(1955) Directed by Robert Aldrich; Written by A.I. Bezzerides; Based on the novel by Mickey Spillane; Starring: Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Gaby Rodgers and Cloris Leachman; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself.” – Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman)
“What is it we are seeking? Diamonds? Rubies? Gold? Perhaps narcotics. How civilized this earth used to be. But as the world becomes more primitive, its treasures become more fabulous…” – Dr. G.E. Soberin (Albert Dekker)
I’m honored to participate in the Criterion Blogathon, a six-day extravaganza showcasing the premiere distributor’s wildly diverse resume of films. I’d like to extend a huge thanks to organizers Aaron West of CriterionBlues, Kristina from Speakeasy, and Ruth from Silver Screenings. They truly outdid themselves with this one, and set the bar higher for future blogathons. My entry for the blogathon, Kiss Me Deadly, also continues Noir-Vember, my month-long foray into the wild and turbulent world of film noir.
Director Robert Aldrich and writer A.I. Bezzerides polarized critics and film fans with their stylish interpretation of Mickey Spillane’s novel, creating an experience that’s undeniably memorable and influential. Bezzerides disliked the source material, making substantial changes (starting with the excision of a comma from the novel’s title), resulting in a film that was a radical departure from the original story (Unsurprisingly, Spillane hated the script, as well as the finished project). From the opening, backwards-rolling credits, you can tell you’re in for something special. With their version of Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich and company created more than just a pedestrian story about a cocky gumshoe who’s in over his head.
Set in Los Angeles, Kiss Me Deadly explores the seamier side of the City of Angels. As an ex-Los Angelino, it was a treat to see the city as it existed in the mid-20th century. The film crystalizes a moment in time, when some of the formerly posh districts, such as Bunker Hill, had gone to seed.* In accordance with the film’s dark, lurid themes, the film plays fast and loose with the Production Code, pushing the envelope in terms of violence, overt sexuality and implied nudity. According to the DVD commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, the film gave various local censorship boards headaches, and earned a “Condemned” rating from the League of Decency (always a plus, in my book).
* One shot depicts the famous Angels Flight Railway, a funicular that traversed the Bunker Hill district. Thankfully, this one piece of history has been restored to its former glory, albeit relocated to a slightly different location.
Kiss Me Deadly, as envisioned by Aldrich and Bezzerides, introduced a different kind of private eye to the venerable genre. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is anything but the traditional protagonist, with his thuggish presence and self-serving attitude. He isn’t above roughing up a guy, or manhandling a gal, if he finds out what he’s looking for. In the opening scene, he encounters a young woman, Christina Bailey, in the middle of the road, clad only in a trench coat (Cloris Leachman, in an early role). Instead of displaying concern for her distressed condition, he’s irritated he was forced to swerve to avoid hitting her. As he soon discovers, she’s about to lead him down a rabbit hole into something much deeper, and more sinister than he ever imagined.
Standing as a counterpoint to Hammer’s brashness is Velda (Maxine Cooper), his savvy personal secretary and occasional lover. They share a complex relationship, fraught with ambiguity. She’s more than an employee, but less than a girlfriend, carrying out his dirty work in his investigations of divorce cases, and serving a pseudo-matriarchal role as his confidant. She’s unfazed by his machismo and womanizing tendencies, seeing the dents in his armor.
Kiss Me Deadly boasts an impressive array of standout performances by a host of character actors. As Dr. G.E. Soberin, Albert Dekker exudes equal measures of gentility and menace. His distaste for violence belies the fact he’s not above causing physical harm if it helps him reach his ends. Percy Helton is terrific as an unscrupulous morgue worker* who’s ready to sell out for the right price. Gaby Rodgers shines as Lily Carver, Christina’s friend (and possible lover), who might not be the helpless ingénue she seems to be. On the other end of the spectrum of notable performances, we see too much of minor character Nick “Va Va Voom” (Nick Dennis), Hammer’s mechanic and informant. In Nick’s case, a little goes a very long way, and I was almost happy when he met his untimely demise.
* I can’t help but wonder if Helton’s character served as a template for a similar role, played by John Fiedler in the iconic TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
The film employs one of cinema’s most intriguing and enigmatic plot devices, “The Great Whatsit,”* adding a sci-fi twist to the genre. Although it’s never expressly stated what’s in the nondescript box with leather straps, we can ascertain it contains nuclear material of some sort. Exactly what’s in the box, where it came from, or what anyone plans to do with it remain a mystery. The only tantalizing clues it provides about its terrible nature are suggested by the radiation of heat and intense light, accompanied by a banshee wail. One character makes a direct reference to Pandora’s Box, hinting at the cataclysm that awaits anyone foolish enough to open it. Over the years, this tantalizing conundrum has inspired many filmmakers to create their own versions of the “Great Whatsit.” In Alex Cox’s Repo Man, it’s a car trunk with dead aliens. In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, it’s the glowing, but not directly seen contents of a briefcase. The Ark of the Covenant, as it’s depicted in the climactic scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, likely has similar origins. “The Great Whatsit” arguably finds its way into space in the classic Star Trek episode, “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” And in Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case, “What’s in the box?” became “What’s in the Basket?” Whatever the context, the diabolical box has become synonymous with things we shouldn’t be meddling with, and the unfortunate consequences of poking our nose where it shouldn’t go.
* “The Great Whatsit” was solely an invention of the screenwriter, as it wasn’t mentioned in the novel.
The film’s mind-blowing ending took me by surprise the first time, and still raises eyebrows on subsequent viewings. The Criterion edition restores the last minute, making the conclusion somewhat less nihilistic, but no less impacting. The film has left genre fans divided, with some deriding it for its sexism, while others lauding it as a covert feminist commentary on the ‘50s and male-centric culture. As he’s presented here, Mike Hammer isn’t a principled or particularly likeable man, but that’s part of the point, as Aldrich and Bezzerides deconstructed the hero mythos. Kiss Me Deadly signaled the end of an era. It’s a fascinating film that continues to reward upon subsequent viewings, with its ambiguities and nuanced characters. Kiss Me Deadly transcends its pulp origins, and remains one of film noir’s finest moments, and its epitaph.