Criterion project, Sweet Smell of Success, which, although gorgeously presented in its new version, takes the place of other films that have never been released on home video and desperately need Criterion’s attention—I think, for example, of all of Max Ophuls’s American films. Be assured that I’m not really complaining about anything Criterion does—the company is one of our supreme cultural assets.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4