Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides
Based on a Novel by: Mickey Spillane
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Wesley Addy, Gaby Rodgers, Nick Dennis, Strother Martin
Running Time: 106 min
Kiss Me Deadly was one of the first classic film noirs I watched and it blew me away with its hard edge and apocalyptic finale. Whenever I watched any subsequent films from the genre I couldn’t help but compare them to it so I often came out a tad disappointed. In more recent years I’ve been watching a lot more noir though and the distance from my last viewing of Kiss Me Deadly has grown ever greater. So I’ve been collecting a new handful of favourites to compare against. With Criterion releasing Kiss Me Deadly on Blu-Ray here in the UK, I was presented with a chance to revisit my old favourite though so I couldn’t resist checking to see whether it lived up to my fond memory and would once again eclipse the other film noirs I watched following it.
Kiss Me Deadly opens in thrilling fashion with a woman (Cloris Leachman) dressed in only a trench coat running down a road at night. Private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) almost runs her over then offers her a lift after seeing she’s in trouble. Soon after, her pursuers catch up with the both of them. She is tortured, killed and driven off the edge of a cliff alongside an unconscious Hammer in his car. He survives and becomes determined to find out who did this and why. This sends him into a dangerous and confusing web of intrigue and deception that may not be worth the trouble, but he continues his quest to find what his trusted secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) dubs “the great whatsit”. Gangsters, dames and all manner of other questionable characters are harassed or dispatched by the brutal and insensitive detective, leading to the lives of the tiny number of people he trusts being put in danger too.
Mickey Spillane’s series of Mike Hammer novels, which were hugely popular at the time of the film’s release, were tough and nasty as they were but Robert Aldrich’s depiction of the character takes it to another level. Hammer has few redeeming features here, torturing and harassing even the most innocent of characters during his case. He maims and kills with little remorse and is cruel and mentally abusive to women to boot. Reportedly the director wasn’t a fan of the novel and was a liberal man, far from the right-wing Spillane, so his depiction of violence here (and in many of his other films) seems to serve the purpose of highlighting how nasty and destructive these actions popular in much of mainstream entertainment actually were. He didn’t want to sugar coat anything, leading you to feel the impact of what Hammer did rather than justify it. As such it acts as a criticism of 50s society. Not everyone saw it this way, with Aldrich and writer A.I. Bezzerides being put under scrutiny by the Kefauver Committee who felt it as a corrupting piece of entertainment, but the film was released as it was (though the final few shots have been tampered with over the years and restored here).
The other comment being made about the 50s, alongside fast-moving modern attitudes, was the era’s fear of atomic energy. Bezzerides made a huge number of changes to Spillane’s novel but one of the biggest was in making the ‘great whatsit’ some sort of nuclear Pandora’s Box with immense destructive capability. On top of tapping into the worries of the time, it makes for an apocalyptic and nihilistic finale to the film that sets it apart from many other noirs, giving it a modern horror and sci-fi slant.
On top of the nasty, hard edge, which very much plays to my tastes, the film’s energy is very impressive. It’s a tad long for a noir, a genre of ostensibly B-pictures, but a lot is crammed into the film so it still races along as Hammer hurtles his way through the fog of misinformation and red herrings.
Aldrich and his DOP, the great Ernest Laszlo, craft a stylishly shot noir too. Classic tropes such as strong shadows and effective use of lights at night are apparent, as well as some interesting angles and fantastic use of depth, movement and perspective. The simple trick of the lightbulb in the ‘great whatsit’ box (and some nifty sound design) is highly effective too and was later referenced/stolen in films such as Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction.
Its nasty edge might not be for everyone (and believe me it still packs a punch 60-odd years later) but I still feel Kiss Me Deadly is one of the best of the bunch when it comes to noir. Thrilling from start to finish and given an added edge with its atomic spin and nihilistic attitude, it grips in its “search for the great whatsit”, hard-hitting violence and gutter-poetry dialogue. Noir doesn’t get much better than this and if you haven’t seen it, you’d better or I might send Hammer over to sort you out.
Kiss Me Deadly is out on 5th August on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. It looks fantastic – detailed and sharp with a rich dynamic range in the blacks, whites and greys. I found the audio wasn’t always perfectly clear, but I imagine this was down to the original source rather than a restoration problem.
There are plenty of special features included:
– New high-definition restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– Audio commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini
– New video tribute from director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Walker)
– Excerpts from The Long Haul of A. I. Bezzerides, a 2005 documentary on the Kiss Me Deadly screenwriter
– Excerpts from Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, a 1998 documentary on the author whose book inspired the film
– A look at the film’s locations
– Altered ending
– Theatrical trailer
– PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic J. Hoberman and a 1955 reprint by director Robert Aldrich
The commentary is solid, offering a deep analysis of the film as well as some interesting facts about the production. Alex Cox’s piece is brief but passionate and informative. The two documentary excerpts are great, letting the two writers get a say in their differing approaches. Plus I appreciated hearing more about Spillane and his life and work. I’ve always had a taste for tough detective novels like his. The altered ending isn’t drastically different to be honest but makes it less clear what happens to our protagonists following the nihilistic finale. The look at the film’s locations is mildly interesting, but not a vital feature, unless you’re a big LA history boffin. A decent package overall then.