Monday, March 9, 2009

Films I Love #22: Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)


Kiss Me Deadly throws Mickey Spillane's pulp novel detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) into the midst of a plot that, finally, can't be solved with the private dick's brute force interrogation methods and clever sleuthing. It is a deliberate gesture on the part of director Robert Aldrich, who positions Hammer as an anachronism in his own time, a throwback whose relevance is vanishing in the nuclear age. Nobody says it better than Hammer's sexy secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper), who bitterly mocks the detective's quest for "the great whatsit." Hammer, driven by greed and naked self-interest, cares only about himself. The mysterious hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman) he picks up in the film's famous, visceral opening minutes grasps this about him right away, immediately getting that this is a guy who cares only about himself. So when the girl winds up dead and Hammer barely escapes himself, his subsequent quest to figure out what's going on is not driven by revenge or any deep sentimental feelings for the girl he couldn't protect: he simply guesses that for anyone to go to all this effort to rub her out, the girl must've been involved in something real big, something potentially valuable.

As a result, the film is structured like a conventional detective story, though it's really anything but. Hammer traces his leads, following up with contacts, roughing people up when necessary, as his shadowy adversaries pile up the dead bodies around him. The film has the texture of a pulpy noir mystery, complete with the hard-boiled dialogue — often over-boiled in this case — characteristic of the genre. But Hammer is brutish and stubborn, keeping the cops and the feds in the dark even though they keep trying to impress upon him the importance of this case; he doesn't seem to realize just how far in over his head he is. He's equally blasé in his treatment of women, who are compulsively drawn to him even though he treats them with a brusque, careless manner; he kisses them and then casts them aside when he's done using them. Hammer's no hero, and the film's staggering climax represents his complete failure: his realization of the horrible forces he's been toying with, followed by a nuclear meltdown from which he barely escapes. And then the film simply ends, with abrupt finality, leaving Hammer as a broken, irrelevant archetype, an out-of-date relic whose time has passed with the relative innocence of the pre-atomic age.

9 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

Great film to see on a double bill with Lynch's Lost Highway, which (as some of Ed's images illustrate) owes a lot to Kiss Me Deadly.

Ed Howard said...

Totally agreed, Tony. Jason and I discussed the associations between Lynch and this film in some detail during our conversation about Mulholland Dr. It's an obvious inspiration for Lynch, and its images and ideas echo throughout his recent work, not only Lost Highway but Mulholland Dr. as well (the blue box, the clench between Mike and Velda repeated in Betty's audition scene).

It's also, of course, a great film in its own right.

Rick Olson said...

Nice, succinct work. It makes me want to see this film which, strangely, has eluded me to this point. Think I'll put it on my Netflix queue.

J.D. said...

Very nice article. KISS ME DEADLY has always been one of my fave noirs. Every time I watch it, I'm always amazed that so brutal a film was made way back then. As you point out, Mike Hammer comes across as so unsympathetic... that definitely wouldn't fly in Hollywood today.

Craig said...

This is a fun, crazy movie that I once showed to a bewildered class of college students when we were discussing film noir. They enjoyed parts of it but hated the ending. Aldrich had a fascinating career and this is near the top of it.

Sam Juliano said...

Yep, this is a very great noir, (I quite agree with J.D.)and Ed has again written a movie review par excellence in tauting its virtures and his personal affinity for it.

"The film has the texture of a pulpy noir mystery, complete with the hard-boiled dialogue —often over-boiled in this case...."

Indeed!

goodfelladh said...

Hopefully you don't mind me commenting on some of these posts that were before I found your blog, but seeing this on your list of films you love inspired me to watch it again today. I had watched this once before and liked it and I think I liked it even more this time around. As someone who has an overly large noir collection, I'm well aware of the fact that a mystery is almost always at the center of these films but Kiss Me Deadly does a better job than just about any other noir of creating a genuinely puzzling storyline. As a viewer, at least in my case, I felt exactly as Mike Hammer must have -- continually intrigued, always seemingly on the verge of guessing what is being sought, but never quite fully understanding what it was until the end. That's a testament to the story and definitely to Aldrich in the way that he tells the story. I'm into always trying to rate films on some sort of numbers scale (a sickness, I know) and I don't know if I could give this film something like a 10/10 for whatever reason, but on a purely personal favorite list this one has to rank very high with me.

If going back and commenting on these previous posts is an annoyance, just let me know, I promise I won't be offended. I love the blog though, that's why I've been going back through a lot of the archives!

Ed Howard said...

Quite the contrary, I'm happy for the comments. Thanks for reading! I agree that the storytelling in this film is superb, and it's the rare film in which the mystery and twists serve the thematic core as well as the narrative. Because the viewer is left in the dark throughout the film, our tendency is to side with the detective, to root for him to uncover the answers even though he's crude and violent and kind of a jerk when you get right down to it. So the ending hits especially hard: the realization that Hammer's selfish, stubborn fumblings have unwittingly unleashed a nuclear holocaust, and that things would've been much better off if he hadn't been involved. The ending is thus a dual revelation: the climax finally reveals the object of Hammer's search, but more importantly it crystallizes the film's observations and critiques of Hammer himself, and the noir archetype he stands for.

della said...

Best Aldrich film i think. Very good acting performance. i like Aldrich's approach.