Film Noir is a funny thing. It’s not a genre, necessarily; it’s more like how politicians classify pornography — I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. Noir is an amalgam of WWII and post-war malaise mixed with misanthropy mixed with German expressionist camerawork and lighting mixed with the inability to show anything overtly sexual onscreen. It’s a repressed, melodramatic movement, but always with the air of violence at every turn. In the case of 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, it gets super weird and becomes almost a science fiction story. Man, Noir is complex.
By the mid-50s, Noir was only a few years away from its unofficial end. There had been hundreds of these gritty crime thrillers and while they certainly would go away, they were in line for an overhaul. An independent production, Kiss Me Deadly can be seen as the creative baby of its director-producer, Robert Aldrich, who’d directed mainly television and a couple of westerns (including the well-regarded Vera Cruz) prior. It’s based on a novel by Mickey Spillane featuring the author’s go-to main character, private detective Mike Hammer. Hammer isn’t like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, a moralizing schlub drifting through life; Hammer is mean, he’s violent, and he’ll kill people just as soon as look at ’em. In short, our hero is a thug of the highest order. Here, Hammer is played by Ralph Meeker, who does a hell of a job.
The movie begins with a woman in naught but a raincoat and high heels (it’s a young Cloris Leachman if you can believe it) running down a dark, deserted road when a car happens by and swerves to not hit her. It’s Mike Hammer’s car, who grumbles and tells her to get in when she looks terrified. She’s got something on her mind, but can’t quite say what. She says if he can get her to the bus station, he can forget her, but if they don’t make it, “Remember Me.” These, we’ll find out, are two very important words. Prophetically, they’re soon pushed off the road by a car and kidnapped by the three men inside. Hammer is in and out of consciousness while he makes out that he’s in some flop house and the woman is being tortured. The screaming stops; she dies, and she and Hammer are put back into his car and pushed toward a cliff. But Hammer doesn’t die, of course. Someone has to figure out this crime, and now he’s about as pissed off as a guy can get.
Pulp heroes had their own moral code, not unlike the heroes from Hollywood Westerns. The difference is they usually have no qualms about doing rather unseemly things to get to the truth. They’re knights, but their shining armor is grimy; they’re cowboys, but their white hats are soiled. On a dime, Meeker can switch from smiling to snarling and it definitely adds to the characterization. Hammer gets his answers whether he asks nicely or smacks somebody around a little for it. While Mike and his assistant/secretary/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) usually work piddling little adultery cases where they themselves tempt their client’s spouse, it’s pretty clear he’s a top-notch detective, but doesn’t feel like being raised above the sludge, perhaps because even he is too violent for the LAPD in the ’50s.
There’s a wonderful scene in the middle of the film where Hammer is walking down the sidewalk and a shady man begins to follow him. Mike keeps veering off to casually get a better look at this man, buying a bag of popcorn and checking his hair in a mirror, all the while keeping one eye on this character. Finally, the man pulls a switchblade and Hammer spins around and pelts him in the eye with the popcorn. In a flash, Hammer has the man’s arm pinned behind his back and orders him to drop the knife and when the man complies, the P.I. hurls a few strong punches at his face, eventually grabbing the unknown assailant by the lapels and slamming the back of his head against the side of a brick building a number of times. When this doesn’t stop the man, Hammer tosses him down an incredibly long, stone staircase. He never once asks who this man is or why he’s trying to kill him, but instead seems gleefully uninterested in answers and revels in beating the tar out of him. In a movie where the lead character is never seen holding a gun, he proves himself an extremely dangerous sort of fellow, the quintessential hard-man.
As Hammer’s quest through the past of the poor, doomed woman continues, he’s met by women of shady designs and criminal men who have no idea who they’re dealing with. He soon meets the dead woman’s roommate, or so she says, Lily (Gaby Rodgers). She’s a blonde waif who seems afraid of everything, which immediately leads Hammer to think she’s on the up-and-up. All the deaths are to do with a “The Great Whatsit,” a mysterious thing, the MacGuffin of this movie, which is very valuable and very dangerous. Nobody quite knows what it is, least of all Hammer. Once all the mobsters and henchmen are swept away, and the life of Velda is at stake, Hammer does find out what it is…and it’s nuts. Like the contents of the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, the Great Whatsit is whatever the viewer wants it to be, but it glows and can explode if you look at it too long. In a very gritty crime story, it suddenly represents the fear of the Cold War and the immediacy of nuclear annihilation. It also tells us that greed will consume us all if we let it.
When all is said and done, the star of Kiss Me Deadly is Robert Aldrich. His camera is always where it needs to be, yet always seems like a surprise. Few directors in the late-Noir period were able to do interesting things with the format and in that regard this film ranks with Kubrick’s The Killing made the following year. The sheer strangeness of Kiss Me Deadly is one reason the film is not better known, though it should be. Many times, Aldrich bucks convention to create further intrigue, like introducing villains by their shoes and only later on matching those shoes with a face. He also depicts much of the violence off camera accompanied by blood-curdling screams and we’re only left to wonder exactly what Mike Hammer did to a bad guy. In every aspect, Kiss Me Deadly delivers innovation where lesser films would have stuck to the norm. This is an example of the crime film transcending mere sensationalism and moving to true art.
Images: United Artists/Criterion Collection