#542) Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

#542) Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

OR “Hammer Time”

Directed by Robert Aldrich

Written by A.I. Bezzerides. Based on the novel by Mickey Spillane.

Class of 1999 

The Plot: Ralph Meeker is Mike Hammer, an L.A. detective who plays by his own rules. Late one night Hammer picks up hitchhiker Christina (Cloris Leachman), who gives him the cryptic message “Remember me” before she is beaten up and killed by thugs. Hammer decides to investigate the circumstances surrounding Christina’s murder, deducing that following this thread will lead to “something big”. What follows is a joyride through L.A.’s seedy underbelly and ecounters with mob boss Carl Evello (Paul Stewart), Christina’s roommate Lily (Gaby Rogers), and the corrupt Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker). It seems that everyone connected to Christina is trying to find a mysterious box rumored to contain a fortune. What they find is a mystery so big film geeks are still debating it.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is mostly an overview about the movie and its “alternate” ending (more on that later). There’s a more thorough analysis in an essay by filmmaker/Robert Aldrich expert Alain Silver.

But Does It Really?: “Kiss Me Deadly” stands out in the film noir category not so much for its gritty realism or its taboo subject matter, but rather from its off-beat artistic strokes. Underneath the hood of this seemingly straight-forward murder mystery is some really creative work from Aldrich, Bezzerides and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo. I suspect the film is also on this list to represent Mike Hammer, a popular 20th century literary figure. While not an untouchable film classic, “Kiss Me Deadly” is still an enjoyable, fun-to-analyze movie 65 years later, and I give it a pass.

Everybody Gets One: Born into a family of wealthy Rhode Island socialites and politicians, Robert Aldrich was disinherited by his father after dropping out of the University of Virginia. Aldrich moved out west and got a job at RKO as a production clerk. He worked his way up to becoming an assistant director (including for fellow NFR entry “Force of Evil”), and by the 1950s was directing feature films. Many of Aldrich’s frequent collaborators first worked with him in his assistant director days.

Wow, That’s Dated: The usual ’50s stuff: pay phones, gas station attendants, plus the phrase “bedroom dick”, which doesn’t mean what you think it does.

Other notes 

  • This movie assumes you already know who Mike Hammer is. First appearing in Mickey Spillane’s 1947 book “I, the Jury”, Hammer is a hard-nosed detective and self-described misanthrope. In contrast to the stoic cynicism of a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, Hammer’s emotions often got the better of him, his rage consistently leading to violent fights with various lowlifes. Although critics at the time derided the brutality and sensuality of the novels, the Mike Hammer series were among the most successful books of the 1950s.
  • “Kiss Me Deadly” was the second film adaptation of a Mike Hammer novel. The first was 1953’s “I, the Jury” with actor Biff Elliot as Hammer.
  • Right from the start this movie is going to be different. A cold open (unheard of in 1955), followed by credits that scroll downwards! And a song from Nat “King” Cole! Talk about unforgettable.
  • Despite all of the murder mysteries on this list, we so rarely get an actor playing the “vic” who went on to become a star in their own right. In this case, the late great Cloris Leachman. You don’t see her pre-70s work too often, but as always, Leachman imbues a lot of character into Christina’s brief screentime.
  • The best exchange in this movie is between Hammer and his assistant Velda. “You’re never around when I need you.” “You never need me when I’m around.”
  • The film’s most impressive technology: Hammer’s early version of an answering machine, consisting of a reel-to-reel tape mounted on his wall.
  • “Kiss Me Deadly” is to Los Angeles what “Vertigo” is to San Francisco: a lovely time capsule of the city as it once was. There’s plenty of local landmarks highlighted throughout Hammer’s travels, including Angels Flight.
  • [Spoilers] When people think of the film’s cinematography, they’re usually thinking of the shot of mechanic Nick being crushed to death by a car he’s working on. The camera rushes to his face, making that shot from the point of view of the car’s…axle?
  • Thankfully neither Aldrich nor screenwriter I.A. Bezzerides care a lot about the novel’s convoluted mystery, and the movie spends more time on character and aesthetic, which helps make the film more palatable. You can follow the clues if you want, but that’s not this film’s priority.
  • Ralph Meeker kinda looks like Charlton Heston. And occasionally Maximilian Schell from the right angle.
  • I also enjoy the moment where Hammer points out how polite the henchmen are being as they escort Hammer away. Their response: “We’re here on this Earth such a brief span, we might as well be.”
  • Dr. Soberin shows up in full classic Bond villain mode, monologuing while the hero is tied up. They even obscure his face during his first scene!
  • Shoutout to Percy Helton as Doc Kennedy, the somewhat sadistic coroner who tries to extort money out of Mike Hammer. Helton also played the drunk Santa who gets fired at the beginning of “Miracle on 34th Street“.
  • My main takeaway from this movie is that no one locked anything in the ’50s. People could just hop into your car or walk into your home. Different times indeed.
  • And just when you think you know where this movie is going, along comes that ending. Without giving too much away, it infuses the Cold War paranoia of the time with the ending of “Raiders of the Lost Ark“, and a pinch of “Seven” thrown in for fun. It packs quite a punch.
  • [Mini-spoiler] At some point following the film’s first release, the ending was trimmed by about a minute. The original closing shots show Hammer and Velda escaping the burning house along the beach, but the truncated ending finishes with the previous shot of the house on fire, implying that Hammer and Velda perished inside. What a difference a few cuts make.

Legacy 

  • Although “Kiss Me Deadly” received rave reviews from critics, it was not a hit with American audiences. The film did, however, do well overseas, and found a cult following in France. Both Jean-Luc Goddard and François Truffaut have cited “Kiss Me Deadly” and its experimental cinematography as an influence on the French New Wave cinema of the late 1950s.
  • Easily the film’s most iconic homage: Quentin Tarantino alludes to “Kiss Me Deadly” and its mystery box with the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction“.
  • Mickey Spillane wrote nine more Mike Hammer novels after the release of “Kiss Me Deadly”, two of which were published posthumously following Spillane’s death in 2006.
  • There have been several adaptations of Mike Hammer over the years, most memorably a TV series in the ’80s starring Stacy Keach as Hammer.
  • Among Robert Aldrich’s later films as director are “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “The Dirty Dozen”; neither of which are on the NFR. As God is my witness, I will get “Baby Jane” on that list (and then “Dirty Dozen” if there’s time).

3 thoughts on “#542) Kiss Me Deadly (1955)”

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