After the classy film noirs of the 1940s, Robert Aldrich’s adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled crime novel Kiss Me Deadly (1955) pushed the boundaries of the genre as far as it could back then. It was as tough and uncompromising as its protagonist Mike Hammer. The film reflects the Cold War paranoia that was rampant during the 1950s and fuses it with an apocalyptic science fiction climax in a way the critiques the decade in surprisingly unflinching fashion.
The film begins with a barefooted woman (Cloris Leachman) running breathlessly along a stretch of highway road at night. Hammer (Ralph Meeker) nearly runs her over. He picks her up and it’s a decision he will regret later. The opening credits play over an odd audio juxtaposition of Nat King Cole’s silky smooth singing playing over the car radio and the woman’s frantic breathing and crying. This creates an edgy vibe that is a hell of a way to start a film.
Even though Hammer gives the woman a hard time he lies for her at a police roadblock when he finds out she’s escaped from a mental hospital. Cloris Leachman makes the most of her screen-time as her character happily critiques her savior: “You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, his self,” and follows it up with, “You’re the kind of person that never gives in a relationship. Who only takes.” These are rather odd things to say to someone who just saved her life.
Three unidentified men subsequently run them off the road and over the soundtrack we hear the woman’s terrified screams, which carry over to the next scene where she’s being tortured. All we see are her dangling feet, leaving the frightening rest to our imagination. The men attempt to get rid of Hammer and the woman by staging a car accident that he somehow survives. Once he gets out of the hospital, government officials unsuccessfully grill him in a scene absolutely dripping with sarcasm and contempt that is also quite funny to watch, especially with the punchline at the end when Hammer leaves the room and one fed says with obvious disdain, “Open a window.”
Why are the Feds involved? Who was the mysterious woman and why was she killed? Intrigued and understandably pissed off at almost being killed, Hammer decides to get some answers – ones that lead to something bigger and more dangerous than he could have possible imagined.
Kiss Me Deadly is saturated with a paranoid vibe, like when Hammer comes home from the hospital and carefully checks out his apartment for intruders. Later on, his sexy secretary, Velda (Maxine Cooper, who always seem to be sweaty when on-screen), warns him to stay away from the windows because “somebody might blow you a kiss,” which implies that someone is trying to kill him. Aldrich employs shots of Hammer talking to people as if someone else is spying him on and this keeps the viewer on edge. Later on, things get serious when Hammer finds dynamite and a bomb rigged to blow up his car. Aldrich also doesn’t skimp on the violence, which must’ve been shocking for its time. Hammer viciously beats a man who tries to kill him with a switchblade by punching him down a flight of steps. In another scene, Hammer disables a henchman so quickly and efficiently that he scares off his cohort.
Ralph Meeker anchors the film with his uncompromising performance. Hammer is a crude, sexist man with a deep distrust of authority, anticipating Dirty Harry by several years as a righteous avenger with his own brand of justice. This is typified by the perpetual smirk affixed to Meeker’s face but that expression changes over time as his life and those close to him are repeatedly put in danger. Meeker is a good-looking tough guy that does a fantastic job of portraying Spillane’s protagonist.
Kiss Me Deadly is populated by a colorful assortment of characters, like Nick (Nick Dennis), a gregarious Greek mechanic who punctuates his speech with words like, “Va-va voom!” and in the next breath proclaims Hammer’s exit from the hospital, “like Lazarus rose out of the grave!” He’s a good friend that gives the private detective hot tips and genuinely cares about him. There’s also Lt. Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy), Hammer’s cop friend with a droll sense of humor as evident in the singsong way he tells him that he’s revoking his gun permit and if he catches him with one he’ll throw him in jail. Wesley Addy has a deliciously dry delivery of dialogue that is excellent. The film also presents a multi-ethnic Los Angeles with many memorable locations that no longer exist anymore or have been radically changed, from the low city of Bunker Hill to the high with Beverly Hills. You really get a sense of place from this film and the city almost becomes another character.
Robert Aldrich worked for RKO in 1941 as an assistant director and got his solo start on the anti-American film Apache (1954) and the cynical western Vera Cruz (1954). He teamed up with producer Victor Saville to make Kiss Me Deadly, based on Mickey Spillane’s novel of the same name, in 1954 and hired A.I. Bezzerides to write the screenplay. At the time, Spillane was one of the most popular writers in the United States but Aldrich was not a fan of the novel. He and Bezzerides discarded most of the original story, shifted the location from New York City to L.A., and kept the title. The latter wrote it quickly “because I had contempt for it. It was automatic writing. Things were in the air at the time, and I put them in.”
The edgy Kiss Me Deadly ran afoul of the MPAA during the script stages for its depiction of drugs and violence as well as “sexual suggestiveness.” Aldrich removed the drugs but the violence remained and it was eventually approved. On the eve of its release, the Legion of Decency condemned it, demanding 30 changes, cuts and deletions. It weathered that particular storm with only a few minor cuts.
Kiss Me Deadly presents a harsh and cruel world and in order to survive it Hammer has to act accordingly. He thinks he has it all figured out but the deeper he digs into the mysterious woman’s past the more dangerous his life gets as he finds himself dealing with serious men that are able to scare anyone they come in contact with – even a boxing manager Hammer has known for a long time. They are serious enough to kill those close to him, which raises the stakes considerably. As a result, Hammer’s tactics become more savage: crushing a coroner’s hand in desk drawer for a key and slapping around an athletic club manager for more information on said key.
Kiss Me Deadly features a smart, cynical screenplay by Bezzerides who tweaked the book’s setting and removed the first person voiceover, but retained the hardboiled attitude. Aldrich’s film takes us on a journey through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles culminating in an explosive finale that would influence the likes of Repo Man (1984) and Pulp Fiction (1994). It came out around the time that other grim, bleak noirs, like Pickup on the South Street (1953), were starting to appear, and anticipated films like Touch of Evil (1958) Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964).
Hoberman, J. “The Thriller of Tomorrow.” Kiss Me Deadly DVD. Criterion Collection.
Stafford, Jeff. “Kiss Me Deadly.” Turner Classic Movies.