Cast & Crew
One night, private detective Mike Hammer is driving home to Los Angeles when he is stopped by a woman standing in the highway. Although Mike upbraids the woman, he gives her a ride. As they drive, the panicked woman, who is wearing only a trenchcoat, asks Mike to drop her at the nearest bus stop. Before Mike can learn more, they are stopped at a roadblock, and the police reveal that they are looking for a woman who escaped from a nearby sanitarium. After Mike bluffs his way past the officer, the woman, named Christina, admits that she is the escapee, but insists that she was being held prisoner at the sanitarium. When they stop at a gas station, Christina gives the attendant a letter to mail and looks relieved. Mike is intrigued by Christina's demeanor and her plea to remember her if anything should happen. Just then, a car blocks their way and Mike is knocked unconscious by the occupants. When Mike awakens, he hears Christina scream as she is being tortured, but because he is lying face-down, he cannot identify his captors, although he does notice that one wears a distinctive pair of shoes. After Mike passes out again, he and the now-dead Christina are put into his car, which is pushed over a cliff to make it look like they died in an accident. Mike jumps from the car just in time, however, and three days later, is wakened in the hospital by his devoted secretary and girl friend, Velda Wickman. Mike's friend, police captain Pat Murphy, is also happy to see him recovering. When Mike leaves the hospital, he is detained by federal agents, who question him about Christina. Mike refuses to divulge any information, and after he is released, Pat warns him not to pursue the matter. At his apartment, Mike tells Velda that they are going to investigate anyway, and she reveals that a man named Ray Diker called while he was in the hospital. Their conversation is interrupted by Pat, who revokes Mike's private detective license and gun permit, then dismisses Mike's speculations about Diker, a newspaper science editor who disappeared recently. Despite interference from an unknown attacker, Mike locates Diker, who, although terrified, tells Mike that Christina's last name was Bailey and gives him her address. When Mike visits the boardinghouse where Christina lived, he learns that her roommate, Lily Carver, is gone, although a moving man tells him Lily's new address. Remembering that Christina stated she was named after the poet Christina Rossetti, Mike picks up a volume of her poetry from Christina's nightstand, then looks for Lily. Upon entering Lily's rundown apartment, Mike finds the nervous woman leveling a pistol at him. Lily explains that Christina was very frightened lately, but she does not know why, nor does she know the identity of the men who came to question her after Christina's death. When Mike goes home, he receives a phone call from an unidentified man, offering a token of appreciation if he will pretend that he never met Christina. In the morning, a new car is in front of Mike's building, and the suspicious Mike asks his mechanic, Nick, to examine it. Nick finds two bombs inside the car, after which Mike visits Velda, who is leery of pursuing Christina's murder. Velda reveals that Diker called her, offering her several other names, and when Mike checks out the leads, he learns that there have been two other automobile "accidents" in which people connected to Christina were killed. Mike also discovers that Charlie Max and Sugar Smallhouse, two hired killers, are looking for him, and after learning that they work for gangster Carl Evello, goes to Evello's house. Impressed with the way Mike handles himself, Evello agrees to talk with him, and confesses that he sent the rigged car. Evello attempts to bribe Mike to remain silent, but Mike demurs and goes to see Carmen Trivaco, one of the names given to him by Diker. Carmen admits that his friend, Nicholas Raymondo, was an atomic scientist who hinted about having an important secret before he was killed. Mike then returns to Lily's, where he finds her hiding in the basement after some men came looking for her. Hoping to protect her, Mike then takes Lily to his apartment. Meanwhile, Nick, who had investigated the car bombs at Mike's request, is murdered. Grieving, Mike goes to see Velda, who pleads with him to forgo his search for the "great whatsit" that has resulted in so many deaths. Velda then reveals that Diker introduced her to a modern art dealer who mentioned both Evello and a Dr. Soberin when discussing his gallery. Mike tells Velda to press for more information, then goes to a bar, where he passes out from drinking too much. When Mike is awakened, he learns that "they" have kidnapped Velda, and soon discovers that the letter Christina mailed was addressed to him. At his office, Mike opens the letter, which says only "Remember Me!" Sugar and Charlie are waiting, and after beating Mike, take him to a beach house. There, Mike is tied face-down on a bed, and when he is interrogated by a stranger, recognizes the man's shoes from the night Christina was killed. Although the man drugs Mike with sodium pentathol to discover the meaning of Christina's letter, Mike rambles incoherently. Later, Mike manages to slip his bonds, and when Evello enters the room, Mike traps him and ties him to the bed. Believing that Evello is Mike, Sugar mistakenly kills him before being killed by Mike. Mike escapes and returns home, where he and Lily attempt to puzzle out Christina's message, using one of Rossetti's poems. Mike deduces that Christina swallowed an important clue and goes to the morgue, where Doc Kennedy had extracted a key from her stomach. The next day, Mike and Lily drive to the Hollywood Athletic Club and Mike uses the key to open a locker registered to Raymondo. In the locker Mike finds an iron box, wrapped in leather. Mike is surprised that the inner box is hot and cries out when it burns him as he attempts to open it. Mike immediately shuts the lid, then tells the clerk to let no one near it. Upon returning to his car, Mike discovers that Lily has disappeared and contacts Pat. Pat demands the key, but Mike refuses, stating that he needs it to bargain for Velda's life. When Pat reveals that the body of the real Lily Carver was found over a week ago, Mike realizes that he has been duped. Seeing the burn on Mike's wrist, Pat says "Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity," and Mike, understanding that he is in over his head, gives Pat the key. At the athletic club, however, the clerk has been killed and the box stolen. With Diker's reluctant help, Mike eventually realizes that the leader of the gang is Dr. G. E. Soberin, and traces the doctor to the beach house where he had been held earlier. The doctor, who wears distinctive shoes, is currently admiring the box, which was brought to him by the woman impersonating Lily, whose real name is Gabrielle. Despite her curiosity, the doctor refuses to allow her to open the box, however he does not to explain that the reason is that it contains atomic material. When Soberin refuses to divide the box's contents with her, Gabrielle shoots and kills him. Gabrielle is about to open the box when Mike bursts in, and when he responds too slowly to her demand that he kiss her, she shoots him in the side. Mike staggers out as Gabrielle opens the box and the material within incinerates her. Finding Velda just in time, Mike runs with her from the house, and watches from the beach as the house is engulfed in a huge explosion.
Jack R. Berne
A. I. Bezzerides
Mark Sandrich Jr.
Kiss Me Deadly
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
Kiss Me Deadly
So you're a fugitive from the laughing house.- Mike Hammer
Do me a favor, will you? Keep away from the windows. Somebody might... blow you a kiss.- Velda
Kiss me, Mike. I want you to kiss me. Kiss me. The liar's kiss that says I love you, and means something else.- Lily Carver
Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt. Whoever opens this box will be turned into brimstone and ashes.- Dr. Soberin
As the world becomes more primitive, its treasures become more fabulous.- Dr. Soberin
Memo from United Artists: Mickey Spillane's name must be above the title and in the same type style as appears on the "Kiss Me Deadly" Signet Book Jacket.
The film's unusual opening credits appear after the sequence in which "Mike Hammer" picks up hitchhiker "Christina Bailey." When Christina gets into the car, a radio deejay announces that Nat "King" Cole will be singing "Rather Have the Blues," and the song is then heard over the credits, which scroll from the top of the screen to the bottom, as if they are part of the highway along which Mike speeds. The opening title card reads: "Victor Saville presents Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly."
Hollywood Reporter news items include Art Loggins, Max Wagner and Keith McConnell in the cast, although their appearance in the completed picture has not been confirmed. Modern sources include the following actors in the cast: Yvonne Doughty (Receptionist); Bob Sherman (Gas station attendant) and Eddie Real (Sideman). According to the film's pressbook, seventy-five percent of the picture was shot on exterior locations in Los Angeles, CA. Kiss Me Deadly marked the motion picture debuts of actresses Maxine Cooper and Cloris Leachman, and was the only feature film made by Gaby Rodgers.
The film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library contains a September 10, 1954 letter from producer-director Robert Aldrich to PCA official Geoffrey Shurlock, in which Aldrich states that he had recently been employed by Parklane Productions to produce Kiss Me Deadly and was aware that there were "a number of problems inherent in the project in relation to securing Code approval." As noted in Aldrich's letter, Spillane's novel originally dealt with narcotics rather than atomic material, and the organization fought by Mike was the Mafia, not an unspecified group of Communists. [Another departure from the novel to the film was "Velda's" term "the great whatsit," which does not appear in the novel.] In his letter, Aldrich expressed the hope that "the property can be brought into line with the Code in relation to narcotics and still not lose its dramatic oneness."
In a September 20, 1954 memo for the PCA files, however, it was noted that Aldrich was informed that a screenplay based on Spillane's novel could not be approved. The two "basic reasons" for the story's unacceptibility were the treatment of "illegal drug traffic" and its portrayal of Mike "as a cold-blooded murderer whose numerous killings are completely justified." The PCA also objected to many instances of brutality and "sex-suggestiveness." Aldrich was informed that if he intended to "maintain the use of narcotics as a basic story motivation, it would be necessary for him to appeal the decision of the Code Administration with the Board of Directors of this Association in New York." Aldrich in turn told the PCA that the filmmakers "could easily overcome" the problem of Hammer acting as a murderous vigilante, although they had not yet determined if they would retain the narcotics story line. In November 1954, Aldrich submitted a screenplay to the PCA, which was approved with the warning to be careful in the depiction of brutality and sex.
On February 11, 1955, Aldrich wrote to Shurlock, thanking him for the PCA's cooperation in awarding Kiss Me Deadly a production seal. Aldrich commented on the difficulty of adapting the Spillane books for the screen, noting: "In the Spillane pictures we have a unique and difficult problem. The properties are of great commercial value, and yet there is no morality, or integrity, or respect for American tradition, or the due process of law." On April 18, 1955, Aldrich again wrote to Shurlock, notifying him that the "Legion of Decency has taken violent exception to [Kiss Me Deadly] and has requested that over thirty changes, cuts and deletions be made." Aldrich stated that the requests came "as a most rude and expensive surprise," as he had thought that if a project was passed by the PCA, it would be acceptable to the Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization. Eventually, on May 5, 1955, the Legion of Decency gave the film a "B" rating instead of a "C," or condemned, rating, stating: "This film tends to glorify taking the law into one's own hand. Moreover, it contains excessive brutality and suggestiveness in costume, dialogue and situations."
According to an June 8, 1955 Daily Variety article, the picture faced further censorship difficulties when CBS-TV censor Ed Nathan refused to allow the Los Angeles CBS station to air trailers for Kiss Me Deadly. Nathan had publicly criticized the film, stating that it had "no purpose except to incite sadism and bestiality in human beings." In protesting Nathan's actions, Aldrich pointed out that other CBS stations throughout the United States had already agreed to broadcast the trailers. According to an February 18, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, in order to publicize the picture, United Artists had begun negotiations with major TV networks to "set up a half hour coast-to-coast telecast featuring live enactments of scenes from the picture." The article reported: "It is expected that the exploitation program, first of its kind, will reach a video audience of twenty-five million." It has not been determined, however, if the telecast was produced.
In August 1997, Los Angeles Times and LAWeekly reported that the film's original ending, in which "Velda" and "Mike" watch while the beach house explodes, had been restored. According to Los Angeles Times, prints "since the early `70s" had contained a truncated ending that did not show Velda and Mike together, surviving the explosion, but rather ended with the explosion of the house. The restoration was conceived by editor Glenn Erickson and film historian Alain Silver, and constructed by archivist John Kirk, from Aldrich's personal print of the film. In speculating about the reason for the truncated ending, Erickson cited the considerable censorship problems the film endured and wondered if some distributors decided that Mike had to be "punished." The Los Angeles Times article further reported: "A failure when originally released, the film was denounced by the influential Kefauver Commission for its violence. Aldrich even sold his rights back to UA in 1959 when he needed the money." According to Silver, Kiss Me Deadly was Aldrich's favorite of his films. The picture has long been regarded by film historians as one of the best and most significant examples of film noir, and is often cited by modern filmmakers as a major influence on their careers.
For more information on Mickey Spillane and the "Mike Hammer" films, please consult the Series Index and see the entries for the 1953 United Artists release I, The Jury and the 1954 Warner Bros. release Ring of Fear.
Released in United States 1983
Released in United States 1994
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States November 1971
Released in United States November 1997
Released in United States on Video August 12, 1997
Released in United States Spring May 1955
Re-released in United States January 1, 1999
Shown at Tokyo International Film Festival (Cinema Prism) November 1-10, 1997.
Based on the novel "Kiss Me Deadly" by Mickey Spillane (New York, 1952).
Through MGM Home Entertainment, a video version is being released for the first time August 12, 1997, which has recovered an 82-second sequence from the end of the movie that was inexplicably lost from the film noir Mike Hammer movie decades ago without knowledge of most viewers.
Selected in 1999 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States 1983 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (A "B-Movie" Marathon) April 13 - May 1, 1983.)
Released in United States 1994 (Shown in New York City (Walter Reade) as part of program "Apocalypse Anytime! The Films of Robert Aldrich" March 11 - April 8, 1994.)
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (MoMA) as part of program "Scorsese at the Movies: The Martin Scorsese Collection at the Museum of Modern Art" June 28 - September 12, 1996.)
Re-released in United States January 1, 1999 (Film Forum; New York City)
Released in United States Spring May 1955
Released in United States on Video August 12, 1997 (restored)
Released in United States November 1971 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Film Noir (retrospective survey)) November 4-14, 1971.)
Released in United States November 1997 (Shown at Tokyo International Film Festival (Cinema Prism) November 1-10, 1997.)