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Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Robert Aldrich's hard-edged, stylistically innovative adaptation of the Mickey Spillane novel, features what may be the most violent and unsympathetic private eye in the history of cinema. As Mike Hammer, Ralph Meeker is like a bull in a china shop, lurching haphazardly from one deadly encounter to the next, often employing the same brutal tactics of the criminals he's pursuing. But as the plot of Kiss Me Deadly unfolds, Hammer goes from being just a cheap hood who specializes in divorce cases to serving as an unwitting accomplice in the retrieval of a mysterious box that holds "the great whatsit."
Starting with the opening scene in the film, our "hero" gets in over his head when he picks up a hysterical woman (Cloris Leachman) on the highway who has escaped from a mental institution. The ensuing events lead him to a subversive group led by Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker) who appear to be trafficking in stolen atomic material. It all builds to an apocalyptic finish at an isolated beach house where the contents of the black box are finally revealed.
Shot in twenty-one days on a limited budget of $425,000, Kiss Me Deadly easily ranks as one of the most paranoid film noirs ever made. Employing disorienting camera angles, extreme close-ups, sleazy locations in Los Angeles and other unconventional tactics, Robert Aldrich creates a dark, inhospitable environment populated by nihilists. The whole tone of the film is set from the stark opening; a nighttime scene of a barely clothed woman running barefoot along the highway accompanied by her sharp, labored breathing. Even after she is given a lift by Hammer, we still hear her frightened gasps mingled with the soft strains of a romantic ballad issuing forth from the car radio; all of this occurring while the opening film credits roll down the screen at a sharp slant over the windshield of Hammer's car.
Aldrich once admitted that he had intended to make a political statement with Kiss Me Deadly through this "cynical and fascistic private eye," saying "It did have a basic significance in our political framework that we thought rather important in those McCarthy times: that the ends did not justify the means." However, most American reviewers saw Kiss Me Deadly as just another detective thriller, though its sadistic violence was unfavorably noted.
Its reception was quite different overseas, particularly in France where Cahiers du Cinema critic Francois Truffaut praised the film. In The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich, the director was later quoted as saying, "I'd like to say that I thought of all the things the French say are in the picture, but it's not true. It was the first year of Cahiers and those guys jumped on that picture like it was the Second Coming." Despite Aldrich's sometimes ambivalent assessment of Kiss Me Deadly (he has both dismissed and praised the film in print), he revealed "it represented a whole breakthrough for me. In terms of style, in terms of the way we tried to make it, it provided a marvelous showcase to display my own ideas of movie-making. In that sense it was an enormous 'first' for me."
Interestingly enough, Aldrich wasn't a big fan of Spillane's novel, Kiss Me Deadly, even though at the time the author was one of the most popular writers in America and Mike Hammer was probably the most famous fictional detective of the post-World War II era. Instead, Aldrich had screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides keep the title but throw out most of the original story. In Lee Server's book, Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures, Bezzerides said, "People ask me...about the hidden meanings in the script, about the A-bomb, about McCarthyism, what does the poetry mean, and so on. And I can only say that I didn't think about it when I wrote it. These things were in the air at the time and I put them in. There was a lot of talk about nuclear war at the time, and it was the foremost fear in people's minds...Well, I thought that was more interesting than the dope thing in the book. The Pandora's box references related to these characters, and the same with the poem by Rossetti. I was having fun with it. I wanted to make every scene, every character, interesting. A girl comes up to Ralph Meeker, I make her a nympho. She grabs him and kisses him the first time she sees him. She says, "You don't taste like anybody I know." I'm a big car nut, so I put him in all that stuff with the cars and the mechanic. I was an engineer and I gave the detective the first phone answering machine in that picture. I was having fun."
When Kiss Me Deadly was completed, the Catholic League of Decency awarded it a "Condemned" rating and against Aldrich's wishes, United Artists made the recommended cuts in the film. As a result, there are two versions of Kiss Me Deadly with alternate endings in existence. In the one released by United Artists, we see Mike and his loyal secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) escaping down the beach from the exploding house. In the more recently restored version, the final shot is of the fiery inferno caused by the black box, an ending that suggests the end of mankind through nuclear annihilation. Regardless of which version you see, you'll be treated to one of the most audacious independent films of the fifties and one which richly deserves its devoted cult following.
Producer/Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides, based on the novel by Mickey Spillane
Art Direction: William Glasgow
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Film Editing: Michael Luciano
Original Music: Frank De Vol
Principal Cast: Ralph Meeker (Mike Hammer), Albert Dekker (Dr. Soberin), Paul Stewart (Carl Evello), Maxine Cooper (Velda), Gaby Rodgers (Lily Carver), Cloris Leachman (Christina Bailey), Juano Hernandez (Eddie Yeager), Wesley Addy (Pat Chambers), Jack Lambert (Sugar Smallhouse), Jack Elam (Charlie Max), Marian Carr (Friday).
by Jeff Stafford