Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.
Release Date: May 18th, 1955 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Aldrich Actors: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Wesley Addy, Marion Carr, Marjorie Bennett, Strother Martin, Jack Elam, Leigh Snowden, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rodgers
anicked, out of breath, and clad only in a trench coat, a woman runs along the highway at night, forced to throw herself in front of a car just to get a ride to Los Angeles. Reluctant at first, the driver, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), figures out that his new passenger, Christina (Cloris Leachman), is a fugitive from an insane asylum. But before they can reach the nearby bus stop, they’re run off the road by some gangster types, who knock Hammer unconscious and kill Christina. They then attempt to dispose of the bodies by pushing his car off a cliff.
Hammer awakes in the hospital to the smile of his assistant, Velda Wickman (Maxine Cooper), who helps him in his private detective work – specializing in divorce cases in which the duo use their charms to gather incriminating evidence. After Hammer is interrogated by the Interstate Crime Commission, he realizes that Christina must have been caught up in something big – and that the authorities won’t be able to get to the bottom of it too swiftly. Taking matters into his own hands, Hammer is only momentarily stymied by Lieutenant Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy), who revokes the dick’s P.I. and gun license.
The opening scene features a woman getting tortured to death with a wrench – a bloodless yet entirely nasty bit of insinuated violence, starkly showcasing the increasing amount of edginess seen in the waning film noir genre of the mid-’50s. Similarly, a thug is punched down a stone stairwell, a car is rigged with dynamite, and traffic-accident bodies pile up. The tone is dark and foreboding to match, utilizing a potent script equipped with hardboiled jabs, gruff exchanges, and plenty of death threats, delivered by uncommon characters that are all a little off (the bit-part casting of Jack Elam, with his trademark unsymmetrical eye, is particularly inspired). Even the femme fatales aren’t predictably designed (Gaby Rodgers is spectacular as the eerily manic Lily Carver). These aren’t classic Hollywood personas, but rather noticeably twisted personifications of paranoia, fear, distrust, and corruption. Cruelty, gloom, and strong-arm tactics elude no one.
Shady players and shadier shadows consume “Kiss Me Deadly,” marking it as a technically proficient, cinematographically intriguing (it features one of the greatest of film noir scenes, in which Hammer flicks on a light to reveal two goons reclining in his office), stunning example of a Mickey Spillane crime thriller. But despite its sharp look (geometric imagery and bizarre camera angles make unsubtle, frequent appearances), the mystery at the heart of the story creates more questions than answers for far too long, building to an increasingly gritty, casualty-filled finale, in which the hilariously abusive antihero must beat enough information out of every acquaintance to clue in the audience on the faintest notions of the truth. Even voiceover flashbacks are necessary to remind viewers about pertinent details. Fortunately, the climax is so startlingly unusual that this Robert Aldrich-directed picture safely becomes unforgettable (and clearly influential to subsequent filmmakers, as it lends significantly to both “Pulp Fiction” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”).
– Mike Massie