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KISS ME DEADLY

(1955)

Starring Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Cloris Leachman; dir: Robert Aldrich

 

Kiss Me Deadly is robust, violent, funny, good looking and sexy. Like Rififi, made in France the same year by exiled Hollywood veteran Jules Dassin, Kiss Me Deadly uses the language of Hollywood but pushes the limits a lot further in terms of brutality and sexuality. Its status as an independent, non-studio production is likely the decisive factor here; director Robert Aldrich needed a free hand to attack the number of targets he would take aim at in Kiss Me Deadly.

This filmmaker comes to bury the private eye, not praise him. And what better writer to base this demolition job on than Mickey Spillane, who reduced the genre to its crudest, basest elements, far removed from the elegance of Chandler and Hammett.

As Danny Peary’s Cult Movies astutely points out, there is, surprisingly, no first person narration in the film version. The film’s commentary is directed towards Hammer, not flowing outward from him, as in the novel. By thus denying an audience perspective of moral superiority to the surrounding criminality, Aldrich prevents viewers feeling that they too are above the muck. The mirror Kiss Me Deadly held up to its audience was a damning one, with no room for comfort. This dick was no knight errant, of shining moral virtue a la Phillip Marlowe. Hammer belonged in the seamy underworld through which he moved. It is the casual violence of prosperous, nuclear-armed 1950s America that this Hammer embodies and this film critiques.

Kiss Me Deadly is really about 50s American men, and to keep this message clear, Hammer is surrounded by women. There is an enormous amount of female energy in the film. Predominant is Hammer's ‘secretary’ Velda, whose primary plot function is to serve as a ‘honey trap’ to trap his clients’ wayward husbands. The anachronistic 40s nature of her name is an interesting throwback to Farewell My Lovely, but less homage than contrast, underscoring just how little this 50s private eye flick has in common with the 1940s classicism of the genre. As Touch of Evil is said to have exploded the conventions of film noir beyond recovery, so Kiss Me Deadly, right through to its apocalyptic ending, is thought of as blowing apart the P.I. flick for good.

(Star Meeker [now there’s an ironic handle!] wasn’t the last private eye in a literal sense, but it took a decade before the half-hearted 1960s attempts of Paul Newman’s Harper and James Garner’s stolid Marlowe led Hollywood to give up altogether in favor of 70s deconstruction [Altman’s The Long Goodbye] or revivalist classicism [Mitchum’s Farewell My Lovely]. Investigative reporters a la Watergate took over the ‘Nobility of the Quest’ genre, but that’s another story.)

Kiss Me Deadly 's atomic angle doesn’t emerge until late but we get an early foretaste in a scene when Meeker’s Hammer says greedily "what’s in it for me?" just as his face is bathed in light from an opening - in this case a lift door – just as it will be later upon breaking the seal of another opening - the Pandora’s Box of radioactive material. Hammer has no idea of course. Through geometric framing and high camera angles he is often seen as a small component of a large complex world which, as the archetype of 1950s Eisenhower maleness, he’s too venal and thickheaded to see. Expanding Kiss Me Deadly out via its atomic theme (not in the book) has led some to see this film as ‘sci-fi-noir’. But the action is solidly earthbound and just as the nuclear decision-makers of the day were to discover, there is no escape.

No longer a mere movie, Kiss Me Deadly has become canonical, and is one of the most written about films of all time. It is often cited as a primary influence on the French New Wave, Truffaut and Godard especially (everybody loves the reverse credit roll!), but there are more recent echoes, such as David Lynch, here as well.

On other levels its incidental pleasures remain, like the first sighting and all-time largest example of an answering machine, which takes up half a wall (!), epitomizing 1950s’ consumer gadgetry. And then there’s my favorite throwaway quip, after the gas jockey notices Hammer’s new sports car, a Corvette: "What’s a’ matter, Jag not good enough for ya?" - " Yeah, the ashtrays got all full", Hammer says.

One wonders if anyone ever asked the hysterically reactionary Mickey Spillane what he thought of it all…

- Roger Westcombe