Kiss Me Deadly Review
Kiss Me Deadly begins in the dark with a woman running away, barely realising that there’s nowhere to run to. Whatever was back there will be there wherever she goes, because in this cruel and brutal world no-one can escape the darkness. If early film noir offered us the spectacle of goodness tainted by evil, then Robert Aldrich’s film shows us a world in which there’s barely enough good for it to be worth corrupting. This is Walpurgis night turned into a social order, evil in bloom and it’s both riveting and deeply disturbing. Although it has the look and style of film noir, to all intents and purposes, Kiss Me Deadly is one of the 20th century’s great horror films.
The plot is broadly similar to the original pulp novel. Mike Hammer (Meeker), brutish private eye and totally inadequate man, picks up a woman, Christina (Leachman), who throws herself in front of his car. She is naked save for a raincoat and begs him to help her. Unused to such chivalry, Hammer agrees but soon finds himself captured, beaten and helpless to save Christina who has been tortured to death. He escapes an attempt to kill him, waking up in hospital and obsessively remembering her plea to “Remember me”. But what could this have to do with the disappearance of a respected science journalist, Christina’s roommate Lily, or a Victorian poem by Christina Rossetti? Hammer’s relentless search for the meaning behind Christina’s death leads him into the darkest recesses of atomic-age America.
The discussion of the film below contains some spoilers for the plot. If you haven’t seen the film you might want to jump down to the review of the disc
Importantly however, the plot elements are the only thing in the film which have anything to do with Mickey Spillane’s original novel. Spillane, dementedly anti-Communist and rabidly macho, created Mike Hammer as his own ideal American male; tough, brutal, self-righteous and tediously masculine. Robert Aldrich, a left-leaning liberal with none of Spillane’s certainties about the world, deconstructs Hammer by presenting him as a mirror of everything that’s rotten in the proverbial state of Denmark. Aldrich despised Hammer’s unthinking brutality and he uses other characters to analyse the more unsavoury elements of the private eye’s personality. At the beginning, Christina verbally tears him apart – “You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself…. the kind of person who never gives in a relationship – only takes.” – and it becomes clear as the film progresses that her analysis is entirely correct. Aldrich seems appalled at his hero; his treatment of women; his violence; his egotism. In this sense at least, he takes Kiss Me Deadly out of the conventions of film noir and into something very different and incredibly personal. Aldrich rarely presented his audience with conventional heroes, delighting instead in ambiguity and irony. You can see this from his early work, such as Apache and Attack - where Jack Palance’s nominal ‘hero’ was a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown – right up to his marvellous work of the seventies. Characters like the Indian Scout McIntosh in Ulzana’s Raid and Phil Gaines, the self-hating, cynical homicide cop in Hustle never seek the sympathy of the audience and operate on a plane of moral ambivalence which is very unusual in mainstream American cinema. In Mike Hammer, he gives us a protagonist who is almost impossible to like but who is the nearest we have to a conventional hero. Scenes which should be rousingly violent, such as Hammer’s beating of a hood who has been tailing him, are intense and shot close, becoming oddly disturbing. Aldrich encourages us to scoff as Hammer’s misogyny, in his treatment of his secretary Velda, and his philistinism, as in the scene where he casually breaks a priceless ’78 of Caruso. By the end of the film, Hammer’s detection largely consists of beating up anyone who gets in his way. Yet, ultimately, Hammer becomes a familiar figure from film noir in one key sense – the man who can’t resist getting a bit too close to the darkness and finds himself hopelessly immersed in it.
This darkness is, as I stated at the beginning, everywhere and inescapable. Film noir had always been paranoid to some extent as can be seen by looking at Abraham Polonsky’s extraordinarily pessimistic Force Of Evil, in which the corruption of capitalist America, symbolised by an illegal numbers racket, degrades everyone that it touches. But Kiss Me Deadly isn’t that specific. Instead, what we have is a general sense of conspiracy to corrupt and pervert. Velda’s explanation of this is perhaps the key moment in later film noir and seems to have been influential on the later examples of the genre – post-noir as some call it – such as Polanski’s Chinatown and Arthur Penn’s despairing, vastly undervalued Night Moves. She responds to Hammer’s comment that “They” tried to get Christina’s roommate with the following:
“They? A wonderful word. And who are they? They’re the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what.”
In other words, what we have here is universal pointlessness and a complete lack of meaning. Hammer’s job is to search for answers but there aren’t any answers because the questions don’t make any sense. The darkness is abstracted into “They”, always coming after you, always trying to find the “whatsit” that will make them more powerful, more rich, more whatever. It’s an endless process because “They” will never be satisfied and, naturally, “They” can never be escaped. But what can’t be denied is that “They” will do anything to get what they want. In Kiss Me Deadly, the paranoia begins in the opening credits with Christina constantly behind her, looking for the people who want to recapture her and it winds down with the apocalyptic final moments. But I don’t think that there’s any suggestion that it’s going to end. Indeed, maybe it’s just beginning. This paranoia was to develop throughout the Sixties with films such as Frankenheimer’s brilliant black comedy The Manchurian Candidate and his sinister Seconds and almost became a genre of its own in the Seventies, when films such as The Conversation could barely compete with the events of Watergate which were unfolding as it opened. Now, with the films of Oliver Stone having become increasingly overheated, paranoia movies have become somehow absurd packed with clichés; men plotting in dark rooms; selfless investigators searching for the truth in endless dusty volumes; mysterious agents killing witnesses in faked ‘accidents’. But it seems to me that it all really begins with Kiss Me Deadly.
Linked to this paranoia is the sense of dangerous curiosity that runs through the film. Mike Hammer becomes involved with Christina through a twist of fate but it’s his restless search for truth that leads him into further danger. Indeed, “They” don’t want him to do anything in return for his life other than leave them alone (or so they claim before trying to kill him). But Hammer, for all his moronic brutishness, he’s tenacious as an investigator – “Yesterday I was lookin’ for a thread. Now I’m lookin’ for a piece of string” - and thus very dangerous. Yet he doesn’t realise that, essentially, he’s looking for a solution that doesn’t exist except in the broadest terms; that is, a series of increasingly corrupt individuals all chasing something that can’t be explained or even looked at without disastrous consequences. It’s his inability to leave well alone that nearly leads him to disaster and which, implicitly at least, leads to something resembling Armageddon. This theme is made specific when, for want of a better description, the master villain Dr Soberin explains to Lily the dangers of curiosity. In a scene which is fascinating for the strangely supernatural edge it brings to the film, he directly compares her to Lot’s wife and to Pandora; both of whom paid the price for wanting to know too much. But of course, Pandora also let loose the evils of the world and it’s made clear that the contents of the “whatsit” or “The head of Medusa”, as Soberin describes it, could have a similar effect. The box itself, which is hot and, somehow, breathing, is like something out of a nightmare and when it is finally opened, it does indeed turn those who make that mistake into “brimstone and ashes”. To link these two themes, don’t be too curious because you might just find out that your paranoia is justified; “They” really are out to get you and they are mixed up in things too horrible to contemplate.
Yet all of this thematic brilliance would count for little if it were not for Robert Aldrich’s brilliantly accomplished direction. Often decried as a vulgar hack during his lifetime, Aldrich’s touch here is unerringly accurate and often surprisingly subtle. Hundreds of academic theses have been composed on his style in this film, notably the famous “Evidence Of A Style” by Alain Silver. Anyone interested in this aspect of the film would do well to get hold of this and I don’t intend to repeat it in detail here. But no piece on this film can ignore Aldrich’s stylistics, largely because he uses them so frequently. Silver identifies nine elements of style in the film and the ones which jump out to any viewer are the classically Noir use of shadows and the disorientating depth of field which allows us to see far more in a scene than we would normally be able to. The latter was brilliantly used by Martin Scorsese in his own tribute to Noir style, Cape Fear. As in all films in this genre, framing and lighting are central to the meaning of the film and Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography is immaculate. Hammer is constantly made to seem oppressed by other characters or his environment, whether through high angles, subjective shots or low placement of the camera so we can see the ceilings of the sets. This continues Aldrich’s own fascination with deconstructing the classic hero into something considerably more complicated. The other key collaborator is the screenwriter A.I.Bezzerides, who junks Spillane’s banal dialogue and produces an extraordinary string of memorable phrases. Most of the best come from the lips of Dr Soberin, an intellectual bad guy with an awesome frame of classical reference. His first lines are among my favourite ever to be uttered by a villain – “If you revive her, do you know what that would be? Resurrection, that’s what it would be. And do you know what resurrection means? It means to raise the dead. And just who do you think you are that you think you can raise the dead.” Kiss Me Deadly, apart from its numerous other fine qualities, is one of the most literate films ever made. It’s somewhat self-conscious use of the poem by Rossetti is particularly well integrated into the film, containing a significant clue to the denouement.
It’s also extremely violent and an important stage in the liberalisation of American cinema. Aldrich doesn’t wallow in violence – he rarely did – but he does present it unflinchingly, often just off-camera so we see the effects rather than the acts. The initial torture of Christina is vile, largely because we can’t see what’s being done to her, only her thrashing legs, and are forced to use our imaginations. When we see a thug holding a pair of pliers, the horrible possibilities begin to pile up. Aldrich stages fights with exciting immediacy but tends to show consequences with just as much vividness. As I said earlier, Hammer’s sadism – his grin as he crushes the fingers of a corrupt pathologist – is more disturbing than heroic. The final conflagration, borrowed by Steven Spielberg for the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, is everything it should be and is about as explicitly violent as anything made in America during the mid-Fifties. Incidentally, this is merely my opinion but I don't think that a shot of Hammer and Velda standing in the surf while the house explodes leaves the 'vastly different' impression that the DVD sleeve suggests. That they survive for the moment means very little in the Aldrich's grander scheme of things.
Kiss Me Deadly was able to be as radical as it was because it was made cheaply and independently then picked up for release by United Artists who were, by 1955, beginning to establish their reputation for supporting the work of genuine originals. The cast consists of faces which were generally unfamiliar at the time but which soon became staples of Hollywood filmmaking. Ralph Meeker is brilliantly effective as a thuggish Hammer and gives by far the best interpretation of the part. Gaby Rodgers is chilling as the blonde femme fatale Lily Carver and Albert Dekker is beautifully spoken as the sinister Dr Soberin. It is a film made without obvious compromises and it is as horrifying in its narrative implications as any horror film could be. We are, as Wesley Addy’s cop indicates, in the age of “Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project” and these things are not necessarily controlled by good, altruistic people. The darkness which Christina is trying to run away from explodes in the final reels into an apocalyptic reminder that the darkness is waiting for us and may well catch up with us, sooner or later.
As one of the most important films ever made, you might think that Kiss Me Deadly would be an obvious candidate for the deluxe special edition treatment. MGM obviously felt differently. This is yet another example of them treating their superb back catalogue - Sweet Smell of Success, The Apartment, Night of the Hunter and many more – with something like contempt.
Firstly, I should make clear that this is the full uncut version of the film. All the BBFC cuts made to the film have been restored and the full ending is included.
Thankfully, the transfer of the film itself isn’t too bad. Framed at 1.66:1. the disappointingly non-anamorphic picture looks fairly good throughout. There are bits of print damage here and there but nothing too serious. The contrast is very good indeed, essential for this kind of film, and there is plenty of detail. Some grain is present along with occasional artifacts but this is still a pretty good transfer. A full restoration of the film would be welcome but I doubt that is likely to happen for some time.
The soundtrack is the original mono track. The dialogue is clear, there is no hiss or distortion and the music comes across well.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer. This is amusingly overheated and casually gives away huge swathes of the narrative so don’t watch it if you haven’t seen the film. It does not, sadly, contain the foreign censorship ending which is on the R1 disc. I recommend a look at the IMDB alternate version details which explain the differences in the endings but I don’t think that the symbolic power of the ending is substantially altered in the longer version.
There are 16 chapter stops and a wide range of subtitles.
Kiss Me Deadly is a classic film which keeps on getting better and better the more I watch it. Robert Aldrich went on to make other excellent films but he never made anything else quite like this. It’s certainly required viewing for anyone who even contemplates discussing American cinema. The DVD offers a reasonable transfer of the film but nothing else. In the absence of anything better it’s worth buying but newcomers to the film may want to get the Region 1 so they can compare the two endings.