‘Kiss Me Deadly’ is low on love, but high on attitude
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by A.I. Bezzerides
Fear and danger frequently go hand in hand all to easily, be it in the world of the movies or in real life, the latter which serves a superb inspiration on the former as many already know. One person can be fearful of what danger lurks about. Fear can cause them to behave dangerously. Their dangerous behaviour can cause fear in others. Both the fear and the danger can be the offspring of yet another factor that commonly complicates matters: the unknown. Man’s fear might emerge from a physical thing he fails to comprehend, or it can also explode out of a situation which is beyond his simply control, for which he has no answer, to ripost. Kiss Me Deadly, from 1955, arrived on the silver screen just as the Cold War was, figuratively speaking, heating up, and played up on some of the new fears which arose in that politically, socially turbulent decade for the West, all the while highlighting some classic fears present in the best film noir entries.
Loosely adapted from a Micky Spillane novel of the same title, Aldrich’s picture follows the morally bankrupt exploits of Spillane most famous creation, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). Less a private eye in the world of this particular film and more a go-to individual for married people who want nothing more than to expose the infidelity of their once significant other with the help of his sexy assistant Velda (Maxine Cooper), Hammer’s adventure begins on the night he picks up a lonely, frantic woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman) while driving on the highway. Christina, wearing nothing more than a trench coat, is panting and afraid, afraid of being sent back to the asylum from which she escaped that is. Before Hammer, having quickly deduced she may not be as crazy as the institutions claim, has the time to help her out, their vehicle is highjacked by unknown attackers. Christina is brutally tortured and murdered, after which Hammer is left for dead when the mysterious men push his car over a cliff with him still in it. It takes more than that to kill off Mike Hammer of course, and so does it require more to squash his insatiable thirst to get to the bottom of what the heck happened that odd night. Who was Christina, why did people want her dead and who were those people? There is a saying which goes ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’, and little does Hammer know that the closer he etches towards the ultimate answer, the nearer he is to the ultimate fate.
There is a wonderful bit of dialogue in Kiss Me Deadly which succinctly packages many of the ideas and themes of the picture into simple words. It is when Velda, clearly infatuated with her employer, lightly scolds him for being so adamant about hunting for what she describes as the ‘whatsit.’ Obviously, ‘whatsit’ is not a real word in the English language, but viewers immediately understand what it is the vexed assistant is referring to. At this stage in the plot, Hammer is still very much in the dark with regards to what or whom ignited the match, setting off the sparks that created the crazy mess he is desperately trying to make heads or tails about. It is the great unknown object or person behind the dastardly affair, and whether the validity of its importance is justified or not, Hammer is going after it, however dangerous the road may be. He has encountered people driven by fear, driven away from what it is Hammer is after. Christina was one of them, and she ultimately paid a high price for acting out on her fear. The protagonist himself is not one to allow fear to guide his actions because he actually wants to understand what at this point in time he still knows all too little about. Those are in the know, or who seem to be in the know, are either very afraid or proceed with caution. The unknown is encouraging him to push forward, not away, from the source of the danger, despite that Velda and his FBI ally, Pat (Wesley Addy, excellently mild mannered yet formidable in a small supporting role). Another commonly used term for is Maguffan, although that is for describing an object whose true nature is unimportant when contrasted with the onscreen action, when its only purpose is to thrust characters forward. In Kiss Me Deadly, the object that has everyone in a rumpus is anything but unimportant.
This being a movie from the mid 1950s, its adaptation from book to screen, courtesy of screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, finds inspiration in the many issues which concerned the Western world, namely, the ever looming Communist threat and, more importantly, the underlying fear that the atom bomb was now a reality. After the stunning results of the Hiroshima bombing in the late stages of World War II, no one was second guessing how potency of such a weapon, clearly the most effectively destructive ever devised by man. There are no communist spies in Aldrich’s film, but their replacement is nearly as effective. Ironically enough, said effectiveness stems less from their nature (country of origin, religious beliefs or whatnot) and much more for their formidable presence. The enemies are the Maguffin, if that makes any sense. While the movie does eventually elaborate, somewhat, on just who is responsible for this messy escapade, what it highlights in even more convincing fashion is their ominous, constant, threatening presence. They are, more than once in fact, referred to literally as the ambiguous ‘they.’ Who exactly they are remains unclear for the better part of the picture, even though they have ties to some mafia type personalities like Carl Evello (Paul Stewart). It is what they represent and how they represent it that matters more than anything, the ‘what’ being danger, supreme, unquestionable danger. By the time the revelations, of which there are not even that many, begin to poor out, their impact is not nearly as impressive as much of what came before, that being the labyrinthine journey Mike Hammer navigates in order to finally arrive at the finish line. Director Aldrich and writer Bezzerides are far more interested in the complicated vortex of palpable danger created by the mysterious antagonists than the explanations as to who the antagonists are. Who is who in the most literal sense is near meaningless. Who is who is of primordial importance in terms of aura and sense of peril.
The quest for the ‘whatsit’ does come to a far more stunning, resolute conclusion than that for the discovery of who ‘they’ are ever does. Readers who have not seen Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly should be forewarned of the spoiler that shall follow. When the viewers and Mike Hammer least expect it, the film sends the story’s stakes through the roof. Actually, it obliterates the roof like a nuclear attack would, and not in any metaphorical way, for the infamous ‘whatsit’ is revealed to be a small, sturdy package containing what viewers can surmise to be atomic energy. This seemingly comes out of left field, certainly in a movie that, up until this stage, is a taught, well acted, morally challenging and violent investigative thriller. Now, the nuclear threat, very real at the time, makes its presence known in unexpected way in the midst of a noir film. There are, presumably, multiple reasons as to why the atomic energy is kept away, apparently safely, in a tight little valise. It sounds ridiculous, and maybe that is the intent. How it is being preserved is less important than what it is. It is the ultimate weapon of the day. It trumps whatever the mafia and nefarious villains can come up with. It spells immediate danger for any who do not possess the knowledge to properly manage it, which, incidentally enough, is exactly what produces the movie’s supremely controversial final scene. Even though those infamous concluding minutes make the nature of the product in the box quite literal, the ridiculousness of its preservation may hint at another idea, that the package contains not one, but all of the pervasive Western fears of the day. A metaphorical doomsday tool, so to speak. Regardless of what the filmmakers’ intent was, it makes for a surreal, psychologically violent and all around pleasantly unorthodox climax.
Large ideas and assumptions of creators’ intent aside, there are numerous remarkable, more immediately recognizable qualities to Kiss Me Deadly, starting with the direction. Aldrich infuses the picture with tremendous attitude. His is a nervy film, where from the very first moments viewers are assaulted with a cocktail of mystery and danger. It kicks along at a breakneck pace and, always a welcome factor when appreciating noir, looks fantastic. Aldrich indulges in a few appropriately chosen Dutch angles, particularly in scenes when characters are either walking up or down flights of stairs in tastefully illuminated buildings. The cast is aces as well, bringing to the screen a cast of characters few would want to make friends with, least of all Mike Hammer himself, played with such undeniable machismo and sleaze by Ralph Meeker. His deep, authoritative voice alone is enough create the most extreme anti-hero (having never seen a film featuring the actor, the immediate comparison which sprang to mind was Ed Harris’ vocal qualities). Hammer is not on the case for altruistic reasons, which is nothing new for a story like this one, but his general attitude towards the people he interrogates and makes use of, like his admiring assistant Velda, is downright despicable. To call him a fun character would be ludicrous yet spot on. He is not fun in the sense that the viewer believes him to be a great guy, but rather in excitement in discovering what flippant act he will commit next. The man does not seem to worry too much about what physical or psychological harm he inflicts on anybody at all. One supposes that would dispense too much energy, energy that could used for more ethically uncalled for if impressively results-oriented investigative procedures. Gaby Rodgers is equally challenging as Carver, an old roommate of Christina’s. She relies a bit on hysterics to get her points across, frequently playing the part as loudly as possible. There is nevertheless something offbeat and unique about her acting that makes the character all the more alluring. Maxine Cooper is solid as Velda, juggling the sex appeal with genuine concern for Hammer, which is quite something in of itself.
Kiss Me Deadly is provocatively violent, both regarding the physical violence depicted and the violent intentions of its main character, unusually sexy for the time, consistent in how it presents and preserves the threat facing the protagonists, and, finally, goes all out crazy and original in how it unfolds. Robert Aldrich took on an unusual project when opting to direct this picture. However peculiar it may be, many of its strengths stem from the very fact that there is probably no other noir quite like it.