KISS ME DEADLY, 1955
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Cloris Leachman, Paul Stewart, Marian Carr, Maxine Cooper,
After failing to spare a female hitchhiker of a brutal murder by the hands of callous thugs, Private detective Mike Hammer is drawn towards solving the mystery behind this murder – discovering the secrets of ‘the great whatsit’ along the way.
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Noir aficionados across the world should all be familiar with the Robert Aldrich directed Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Critics have all praised this film as an important documentation of American cinema as well as being hailed as possibly the most carefully crafted and wonderfully executed films of its genre. But yet it was completely overlooked by the American Film Institute’s top 100. Whilst it’s merely an educated guess, one can only assume the single biggest contributor to this would be the release of another film in the same year; the pinnacle in movie noir, The Night of the Hunter (Dir. Laughton).
It’s a double-edged sword, I suppose - whilst some may find Kiss Me Deadly’s lack of recognition a bitter pill to swallow, this gives the film another (albeit, less celebrity) status as undiscovered gem of American cinema.
Kiss Me Deadly was adapted from a novel of the same name, written by Mickey Spillane. Spillane has written a series of novels that feature the character Mike Hammer and, like this tale, they have been adapted into a feature film. Mike Hammer has been depicted by numerous actors - including Jack Stang and, more recently, Stacey Keach – but none have portrayed Hammer quite like Ralph Meeker, who wanders through the film back-handing suspects as often as he drinks; a fantastically unstable portrayal that really lives up to the general quality that this film oozes.
The film follows Mike Hammer as he wanders through the dark and thuggish underworld to find who is behind a brutal murder; this reads less original than it really is. Visually this film is a treat and the pace in which this case unfolds into something literally apocalyptic is something special.
Noir is full of flawed private detectives but it’s worth noting that Hammer is even more so, making him as one of the most memorable. It really is totally engaging to watch this flawed protagonist swagger through the film for an hour and 42 minutes as he pulps people for information; he is an awkward character to root for, but you really find yourself on his side and condoning his actions. In fact, this film is full of excellent characters. I’d argue the women in Kiss Me Deadly are the strongest that the genre has produced, specifically Marian Carr as Friday whose final scene is absolutely unforgettable.
Hammer’s investigation leads him to the discovery of ‘the great whatsit’, the mcguffin everyone is trying to gain control of. When watching the film’s climax for the first time, it may appear a little out-of-the-blue and difficult to decipher. To me, it initially felt more like an ending in an Indiana Jones movie. But bear this in mind; there is a strong sense of ‘them’ and ‘others’ that is littered throughout this film and Aldrich has carefully woven the complexities of McCarthyism and Cold-War anxieties experienced by Americans during this decade.
For those who feel this may leave the film feeling somewhat dated, fear not; Aldrich has managed to construct this element into an entirely engaging and enigmatic narrative – leaving the film feeling completely un-stale. So much care has clearly been taken towards the story, vision, acting and characters make this film not just another bog-standard P.I, noir flick.
Audiences can now experience the intended original ending if they purchase the DVD. The ending gives a clearer indication on the fate of two of the main characters (but it is just as tentative as the theatrical version).
It should be illegal to dismiss Kiss Me Deadly as one of the most important film noir ever created. It is an engrossing, complex film but with an overall looming sense of doom that perhaps hindered the film’s theatrical success. This is not reflected by the calibre of the film, as Kiss Me Deadly is such a powerful combination of wonderful writing, passionate acting and masterful directing - by a gentleman that knows so very much about the genre - that elevates this film into something as genuinely awesome as ‘the great whatsit’ itself. You’ll remember this film for a long, long time after you put the film back on the shelf.