BluRay/DVD Reviews

KISS ME DEADLY

By • Jul 26th, 2011 •

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As a title, Kiss Me, Deadly (with writer Mickey Spillane’s preferred comma included) is one hell of an inspired hook, the soft sibilants of the double “s” suddenly reverberating like a screeching subway train against the harsh consonant of the “d,” creating the verbal equivalent of a scarlet-edged comic book fist. Three simple words, blaring across paperback racks in the button-down culture of the 1950’s, had the power to induce legions of boys and grown men to open the first page. Unfortunately, the book itself is fairly sleep-inducing stuff, discounting the heavy-breathing opening scene, with detective Mike Hammer’s speeding sports car almost running over a nubile female, naked except for a tattered raincoat, on the highway. It turns out the woman is on the run from both the police and the mob. The problem: a million dollar package of heroin. Though Mike swears to protect her, the bad guys soon catch up with them. Only Mike survives, sending him on a journey of revenge. When I was 12 years old, the book’s opening caused me to tear through the 176 pages in under two hours, leaving sweaty thumb prints as a document of my immersion.

That opening scene is still intact in all its speeding menace and sensual abandon in Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film version of KISS ME DEADLY (though the comma in Spillane’s title is missing). If anything, that scene has even more of a visceral punch on the screen, courtesy of Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography, which imparts a sparkling translucence to Cloris Leachman’s hair. She runs maniacally through the inky blackness of a lonely, late night highway, her raspy breathing faster than a heartbeat, the throbbing music building to a crescendo, though the film has been unreeling for less then a minute. Need I say that in Criterion’s extraordinarily detailed and luscious transfer, I feel as though I am watching this film for the first time? (Since only dupey 16mm prints and a muddy, washed-out looking DVD have been available since the mid 50’s, Criterion’s amazing transfer also finally makes it clear why Aldrich, working on a quickie TV schedule, chose Laszlo, known for his meticulous, time-consuming lighting, as cinematographer.)

Aldrich’s weirdly fragmented compositions emphasize speed and the possibility of danger that lingers in every furtive glance of Ms. Leachman’s (in her motion picture debut) as she looks at the hazy headlights behind her, and the sullen expression of Ralph Meeker (as Mike Hammer) in the driver’s seat. As the two of them sit there with the windshield reflecting what is behind them while revealing the thin white line of the highway ahead, one can imagine the young Jean-Luc Godard somewhere in a Paris cinema thinking how moving in a car is like moving forward in time and space, yet with the mind looking backwards, leading inexorably a few years later to the invention of the jump cut, in a sleek convertible just like Mike Hammer’s crazy coupe, with Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in BREATHLESS. (KISS ME DEADLY was one of the first films to mount the camera directly on the car, a practice that was later used extensively by the French New Wave.)

It is here that Aldrich’s film leaves Spillane’s book far behind, striking upon unknown territory that is still remarkably fresh and compelling more than fifty years after its original premiere. Although in the books Mike Hammer is synonymous with NYC’s Times Square area, the transposition of the action to LA is inspired, featuring souped-up sports cars, hip blues ballads, sleek cocktail lounges and a bachelor pad with futuristic lamps and a mouth-watering, automatic reel to reel answering machine.

In 1955, heroin couldn’t be mentioned in a movie because of the production code. Screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides (author of Thieves’ Highway and They Drive By Night) substituted a mysterious metal box that hissed in a multiplicity of voices whenever anyone opened the lid. This doomsday device is perfectly described in the film by Velda, Mike Hammer’s girlfriend and Girl Friday (brilliantly played with a mix of glamour and sincerity by Maxine Cooper) as “The Great Whatzit.” She also cautions Mike to “stay away from the windows, or someone might blow you a kiss.” In a volatile cocktail mixing seedy pulp fiction with end-of-the-world sci-fi, Bezzerides transformed a lethargic tale of revenge into an dark labyrinth of multiple murders and mysterious motives, not to mention eminently quotable dialogue. Borrowing the plot of THE MALTESE FALCON (a brilliant idea, as John Huston’s film was the beginning of Noir, while KISS ME DEADLY is at the darkest end of the cycle), Bezzerides has everyone trying to kill the other in order to possess the unknown object, assuming it’s worth lots of money since “so many people have died for it.”

Aldrich compliments his screenwriter’s nightmare vision by filling the faded filigree and rickety Rococo staircases of LA’s once fashionable Bunker Hill district (dominated visually by a trolley with the oddly doom-laden name of “Angel’s Flight”) with distorted shadows, turning the frames into a series of Jackson Pollock-like friezes that resemble protoplasmic writhing. Intercutting winding staircases that seem to stretch on for infinity with disintegrating storefronts that don’t fit architecturally, so that this landscape resembles a dream, the director purposely disorients a first-time viewer, except too much is happening – gunshot battles, seductions, brawls, recitations of Romantic poetry – for one to stop and notice. Aldrich also compresses and expands time, altering one’s perception of events, through the manipulation of rapid staccato editing that suddenly gives way to long hand-held takes, with the camera following characters from place to place, slowing the action down and making us squirm in our seats in suspense (a technique that Jean-Luc Godard adopted as a major element of his style in the mid-60’s).

This is not to imply that the film is merely a formal exercise. In fact, the screenplay is a model of narrative construction, in spite of the rapidity in which the dialogue expresses the plot’s complex twists and turns. For instance, one can examine the warm yet adversarial relationship between Mike Hammer and Police Detective Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) in terms of the difference between how this is portrayed in the book and the film. Spillane spends reams of expository prose explaining their relationship – how they were war buddies, that they have dinner every week at the Blue Ribbon, etc. In the film, however, one merely sees Mike bum a cigarette from Pat, place the pack in his shirt pocket, which Pat then takes back. All that’s essential about them is expressed in this gesture, which clearly they’ve been repeating for as long as they’ve known each other. At the end of the film, Pat takes the pack back from Mike again and notices Mike has a radiation burn on his wrist. No dialogue is needed. Pat knows that Mike has opened the box and asks him for the key.

Aldrich and Bezzerides intended from the beginning for KISS ME DEADLY to be an “Anti-Spillane film.” By mounting an attack on the sadistic, anti-intellectual and Communist-hating Mike Hammer, the filmmakers felt they would also be attacking McCarthyism and a 1950’s conformist American culture that was poised on the edge of a nuclear precipice, seemingly rushing towards oblivion. Paradoxically, the film is the purest expression of Spillane’s vision in the cinema (though Spillane himself hated the movie).

As Bezzerides says in the accompanying featurette on the disc, after reading the Spillane book, “I knew I could make it better.” The characters are more believable, the world they inhabit darker and even more violent, and the action much more consistent and realistic than anything in the book. Bezzerides takes the two-dimensional (though immensely entertaining) pulp universe of Spillane and injects it with a shot of ambiguity and intense danger (as well as humor), investing Mike Hammer with a sense of mortality, making the film a lot scarier and also compulsively watchable, as a viewer never knows what might happen next.

As Mike Hammer, Ralph Meeker, a stage actor before this film, is a walking, talking, 6 foot, 180 pound sneer. He’s utterly obnoxious, yet also completely authentic and ultimately mesmerizing. Spillane’s Mike Hammer is a cartoon of super testosterone driven impulses, retooled as a Cold War hero. Meeker, on the other hand, creates a three-dimensional character in a cartoon universe, that unfortunately is all too close to the one we actually live in. The breathy quality in Meeker’s voice is simultaneously wistful and cagey, creating an insane contradiction – Sir Galahad as a clueless bedroom dick.

Though Mike Hammer is absurdly violent and stupid in the Spillane books, Bezzerides manages to make the detective even more so, yet somehow maintains the character’s authenticity and sense of integrity, quite different from the meaningless trashing of Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE. KISS ME DEADLY is a film that immortalizes Mike Hammer, even as it tears him to shreds. A number of changes were made in the character of Hammer in order to facilitate this, most importantly, changing his motive from vengeance to opportunism, or as he states in the beginning of the film, “What’s in it for me?” In the Spillane books, Mike is an independent operator (where he gets his money from is not clear) who focuses on righting wrongs visited upon less privileged members of society. In the film, he is a sleazy divorce detective who makes his living by siccing his girlfriend Velda on unsuspecting husbands, which Velda goes along with reluctantly.

Throughout the film, Mike is relentlessly criticized by all the women he meets. For instance, Christina, the woman Mike almost runs over on the highway, says, “You have only one real lasting love – you. You’re one of these self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself….You’re the kind of person who never gives in a relationship, but only takes. Ah, woman. The incomplete sex. And what does she need to complete her? Why, man, of course. Wonderful man.”

There is a vehemence, as well as a bitterness to Bezzerides and Aldrich’s tone, yet also a sense of pleasure in the genre conventions. Despite the critique of Mike Hammer’s character, the film remains faithful to Spillane’s work, while undermining the work’s moral implications. This is a trick that Aldrich performed throughout his career. For instance, the director was able to infuse THE DIRTY DOZEN, a savage indictment of the US military, with so much rah-rah camaraderie that it was a monster hit, enabling Aldrich to purchase his own studio. In addition, Aldrich liked to mix genres, such as the cross between Noir & sci-fi in KISS ME DEADLY, the amalgam of horror and the women’s picture in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, and the placement of a football game in the middle of a prison break in THE LONGEST YARD.

As far as KISS ME DEADLY is concerned, because the film was so faithful to the extreme violence found in Spillane’s books, in addition to being highly critical of the policies of the then ruling Republican party, Aldrich’s film drew the ire of the Kefauver Commission in Congress, which tried to have it banned. Due to this political controversy, KISS ME DEADLY was only distributed in a few markets. Initially, the film was a box office and critical failure, finding champions only among such vanguard critics as Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris, in addition to Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in France, who lauded the film’s revolutionary style while ignoring its radical politics, to the extent that when Aldrich was interviewed by Cahiers du Cinema, he refused to discuss KISS ME DEADLY, as he considered the film an anti-McCarthy piece, not a stylistic precursor to the French New Wave.

As it has been pointed out by a number of commentators, Mike Hammer, the epitome of fast cars, big guns and dumb broads, is surrounded in KISS ME DEADLY by elements of high culture – especially Romantic poetry, Classical music and modern art. While this counterpoint between high adrenalin and high art is initially ironic, I feel it goes much deeper. (Of course, Mike Hammer can be seen as the literal embodiment of Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels’ statement, “Whenever I hear the word culture, I take out my revolver.”)

Dr. G. E. Soberin (Albert Dekker), the main villain of the film, speaks in Classical allusions, especially about Cerberus and Pandora, and is also associated with Hypnos, the God of Slumber, as he prescribes sleeping pills for William Mist, owner of a modern art gallery, who falls into a deep sleep in order to avoid Mike’s interrogation. Also, the riddle which initially makes Mike aware of the mysterious box – “It’s very big, yet very small. It’s very important, but has no meaning.” – makes one think of Oedipus and the riddle of the Sphinx.

These fragments of high art are also there to serve the plot. For example, when Mike first enters the dead Christina’s apartment, he turns on the radio to hear Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” “She liked listening to that Classical music,” the super says. The music tells us something about Christina’s personality, and makes the fact that she would own a volume of Christina Rossetti’s poetry (a major clue in the film) more plausible. Also, because the music is titled “Unfinished”, it tells us something deeper about Christina’s life – it is unfinished – as is Mike’s quest. Later, Mike turns on the radio at home to hear Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quintet, which is almost an “in” joke, except it isn’t very funny.

As far as the Rossetti poem is concerned, and the stanza that allows Mike to solve the mystery (“But if the darkness and corruption leave a vestige of the thoughts that we once had”), it not only reflects upon the state of Christina’s corpse, but also that corruption and darkness that possesses the film’s characters and American culture in 1955 as a whole.

Beginning in the 1950’s, Classical music on the radio was just another background sound, mashed in with pop, rock, sporting events, comedy, commentary and everything else that happened to be available to capture an audience. While the high art in KISS ME DEADLY is used to tell an alternative narrative from the narrow perspective of Mike Hammer, that of a society marching to its own death (hence the references to Cerberus, Pandora, etc), it is also a mish-mosh – Nat “King” Cole, Schubert, answering machine messages, the poetry of Christina Rossetti, a prizefight – all part of the cannibalistic orgy of that first decade where mass production came into play in terms of popular consumption. Because the cultural elements in KISS ME DEADLY are so undifferentiated, they ultimately refer less to a specific story than evoke a specific time and place.

Because of this, KISS ME DEADLY could be seen as one of the first “diary” films in the form of a genre exercise, exploding the conventions of plot to insert purely personal observations – a favorite piece of music, the specific way the light looked on a particular day, the quality of an actress’ face unrelated to her nominal character, an old friend who dropped by to say hello and was written into the film. This form that Aldrich developed as a specific reaction to McCarthyism and the culture that spawned it, ultimately lead to the French New Wave and beyond – films such as SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, ALPHAVILLE (basically a shot for shot remake of KISS ME DEADLY) and their American counterparts MURDER BY CONTRACT, BLAST OF SILENCE, MICKEY ONE and the original version of THX1138. Despite KISS ME DEADLY’s pervasive influence, despite the detrimental conditions under which it was made (shot in 21 days on a budget of $425,000) the film remains remarkably fresh, as relevant and shocking and exciting to watch as it was in 1955.

Of course, KISS ME DEADLY is much more than a film that influenced Godard, Truffaut and countless post-modern thrillers. One finds a film that is perhaps the greatest expression of its genre, the Noirish detective tale, with all of the sleaze, sexuality and violence intact, along with a use of cinema that is as profound in its implications and poetic in its imagery and mythic associations as Jean Cocteau’s ORPHEUS, as funny and also frightening in its portrayal of a society bent on its own destruction as Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, and as pleasurable to watch (while a million times better directed) as FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. In Criterion’s exquisite transfer and voluminous extras, there is a serious case being made for KISS ME DEADLY as the greatest film of the 1950’s, in the breadth of its influence and theme as well as for its innovative technique. In Alain Silver and James Ursini’s commentary, a case is also made for Robert Aldrich as the greatest director of the period. Don’t argue with me, just get the DVD. The Silver and Ursini commentary alone is worth the price of the disc, along with a great Mickey Spillane documentary, an essay on the Bunker Hill district where the film was shot, a piece on Bezzerides…well, you get the picture. Criterion’s release of KISS ME DEADLY belongs in the collection of everyone interested in motion pictures, and in the opinion of this reviewer, is the DVD of the year.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

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3 Responses »

  1. hanks so much for the time and thought invested within your review. During the past two decades, KISS ME DEADLY and CITIZEN KANE have variably competed for qualification as Best Film (personal favorite). Joe Dante, one helluva cool guy, enlightened me that black and white films are eroding in obsolescence (what with the new generation subbing “old” movies). It genuinely unnerves me that KISS ME DEADLY will be reduced to trivia fodder: thumbing its nose at censorship, the film’s visceral content is still disturbing (Hammer sadistically smiling as he cracks Doc Kennedy’s fingers) and the ambiguous ending still torments me (the end of Mike and Velda? The apocalypse?). And Mike pimping-out Velda, euphemistically communicated in the dialogue (“Do you want me to date him?”), is still pretty raw. As the former editor of “Femme Fatales” magazine (1992-1999), I requested a major article on the film and was finally obliged. But I’d still love to see a book devoted to the movie and you’re the man for the job.

    P.S. Years ago, when I screened the film’s lengthier climax on AMC, I literally fell out of my chair; hope that you eventually discuss its omission and restoration.

  2. So sorry, our antiquated technology has circumvented attempts at a gaffe-free post. The third time is the charm–

    Thanks so much for the time and thought invested within your review. During the past two decades, KISS ME DEADLY and CITIZEN KANE have variably competed for qualification as Best Film (personal favorite). Joe Dante, one helluva cool guy, enlightened me that black and white films are eroding into obsolescence (what with the new generation subbing “old” movies). It genuinely unnerves me that KISS ME DEADLY will be reduced to trivia fodder: thumbing its nose at censorship, the film’s visceral content is still disturbing (Hammer sadistically smiling as he cracks Doc Kennedy’s fingers) and the ambiguous ending still torments me (the end of Mike and Velda? The apocalypse?). And Mike pimping-out Velda, euphemistically communicated in the dialogue (“Do you want me to date him?”), is still pretty raw. As the former editor of “Femme Fatales” magazine (1992-1999), I requested a major article on the film and was finally obliged. But I’d still love to see a book devoted to the movie and you’re the man for the job.

    P.S. Years ago, when I screened the film’s lengthier climax on AMC, I literally fell out of my chair; hope that you eventually discuss its omission and restoration.

  3. Dear Mr. George:

    Thank you so much for your kind note. I was under the impression that so much has already been written about KISS ME DEADLY, especially the fine material that Alain Silver & James Ursini have included in their numerous books about film noir which seem to explore Aldrich’s masterpiece from every conceivable angle, including an appendix that reproduces the last scene of Bezzerdies’ shooting script describing the original ending of Mike and Velda escaping from the nuclear conflagration of the beach house into the sea that was missing from prints of the film for about twenty years, that I was originally planning on only writing a few short comments when Criterion’s amazing transfer and presentation of the film inspired me and sent me in a completely unexpected direction.

    In any case, in response to your question on my thoughts about the history of the film’s two very different endings, it’s necessary for me to recall the first time I saw KISS ME DEADLY, which was in the late 60’s at the Liberty on 42nd Street on a double bill with Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING. Aldrich & Bezzzerdies’ original ending was there, at the end of the film, but for some reason, it struck me at the time as false, as if we as an audience were somehow supposed to forget that the nuclear device opened by Carver had exploded. From my perspective at the time, and I think many other fans of the film as well, attempting to rush into the sea from the already encroaching fog of nuclear fallout which would spell Mike and Velda’s doom seemed patently absurd, as if the filmmakers were trying to affix a phony happy ending onto the film.

    In fact, the same year that I saw KISS ME DEADLY for the first time, Robert Aldrich, in an interview in Sight & Sound Magazine, talked about studio interference in terms of the ending as he wanted to include a much longer shot of Mike Hammer realizing exactly the disaster his bumbling had brought about, but UA had cut that shot, hoping that most people would think the conclusion a conventional happy ending. I think reading that interview with Aldrich’s complaints of studio interference made many of my fellow film buffs at the time feel that the entire sequence of Mike & Velda escaping into the sea was a compromise dictated by UA. However, in re-reading that interview today, Aldrich is very explicit that he wanted Mike to stay alive at the end of the film, so that he would finally attain consciousness and realize the consequences of his actions.

    Nonetheless, in spite of Aldrich’s comments in that interview, there grew among film buffs in New York & LA in the early 70’s a conviction that the entire ending of KISS ME DEADLY was a false one dictated by studio hacks. In fact, some enterprising folks even began to cut out the last few minutes of the film in 16mm prints at screenings in cine clubs, thinking that they were somehow following Aldrich’s original intentions. Although this is pure speculation on my part, I think the practice of ending KISS ME DEADLY with the shot of the beach house exploding, which I myself viewed at private screenings in NY, must have led to the final scene being cut out of the official release print, which was only restored after Alain Silver & James Ursini discovered Bezzerdies’ script with the original ending in the late 90’s.

    I agree with you that the ending is very strange, simultaneously comic, ironic and yet filled with dread, a kind of return to paradise while waiting for the apocalypse. However, if one keeps in mind Aldrich’s stated intention of a sudden realization of unintended consequences on Mike Hammer’s part, than the ending not only makes perfect sense, but becomes the last mosaic of a masterpiece that both completes and references the opening shot of the film, a process that is both perfectly symmetrical, and yet explodes all our preconceptions sustained within the past 106 minutes.

    Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to expand upon my thoughts as expressed in the original article.

    Yours Truly,

    Mark Gross

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