Kiss Me Deadly is Robert Aldrich's violent, twisted journey through a murky world of noir. Opening with beautiful Christina (Cloris Leachman's debut) desperately running for her life and running Mark Hammer (Ralph Meeker) off the road. Once the legendary backwards credits that are powered by Leachman's erotic panting arrive we already have been given a taste of the twisted pleasures that will come with the rest of the film. Hammer and Christina's brief time together ends up becoming the film's driving force; her brief presence -- Leachman gets not more than 10 minutes of screen-time -- is climaxed by the infamous "torture scene" where the camera watches as Christina's legs flail around with a sadistic calmness. Aldrich does not shy away from violence when it was still viewed as taboo by most critics and audiences which lead to the film banning struggles, but its daring use of a glorious supply of gruesome, corrupted characters with our hero Mr. Hammer, a private eye whose methods launch a full-fledged attack on taste, being the most jaded of all.
Based on the Cold War exploited novel of the same name by Mickey Spillane (1918-2006). The character Mark Hammer was introduced in Spillane's 1947 novel I, the Jury. Audiences who were used to the pure-hearted good-intentioned heros of detective novels were shocked at the turn Spillane took with Hammer who quickly became his most popular and controversial character. In the novels Hammer is shown as a dedicated patriot and a passionate anti-communist who views his actions, even his most violent ones, to be completely within the law. This film does a fantastic job using Hammer's political views as a subtext that worked deviously with the 50s Cold War culture in America. Spillane was one the most successful, and profitable, authors of the early Cold War era; mostly due to his unique uses of violence and slick use of the impeding doom that each American felt could be coming at any moment. Kiss Me Deadly stays true to Spillane's intentions and style with Aldrich using his chilling visuals to create the perfect atmosphere for a noir classic.
Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides was given the task of adapting Spillane's twisted vision; by staying faithful to Spillane's trademark brand of dialogue that creates an unexplainable paranoia as the plot twists and turns with its hero meeting one corrupted character after another. The exhilarating back-and-forths between Hammer and Christina at the beginning of the film are unforgettable. Christina's detained description of Hammer as being a vain, materialistic man who "takes and takes but never gives" in his relationships, as well as in life, is so much sweeter once it becomes known just how right she is. Bezzerides dialogue creates many situations of equal magnificence. I guess I could give one more example without giving away too much of the film: After Hammer has driven himself mad looking for the great "whatsit" he returns to his assistant/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) -- who is the one person who stays/lives with him through his maddening journey -- to get some information. Their chemistry is so confused and disoriented, he is the pimp to her prostitute, yet no matter how much he lies and uses her, she will always fall back into his fiendish arms.
Ralph Meeker's performance as Mike Hammer is essential viewing for any film lover. His character is so simple -- simpler than a lot of the heroes of film noir films, even then -- but it is how Meeker is able to make his violent, corrupted character likable to the point where we care whether he lives or dies. In all honestly, Mike Hammer would have been a wonderful character to use as a villain. Making a character so unappealing and simple-minded -- his decisions are never surprising -- while still being able to put him in situations where Meeker's controlling performance can have its way with us is one of the best accomplishments of the film. It is Aldrich's explorative direction and Ernesto Laslo's atmospheric camera work that make the film stunning, but it is Meeker in his greatest role -- never would he reach this level again -- as the shady hero/villain/hero, Mike Hammer that makes the film so damn entertaining.
A constant conflict with Hammer's character is his soft-spot for the cunning females of the film; starting with the brief, but vital Christina played wonderfully by newcomer Cloris Leachman. Then there is Hammer's love starved toy Velda, played by Maxine Cooper. And the last of the trio of major female performances is the clueless, frightened victim turned femme fatale, Lily who is played with great depth and wickedness by Gaby Rodgers. Also, there is a less important, but extremely seductive performance by Marian Carr to look out for.
For much of the film it is hard to tell at all what is really going on with the plot. As Hammer starts on his quest for answers about Christina's murder, which was also an attempted murder of him, we see what his life was like before the incident. His relationship with Velda, his touching friendship with his mechanic, Nick (Nick Dennis), and through an interrogation we learn about his unconventional (to say the very least) work methods. Then there's his discovery of Christina's troubled and suspicious ex-roommate, Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) who becomes more and more troublesome as Hammer creeps closer to the truth. But it is once he finally confronts the henchman, lead by sinister gangster Carl Avello (James Stewart), of the lead villain -- who in usual film noir style is kept hidden until the apocalyptic finale -- that the film finally begins to work its magic.
Once the first of many truths is revealed -- that being what Christina was really "afraid" of -- Hammer's search becomes as engrossing as any mystery you will ever see. The supply of despicable characters never slows, and the twists and turns finally make you realize just how much you want to know what the great "whatsit" is to the point where not knowing would cause insanity. It is also once Hammer is lost in a black hole of lies, violence, and desperation that Meeker is able to let loose. Aldrich times all of his twists to perfection with the violence never being pointless, but always working with the grand plan.
Director Robert Aldrich is not a well-known name outside of film noir buffs or classic movie lovers; although he made some fantastic films during his career, his films are more known for developing cult followings. Among his most popular films are the terrifying psychological-horror classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), his timeless war epic, The Dirty Dozen (1967), and The Longest Yard (1974), which continues to be one his most liked with modern audiences. Kiss Me Deadly was him at his most daring and willing to explore; his tampering with nuclear paranoia and excessive violence were a huge risk at that point in his young career. His directing skills and visual tricks are a greatness unparalleled. After weaving us in and out of a intensely layered plot, his grand finale has been imitated but never matched. All questions are answered in a literally explosive climax that marks one of the first genre mixes between film noir and sci-fi that could not be executed by anyone else other than Aldrich.
Kiss Me Deadly is where the bar is set for film noir greatness. It ranks with the likes of Billy Wilder's Double Idemnity (1944) and Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) as one of the most important film noir classics. Mike Hammer is a character to remember and look into, when are brutes so deep? The plot takes it time and lets itself unravel at a perfect pace that doesn't let its brilliance be known till it is good and ready. Simply, Kiss Me Deadly is perfect in its presentation, look, and sound.