Kiss Me Deadly/1955/United Artists/105 min.
If you fancy a sci-fi chaser with your classic noir, be sure to check out 1955’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” recently rereleased by Criterion.
Director/producer Robert Aldrich’s evocation of popular pulp writer Mickey Spillane’s apocalyptic novel (with a script from A.I. Bezzerides) has dazzled critics and influenced directors from the French New Wave to Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg. (Aldrich also directed the campy noirs “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” from 1962 and “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” 1964)
The story of ultra-macho Los Angeles gumshoe Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) smiting bad guys and spurning women as he wrestles with a whodunit is a tad misogynistic, but I’ll let that pass because this is a portrayal of a rough and violent, sometimes sadistic, world overall.
Besides, there is much to enjoy – the intense cinematography, for starters, from Ernest Laszlo, also the superb eye of 1950’s “D.O.A.” The film looks great and there are some unforgettable shots, from the arresting opening to the amazing finale. Laszlo creates a harsh, almost merciless, world. “Kiss Me Deadly” also features a fast-paced, hairpin-turn plot, a sexy score, sharp LA location shooting and excellent acting from the entire cast.
Actress Cloris Leachman (who later played the wacky neighbor Phyllis on “The Mary Tyler Moore” show) makes her debut in the film as Christina Bailey, a hitchhiker who snags a late-night ride with Hammer. Christina has just escaped from an insane asylum, in the nude except for a trench coat. She says she was dumped at the asylum and really doesn’t belong there. Oh, that old line.
She gives Hammer vague answers to his questions and tells him to remember her. She’d be a bit hard to forget, actually. The two are run off the road, taken to a house where Christina is tortured and Hammer is punched out, then put back in Hammer’s car and pushed over a cliff.
Hammer survives, wonders what secret Christina carried to her grave and decides to get to the bottom of it. A science reporter named Ray Diker (Mort Marshall) points Hammer toward Christina’s roommate, a blonde named Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) who likes to keep a gun by her side when she’s browsing through a magazine. He also encounters a grab bag of entry-level bad guys: Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert) and Charlie Max (Jack Elam) and their boss Carl Evello (Paul Stewart).
Hammer’s secretary, the svelte and whipsmart Velda (Maxine Cooper), helps him out, but the cold, remote Hammer doesn’t show her any love. At least she’s a bit more subtle than Carl’s sexpot sister Friday (Marian Carr). She starts kissing Hammer about 30 seconds after they meet; he lectures her on the virtues of saying no. Hey, he can’t help it if he’s catnip to all the women.
Meanwhile, the scary dudes have Hammer tailed, plant a bomb in his car, kidnap him and Velda, inject him with truth serum and tie him up. He outsmarts them every time, but he still doesn’t know what they are so hell-bent on protecting.
After a visit to the coroner (Percy Helton), Hammer nabs a key, which opens a locker at the Hollywood Athletic Club locker. Inside is a mysterious and dangerous leather case; a quick peek results in a nasty burn on Hammer’s wrist. It’s a hair-raising scene and Helton oozes porcine malevolence.
With Velda’s help, Hammer tracks down the evil-doers’ ringleader Dr. G.E. Soberin (Albert Dekker) and ends up at his beach house. But with that lethal case still around, disaster can’t be far behind. And the stakes are high. Soberin puts it this way: “The more primitive our world becomes, the more fabulous its treasures.”
In addition to being a classic noir, “Kiss Me Deadly” is also a parable of the Cold War era. Off screen, it was an odd creative pairing. Spillane was a vehement right-winger; Aldrich and Bezzerides were lefties who largely derided Spillane’s views.
Though Hammer is a heartbreaker, none of the women are shrinking violets. As Velda tells Mike: “Do me a favor, will you? Keep away from the windows. Somebody might blow you a kiss.”
Extras: Commentary by film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini. Video tribute by Alex Cox. Excerpts from 2005 documentary, "The Long Haul of A. I. Bezzerides." New version of Max Allan Collins’ 1998 documentary "Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane," with lengthy Spillane interview. 1955 theatrical ending (the Criterion print has the original ending, as intended by Aldrich). Featurette on Bunker Hill. Trailer. Booklet with essays by Aldrich and J. Hoberman.