One night, private detective Mike Hammer is driving home to Los Angeles when he is stopped by a woman standing in the highway. Although Mike upbraids the woman, he gives her a ride. As they drive, the panicked woman, who is wearing only a trenchcoat, asks Mike to drop her at the nearest bus stop. Before Mike can learn more, they are stopped at a roadblock, and the police reveal that they are looking for a woman who escaped from a nearby sanitarium. After Mike bluffs his way past the officer, the woman, named Christina, admits that she is the escapee, but insists that she was being held prisoner at the sanitarium. When they stop at a gas station, Christina gives the attendant a letter to mail and looks relieved. Mike is intrigued by Christina’s demeanor and her plea to remember her if anything should happen. Just then, a car blocks their way and Mike is knocked unconscious by the occupants. When Mike awakens, he hears Christina scream as she is being tortured, but because he is lying face-down, he cannot identify his captors, although he does notice that one wears a distinctive pair of shoes. After Mike passes out again, he and the now-dead Christina are put into his car, which is pushed over a cliff to make it look like they died in an accident. Mike jumps from the car just in time, however, and three days later, is wakened in the hospital by his devoted secretary and girl friend, Velda Wickman. Mike’s friend, police captain Pat Murphy, is also happy to see him recovering. When Mike leaves the hospital, he is detained by federal agents, who question him about Christina. Mike refuses to divulge any information, and after he is released, Pat warns him not to pursue the matter.
At his apartment, Mike tells Velda that they are going to investigate anyway, and she reveals that a man named Ray Diker called while he was in the hospital. Their conversation is interrupted by Pat, who revokes Mike’s private detective license and gun permit, then dismisses Mike’s speculations about Diker, a newspaper science editor who disappeared recently. Despite interference from an unknown attacker, Mike locates Diker, who, although terrified, tells Mike that Christina’s last name was Bailey and gives him her address. When Mike visits the boardinghouse where Christina lived, he learns that her roommate, Lily Carver, is gone, although a moving man tells him Lily’s new address. Remembering that Christina stated she was named after the poet Christina Rossetti, Mike picks up a volume of her poetry from Christina’s nightstand, then looks for Lily. Upon entering Lily’s rundown apartment, Mike finds the nervous woman leveling a pistol at him. Lily explains that Christina was very frightened lately, but she does not know why, nor does she know the identity of the men who came to question her after Christina’s death. When Mike goes home, he receives a phone call from an unidentified man, offering a token of appreciation if he will pretend that he never met Christina. In the morning, a new car is in front of Mike’s building, and the suspicious Mike asks his mechanic, Nick, to examine it. Nick finds two bombs inside the car, after which Mike visits Velda, who is leery of pursuing Christina’s murder. Velda reveals that Diker called her, offering her several other names, and when Mike checks out the leads, he learns that there have been two other automobile “accidents” in which people connected to Christina were killed. Mike also discovers that Charlie Max and Sugar Smallhouse, two hired killers, are looking for him, and after learning that they work for gangster Carl Evello, goes to Evello’s house.
Impressed with the way Mike handles himself, Evello agrees to talk with him, and confesses that he sent the rigged car. Evello attempts to bribe Mike to remain silent, but Mike demurs and goes to see Carmen Trivaco, one of the names given to him by Diker. Carmen admits that his friend, Nicholas Raymondo, was an atomic scientist who hinted about having an important secret before he was killed. Mike then returns to Lily’s, where he finds her hiding in the basement after some men came looking for her. Hoping to protect her, Mike then takes Lily to his apartment. Meanwhile, Nick, who had investigated the car bombs at Mike’s request, is murdered. Grieving, Mike goes to see Velda, who pleads with him to forgo his search for the “great whatsit” that has resulted in so many deaths. Velda then reveals that Diker introduced her to a modern art dealer who mentioned both Evello and a Dr. Soberin when discussing his gallery. Mike tells Velda to press for more information, then goes to a bar, where he passes out from drinking too much. When Mike is awakened, he learns that “they” have kidnapped Velda, and soon discovers that the letter Christina mailed was addressed to him. At his office, Mike opens the letter, which says only “Remember Me!” Sugar and Charlie are waiting, and after beating Mike, take him to a beach house. There, Mike is tied face-down on a bed, and when he is interrogated by a stranger, recognizes the man’s shoes from the night Christina was killed. Although the man drugs Mike with sodium pentathol to discover the meaning of Christina’s letter, Mike rambles incoherently.
Later, Mike manages to slip his bonds, and when Evello enters the room, Mike traps him and ties him to the bed. Believing that Evello is Mike, Sugar mistakenly kills him before being killed by Mike. Mike escapes and returns home, where he and Lily attempt to puzzle out Christina’s message, using one of Rossetti’s poems. Mike deduces that Christina swallowed an important clue and goes to the morgue, where Doc Kennedy had extracted a key from her stomach. The next day, Mike and Lily drive to the Hollywood Athletic Club and Mike uses the key to open a locker registered to Raymondo. In the locker Mike finds an iron box, wrapped in leather. Mike is surprised that the inner box is hot and cries out when it burns him as he attempts to open it. Mike immediately shuts the lid, then tells the clerk to let no one near it. Upon returning to his car, Mike discovers that Lily has disappeared and contacts Pat. Pat demands the key, but Mike refuses, stating that he needs it to bargain for Velda’s life. When Pat reveals that the body of the real Lily Carver was found over a week ago, Mike realizes that he has been duped. Seeing the burn on Mike’s wrist, Pat says “Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity,” and Mike, understanding that he is in over his head, gives Pat the key. At the athletic club, however, the clerk has been killed and the box stolen. With Diker’s reluctant help, Mike eventually realizes that the leader of the gang is Dr. G. E. Soberin, and traces the doctor to the beach house where he had been held earlier. The doctor, who wears distinctive shoes, is currently admiring the box, which was brought to him by the woman impersonating Lily, whose real name is Gabrielle. Despite her curiosity, the doctor refuses to allow her to open the box, however he does not to explain that the reason is that it contains atomic material. When Soberin refuses to divide the box’s contents with her, Gabrielle shoots and kills him. Gabrielle is about to open the box when Mike bursts in, and when he responds too slowly to her demand that he kiss her, she shoots him in the side. Mike staggers out as Gabrielle opens the box and the material within incinerates her. Finding Velda just in time, Mike runs with her from the house, and watches from the beach as the house is engulfed in a huge explosion.
Following the filming of Vera Cruz, Aldrich was contacted by Victor Saville, who owned the film rights to the works of Mickey Spillane. Saville wanted Aldrich to direct a film version of Spillane’s 1952 novel Kiss Me, Deadly, the seventh in his series of Mike Hammer detective books. Two movies had already been made of other Spillane-Hammer thrillers, but neither Saville nor Aldrich thought much of them. As Aldrich recalled, he agreed to do the job for Saville “provided he would let me make the kind of movie I wanted and provided I could produce it.” Saville consented and, according to Aldrich, gave him the freedom he had demanded. Although Saville was listed as executive producer in the credits, Aldrich, as both producer and director, had ultimate control of the project.
In comparison to Apache and Vera Cruz, Kiss Me Deadly might have seemed something of a comedown for Aldrich . Shot in twenty-one days on a limited budget of $425,000, Kiss Me Deadly easily ranks as one of the most paranoid film noirs ever made. Employing disorienting camera angles, extreme close-ups, sleazy locations in Los Angeles and other unconventional tactics, Robert Aldrich creates a dark, inhospitable environment populated by nihilists. The whole tone of the film is set from the stark opening; a nighttime scene of a barely clothed woman running barefoot along the highway accompanied by her sharp, labored breathing. Even after she is given a lift by Hammer, we still hear her frightened gasps mingled with the soft strains of a romantic ballad issuing forth from the car radio; all of this occurring while the opening film credits roll down the screen at a sharp slant over the windshield of Hammer’s car.
Aldrich used no “name” actors at all. Moreover, although Spillane was at that time one of the best-selling authors in the world, his work was judged, at best, as sensationalistic. The exploits of his private investigator Mike Hammer were notorious for their extreme violence and sexual explicitness. Because of his profession, Hammer could, of course, be seen in the tradition of the hardboiled detective hero, the solitary crusaders of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But Hammer lacked the razor-sharp, unsentimental morality of Hammett’s characters and the quixotic romanticism of Philip Marlow. Spillane’s Hammer was, instead, a violent, brutal avenger, the hero as psychotic, who employed a very personal brand of justice to excuse his essentially sadistic nature. Indeed, as Hammer smashed his way through the mysteries, his tactics were often more appalling, his kill ratio much higher, than those of the so-called villains.
The film’s unusual opening credits appear after the sequence in which “Mike Hammer” picks up hitchhiker “Christina Bailey.” When Christina gets into the car, a radio deejay announces that Nat “King” Cole will be singing “Rather Have the Blues,” and the song is then heard over the credits, which scroll from the top of the screen to the bottom, as if they are part of the highway along which Mike speeds. The opening title card reads: “Victor Saville presents Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly.”
Aldrich had no sympathy for either the book or its hero. Hammer he saw as a ‘cynical and fascistic private eye” and viewed him with “utter contempt and loathing.” He told Francois Truffaut that both Hammer and Spillane represented an “anti-democratic spirit.” What did attract him, besides the chance to shape his own work, to act as an independent, was his recognition that Mike Hammer, in his self-righteousness and brutal pragmatism, acted as a paradigm for the witch hunting America of the 1950s. Hammer was McCarthyism carried to its logical and not-so-far removed extreme.
Without overemphasizing the point, Aldrich meant the film to make a political statement: ‘It did have a basic significance in our political framework that we thought rather important in those McCarthy times: that the ends did not justify the point, Aldrich meant the film to make a political statement: ‘It did have a basic significance in our political framework that we thought rather important in those McCarthy times: that the ends did not justify the means.” As he argued before the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Code Administration, he intended Hammer to be seen as an anti-hero and for the film to imply that “justice is not to be found in a self-anointed, one-man vigilante.” Years later, Aldrich said of the film’s reception that “most people in America put it down as a Spillane movie done with a little more energy, a little more compression … they didn’t understand at all the political implications.”
Aldrich’s Hammer vs. Spillane’s Hammer
Aldrich certainly never confused Spillane’s story with great literature. The original book… had nothing he claimed. We just took the title and threw the book away.” This boast was not absolutely true. Some of the film’s central images and situations can be found in Spillane’s work, and most of the names are retained, although the characters to whom they are given usually have little in common with the book’s originals But certainly the screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides with contributions by Aldrich made no effort to follow the book’s convoluted plot. Both book and film are structured around Hammer’s search for a mysterious box His quest is further inspired by a desire for personal revenge. The film begins as Hammer (Ralph Meeker), driving his sporty Jaguar toward Los Angeles a shift from the book’s New York setting for financial as well as artistic reasons: Aldrich wanted to do location work for realism, and many of the scenes were filmed at night in Los Angeles, including scenes at the Club Regalle almost runs over a near-hysterical woman Cloris Leachman standing in the middle of the highway, her arms held out in a crucified position in a desperate effort to flag him down. Although Hammer is angry, he agrees to give her a ride, more out of curiosity than gallantry, for the woman is barefoot and wears nothing under her trenchcoat. She tells him that her name is Christina (another change from the book but an important one, for it links her with Christina Rossetti, as she carefully points out to Hammer, and sets up a clue to the mystery of the box). Despite her obvious fear, Christina is a gutsy woman. She answers Hammer’s questions obliquely but with spunk and finally tells him that, should anything happen, he must remember me.” Shortly thereafter, they are waylaid and Hammer is beaten unconscious, although he does come to long enough to witness Christina’s last moments as she is tortured to death and to hear the melodious but unfeeling voice of her murderer. Hammer is later placed in his car and pushed over a cliff but is thrown free before the Jaguar bursts into flames. After remain ing unconscious for three days another of several references to death and resurrection in the film, he is welcomed back among the living by his secretary Velda (Maxine Coopers and a police detective Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy).
After this introduction, which more or less follows the first chapter of the book, Bezzerides and Aldrich play fast and loose with Spillane. The film evidences a masterful inventiveness, an adventurous creativity, which uses the book as its springboard. One essential difference between the book and film is in the film’s sly reinterpretation of Mike Hammer. As portrayed by Ralph Meeker, Hammer seems an arrogant, sneering brute, an overbearing bully. Meeker’s slight chubbiness, his softness around the face and belly, play against our romantic image of the private investigator: his Hammer is a sleazy second rater. What the conversation between Hammer and Christina in the opening scene does is to establish Hammer’s self-image and to undercut it at the same time. When she apologizes for almost wrecking his Jaguar, she refers to it as his “pretty little car,” emphasizing the importance of appearance to Hammer while also mocking it. Later she says to him, “You’re one of those males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. … You’re the kind who never gives in a relationship, who only takes.”
“People ask me…about the hidden meanings in the script, about the A-bomb, about McCarthyism, what does the poetry mean, and so on. And I can only say that I didn’t think about it when I wrote it. These things were in the air at the time and I put them in. There was a lot of talk about nuclear war at the time, and it was the foremost fear in people’s minds…Well, I thought that was more interesting than the dope thing in the book. The Pandora’s box references related to these characters, and the same with the poem by Rossetti. I was having fun with it. I wanted to make every scene, every character, interesting. A girl comes up to Ralph Meeker, I make her a nympho. She grabs him and kisses him the first time she sees him. She says, “You don’t taste like anybody I know.” I’m a big car nut, so I put him in all that stuff with the cars and the mechanic. I was an engineer and I gave the detective the first phone answering machine in that picture. I was having fun.” – A.I. Bezzerides
This unfavorable view of Hammer is reinforced after Hammer is released from the hospital. We learn that he specializes in divorce cases again unlike Spillane’s hero and uses his secretary Velda in the process: she sets up the husband, he romances the wife, and they play both against the middle. “I’m a real stinker.” Hammer sarcastically admits when confronted with these and other accusations, and we have to acknowledge the truth of the statement. Aldrich later expressed how much pleasure he took in subverting the standard image of Hammer “Spillane, you know, never understood that this was the greatest Spillane put-down in a long time. He just thought that it was a marvelous picture.”
And yet, for all this, and against Aldrich’s intentions, Hammer does become a somewhat sympathetic figure, due, in part, to his being such an obvious fraud. In Spillane’s book, Hammer is found impossibly attractive by every woman he meets, but he coolly puts them off with a kiss, a wink, or a promise: his chastity becomes evidence of his male superiority-the women will be there when he wants them. In the film, Aldrich suggests that Hammer is avoiding rather than delaying the sexual encounters, that indeed he is either uninterested in women and sex or he fears them. For Aldrich and Bezzerides, Hammer’s sexual escapes become a running joke. When he first meets Christina’s roommate Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers), the camera angle makes her gun appear aimed directly at his crotch. They also underscore Christina’s initial appraisal of Hammer by emphasizing his essential isolation. His apartment is plastic, womb-like. He avoids windows and channels his phone calls through an automatic answering machine which allows him to talk only when he so chooses. As others have noted, Hammer rarely looks at people and tends instead to stare off into space or at blank walls. One of the triumphs of Ralph Mecker’s performance is that he shows the emptiness inside Hammer, his dead soul. One of the film’s sharpest ironies thus is its emphasis on resurrection: Hammer comes back from the grave at least three times, but he is never really alive in any emotional sense. The only time he expresses any real feelings is when he inflicts pain on others.
To Aldrich, Hammer is simply a loser. For all of his surface arrogance, he is clearly in over his head. Still, in the film we are encouraged to think that Hammer is one step ahead of the police in his search for the box. After all, he does have Christina’s clue:
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
These lines lead Hammer, in a bizarre and unlikely manner, to the morgue holding Christina’s body, in whose stomach the coroner has found a key. This key opens a locker at a local health club, in which Hammer discovers the box itself. Thus the film is predicated on a series of boxes within boxes (or bodies), with the last containing the biggest surprise of all, the greatest corruption of all. Hammer’s misunderstanding of what the box contains ultimately brings about catastrophe.
“You penny ante gumshoe,” Pat tells Hammer in disgust, “You thought you were so bright. You saw something big and tried to horn in.” “I didn’t know,” says Mike. “You didn’t know,” Pat sneers. Do you think you’d have done any different if you had known?” The unspoken answer is clear.
In Spillane’s book, the black box holds rather prosaic contents: Mafia drugs. Bezzerides and Aldrich impart a symbolic and mythic depth to the box until it becomes the central image almost an icon in the film. What the authorities already know and what Hammer slowly discovers is that this box contains some undefined radioactive substance, some power which, once released, will escalate in destructiveness. Pat Murphy relates its contents to the “Manhattan Project-Los Alamos-Trinity”, the villain Dr. Soborin (Albert Dekker) puts it in a more metaphysical perspective: it is the box of Pandora, it holds the head of Medusa,” it contains evil itself. When Hammer first finds the box, it burns his hands, a clear warning of its destructive powers. When the girl known as Lily Carver (by now revealed to be Carver’s mentally unstable roommate Gabrielle, who has, in fact, killed the real Carver) opens the box despite Soborin’s dying warnings, she lets loose all the forces of hell. Her real name thus becomes all the more appropriate she is Gabriel, reeling final destruction. But she is also Pandora, controlled by curiosity and greed. The film ends abruptly as the box’s fury continues to grow, the conflagration rises as the beach house where all this action occurs is engulfed by flames. Moreover, the film indicates that this destruction is only the beginning, As The End appears over the multiplying explosions, the words take on a prophetic double-meaning. It is, in every sense, an apocalyptic conclusion.”
Censors and the Legion of Decency
The film’s file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library contains a September 10, 1954 letter from producer-director Robert Aldrich to PCA official Geoffrey Shurlock, in which Aldrich states that he had recently been employed by Parklane Productions to produce Kiss Me Deadly and was aware that there were “a number of problems inherent in the project in relation to securing Code approval.” As noted in Aldrich’s letter, Spillane’s novel originally dealt with narcotics rather than atomic material, and the organization fought by Mike was the Mafia, not an unspecified group of Communists. (Another departure from the novel to the film was “Velda’s” term “the great whats it,” which does not appear in the novel.) In his letter, Aldrich expressed the hope that “the property can be brought into line with the Code in relation to narcotics and still not lose its dramatic oneness.”
In a September 20, 1954 memo for the PCA files, however, it was noted that Aldrich was informed that a screenplay based on Spillane’s novel could not be approved. The two “basic reasons” for the story’s unacceptability were the treatment of “illegal drug traffic” and its portrayal of Mike “as a cold-blooded murderer whose numerous killings are completely justified.” The PCA also objected to many instances of brutality and “sex-suggestiveness.” Aldrich was informed that if he intended to “maintain the use of narcotics as a basic story motivation, it would be necessary for him to appeal the decision of the Code Administration with the Board of Directors of this Association in New York.” Aldrich in turn told the PCA that the filmmakers “could easily overcome” the problem of Hammer acting as a murderous vigilante, although they had not yet determined if they would retain the narcotics story line. In November 1954, Aldrich submitted a screenplay to the PCA, which was approved with the warning to be careful in the depiction of brutality and sex.
On February 11, 1955, Aldrich wrote to Shurlock, thanking him for the PCA’s cooperation in awarding Kiss Me Deadly a production seal. Aldrich commented on the difficulty of adapting the Spillane books for the screen, noting: “In the Spillane pictures we have a unique and difficult problem. The properties are of great commercial value, and yet there is no morality, or integrity, or respect for American tradition, or the due process of law.” On April 18, 1955, Aldrich again wrote to Shurlock, notifying him that the “Legion of Decency has taken violent exception to (Kiss Me Deadly) and has requested that over thirty changes, cuts and deletions be made.” Aldrich stated that the requests came “as a most rude and expensive surprise,” as he had thought that if a project was passed by the PCA, it would be acceptable to the Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization. Eventually, on May 5, 1955, the Legion of Decency gave the film a “B” rating instead of a “C,” or condemned, rating, stating: “This film tends to glorify taking the law into one’s own hand. Moreover, it contains excessive brutality and suggestiveness in costume, dialogue and situations.”
Aldrich seemed to court the controversy that surrounded the film and caused it to be seen as another exploitation of violence and sex. In the February 20, 1955 edition of the New York Herald Tribune, for example, an article by Aldrich appeared entitled “You Can’t Hang Up the Meat Hook.” In this article Aldrich defended the portrayal of violence in his films. (Vera Cruz had been attacked by Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review as “a pretty atrocious film, loaded with meaningless violence and standard horse opera clichés. There are not many ways of hurting people that are missed in this sadistic show… As a matter of fact, the whole picture appears to be designed as a mere exhibition of how wicked and vicious men can be.” Aldrich argued that violence was an essential element of all literature and art, and that such phases of human behavior can be neither ignored nor removed from any true pictorial account of the emotions of two-legged animals. He went on to describe a specific scene in Kiss Me Deadly in which a girl is tortured to death. He wrote of it in terms that would later be used to describe Alfred Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho.
The camera focuses first on the helpless girl and her antagonists. The situation leading up to this moment of torture is well established and is a logical development of the plot. Hands are then laid on the victim, and from that moment on the suspense is maintained, the violence high keyed and spotlighted through the sound effects, focusing the camera in a series of close shots, on her feet, her hands, shadows on the wall and similar devices. He concluded that “60 per cent of what people perceived in this scene “will be the product of their own thinking.” Nonetheless (although Aldrich’s description of the scene is accurate, such a statement, headed by such a provocative title, was a direct challenge to all arbiters of public taste and morality, and he was quickly answered by the editors of America: The National Catholic Weekly Review, who observed that Aldrich’s argument “springs from subhuman thinking It defends depravity, tries to justify morbidity and totally misrepresents the record of human violence as portrayed, without being glamorized, in great literature.
When Kiss Me Deadly was first presented to the censors by Robert Aldrich, the director, it was rejected. The reasons were that it showed a private detective as a cold blooded murderer and justified his many killings. It allowed him to take the law into his own hands and bring about “justice” by killing. These are clear violations of the code. But after about three months of haggling, Aldrich found the formula for getting Mickey Spillane’s private eye, Mike Hammer, on the screen. He found a moral. He declared he was marrying “the commercial values of the Spillane properties with a morality that states justice is not to be found in a self anointed, one-man vigilante.”
Kiss Me Deadly received its seal of approval, but two days before it was due to go into release Aldrich learned that the Legion of Decency planned to give the movie a “Condemned” rating. In anguish, he wrote to Shurlock for help.
“This,” he declared, “comes as a most rude and expensive surprise since it was my belief and understanding that there certainly could not be this wide divergence between the opinions of the legion and those of the Code Administration. The legion has even failed to recognize any voice of moral righteousness.” Shurlock did nothing for Aldrich. Desperately Aldrich tried to cut down screams, reduce shots of a dead face, show less bashing of a head. But the film still contained murder, abduction, assault, and assorted lesser crimes. The legion relented slightly, giving it a “B” rating-morally objectionable in part for all.
Against Aldrich’s wishes, United Artists made the recommended cuts in the film. As a result, there are two versions of Kiss Me Deadly with alternate endings in existence. In the one released by United Artists, we see Mike and his loyal secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) escaping down the beach from the exploding house. In the more recently restored version, the final shot is of the fiery inferno caused by the black box, an ending that suggests the end of mankind through nuclear annihilation.
According to an June 8, 1955 Daily Variety article, the picture faced further censorship difficulties when CBS-TV censor Ed Nathan refused to allow the Los Angeles CBS station to air trailers for Kiss Me Deadly. Nathan had publicly criticized the film, stating that it had “no purpose except to incite sadism and bestiality in human beings.” In protesting Nathan’s actions, Aldrich pointed out that other CBS stations throughout the United States had already agreed to broadcast the trailers. According to an February 18, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, in order to publicize the picture, United Artists had begun negotiations with major TV networks to “set up a half hour coast-to-coast telecast featuring live enactments of scenes from the picture.” The article reported: “It is expected that the exploitation program, first of its kind, will reach a video audience of twenty-five million.” It has not been determined, however, if the telecast was produced.
Upon its release Kiss Me Deadly was paid almost no critical attention in America, but it quickly developed a reputation among French film enthusiasts. Writing in Cahiers du Cinema, Charles Bitsch called the work “one of the most striking American films of the last ten years” and compared it favorably to Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947) Claude Chalwol praised the way Aldrich had taken the worst material he was able to find,” maintained all the traditional elements and devices of the detective novel, and still, beneath the surface, confronted the serious questions of the Atomic Age.
When Aldrich was interviewed in 1956 by Francois Truffaut, he expressed some reservations about Kiss Me Deadly, saying that he should have refused to do the film. This defensive manner was partly in reaction to what he saw as excessive French praise over the film. “Id like to say that I thought of all the things the French say are in the picture.” he later commented, but it’s not true. It was the first year of Cahiers and those guys jumped on that picture like it was the Second Coming.” And yet, as he also recognized, “That a career due to the European reaction to Kiss Me Deadly. In fact, Kiss Me Deadly became a milestone in Aldrich’s career. “I was very proud of the film.” Aldrich remembered. “I think it represented a whole breakthrough for me. In terms of style, in terms of the way we tried to make it, it provided a marvelous showcase to display my own ideas of movie-making. In that sense it was an enormous ‘first’ for me.” The style was that of a B movie made with an A sensibility. Its black-and-white, small-screen images were in marked contrast to the scope and sweep of Vera Cruz, but they were exactly appropriate for this tale of corruption. “We tried to have a very obvious stylized impact of energy,” Aldrich said. “… you had a chance to establish a very graphic, hard-hitting, short cut, staccato kind of style…. That wasn’t brand new but it was new for that kind of film. Aldrich credited Michael Luciano’s editing for achieving much of this impact: “Basically that picture was a refinement of Mike’s assembly,” he later said. Luciano recalled that they “fought like hell” but went for a “rough and tough rhythm” and “fast sequencing. In the end, Kiss Me Deadly becomes film noir at its most paranoid. The camera shifts, cranes, hides, and scurries-a creature of the night peering into and out of shadows in a world which, the film suggests, perhaps deserves the cleansing purgation of the Bomb.
People have always said that. What I thought, it happened quite often with French critics, particularly when Truffaut and Chabrol and all those guys were at Cahiers, was that they read many, many things into Kiss Me Deadly. I appreciated their enthusiasm, but I just couldn’t take a bow for it. Because Kiss Me Deadly, at its depth, had to do with the McCarthy Era, the end justifying the means, and the kind of materialistic society that paid off in choice rewards, sometimes money, sometimes girls, sometimes other things. But it wasn’t as profound as many of the French thought it was. I did like it; it did everything I hoped it would do and more. I think I did a good job on it, that everybody connected with it did a good job; but it isn’t that deep a piece of piercing philosophy as the French thought it was. – Robert Aldrich
This 1955 adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s lowbrow, anti-Communist, macho fiction, which had masqueraded as a crime novel, takes Spillane’s Mike Hammer from New York to Los Angeles, and situates him in a menacing milieu of somber streets and decaying houses even less inviting than those stalked by Spade and Marlowe in preceding decades. Like Hammer’s fast cars, the movie swerves through a frenzy of disconnected and cataclysmic scenes even the opening credits scroll backwards! To Spillane’s mix of fist fights, pipe bombs, gun play, and some plain. old-fashioned torture, the filmmakers add a hint of grand opera and the love poetry of Christina Rossetti. From this unlikely combination, there emerges as early commentators Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton wrote in their Panorama of American Film Noir-“a savage lyricism [that] hurls us into a world in full decomposition, ruled by the dissolute and the cruel. To these brutal and corrupt intrigues, Aldrich brings the most radical of solutions: nuclear apocalypse.”
Coming at the end of America’s “film noir era, in a society that had yet to recover from Hiroshima and Joe McCarthy, KISS ME DEADLY is hardly an optimistic tale of heroism and redemption. In City of Quartz, social historian Mike Davis describes a post-War Los Angeles darkened in spirit by that great anti-myth usually known as noir.” Mike Hammer is the embodiment of the great anti-myth”: his quest for the “great what’s-it.” in fact, is a cynical retread of the Holy Grail legend. But, this time around, it all blows up in your face. Hammer demythologizes “the knight in shining armor”: his “what’s in it for me?” attitude is unsubtle and unabashed, the antithesis of a fictional private detective like Raymond Chandler’s urban knight, Philip Marlowe. San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle noted, “Hammer is not the hardworking, down-on-his luck detective that Spillane created but a total sleaze. If KISS ME DEADLY were a brand-new film, it would still be shocking in its mean spirit, its happy brutality and its audacious mix of real and surreal elements.” Hammer’s very name reveals all: a hard, heavy, unrelenting object pounding away mindlessly at social outcasts like two penny nails.
What kind of man is Mike Hammer? KISS ME DEADLY’s opening dialogue types him quickly. Christina’s blatant comment about his narcissism merely confirms what the icons suggest or, as she notes, “how much you can tell about the person from such simple things: the sports car, the trench coat, the lip curled in a sheer, the jazz on the radio.” Aldrich and screenwriter Al. Bezzerides use the character of Christina to explain and reinforce what the images have already suggested, that this is neither a modest nor admirable man. The dialogue also reveals that Hammer knows exactly who he is and the image he presents. “What kind of message does it send you?,” he queries Christina regarding his car. Clearly it sends the message Hammer wants it to send, a message about sex and power which Christina, the “fugitive from the laughing house.” seems ready to talk about overtly. This is a first hint of role reversal, specifically circumvention from stereotype via audible communication. The older men. the pedantic Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker) and an Italian furniture mover, will use figurative images and make mythical allusions, rather than speak directly about people and objects. But the younger women-Christina, Velda, Friday and even Lily verbally shoot from the hip: they say exactly what’s on their minds.
All in all, this was unusual exposition for 1955. While the blatant sexuality may seem tame by current standards, Hammer’s use of Velda to “date” (i.e. seduce/compromise! sleep with) unwitting husbands embroiled in his divorce cases while he took care of the wives was rather risqué for the mid-’50s. There were problems with the Legion of Decency and other bastions of morality that condemned the movie outright. And there was some more static from the MPAA over the way singer Madi Comfort handled a phallic microphone in a night club scene.
KISS ME DEADLY was scripted to end with the evaporation of evil via a nuclear catharsis. Replacing the drug dealers in Spillane’s novel something that film censors gauged as “off limits” back in 1955), Aldrich and Bezzerides made up the atomic angle out of whole cloth, possibly taking a little inspiration from the era’s apocalyptic science fiction or un earlier picture with a radioactive “macguffin” like Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946). The film concludes in the beach house with Lily ignoring Soberin’s warnings and unlocking “Pandora’s box” which contains, in the same context of Greek myth, pure phlogiston a cleansing, combustible element, a purifying fire that reduces both her and the film’s nether world to radioactive ash. Escaping from the house, Velda and a wounded Hammer cower in the surf as the hapless Lily, and the Malibu cottage, are swallowed in a fiery, mini-mushroom cloud. Sometime after its first release, the ending was altered on the film’s original negative, removing more than a minute’s worth of shots where Hammer and Velda escape and superimposing the words “The End” over the burning house. This implied that Hammer and Velda perished in the atomic blaze, and was often interpreted to represent the apocalypse. In 1997, the original conclusion was restored, where Velda and Mike survive.
To appreciate Kiss Me Deadly, you have to love movies passionately. In Aldrich’s films, it is not unusual to encounter a new idea with each shot. In his movie the inventiveness is so rich that we don’t know what to look at-the images are almost too full, too fertile. Watching a film like this is such an intense experience that we want it to last for hours. It is easy to picture its author as a man overflowing with vitality, as much at ease behind a camera as Henry Miller facing a blank page. This is the film of a young director who is not yet worrying about restraint.”
Over the years, the film has done more than delight its viewers; it has gained a solid reputation as one of the finest American films of the 1950s. Paul Schrader, in his 1972 article “Notes on Film Noir,” calls Kiss Me Deadly the masterpiece” of that genre and observes that Aldrich “carries noir to its sleaziest and most perversely erotic.” Pierre Sauvage compares it to Welles’s Touch of Evil in its willingness to confront the corruption of the world. Indeed, some critics are inclined to see it as Aldrich’s finest work, although to do so one must overlook the more mature, and, ultimately, more demanding films of the 1970s.
Kiss Me Deadly is still an influential film. One might compare Aldrich’s Hammer to Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). Gittes is also a divorce specialist who is never as smart as he thinks and whose ignorance results in final tragedy. The mysterious and deadly box was resurrected in Steven Speilberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Although the special effects employed when the ark is opened are more sophisticated, they are not necessarily more frightening than the sight and sound of Lily Carver/Gabrielle screaming as she is consumed by the hissing and shrieking flames which shoot out of the box (Aldrich explained that the sound was created through a combination of an airplane exhaust, loud breathing and a blow torch, which resulted in a kind of unearthly chanting. The ghosts from the ark make much the same sound. The film’s apocalyptic ending, which is both funny and horrifying anticipates the similar shock one feels at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), another meditation on the end of the world. There are echoes of the film in Aldrich’s later works as well: the final destruction in Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, or the overall sense of moral perversity found in The Grissom Gang and Hustle. Kiss Me Deadly remains a film which does not date-after twenty five years it is still a richly imaginative, quirky, and darkly funny work.
Directed – Robert Aldrich
Produced – Robert Aldrich
Screenplay – A.I. Bezzerides
Robert Aldrich (uncredited)
Based on the novel
Kiss Me, Deadly
by Mickey Spillane
Music – Frank DeVol
Cinematography – Ernest Laszlo
Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer
Albert Dekker as Dr. G.E. Soberin
Paul Stewart as Carl Evello
Juano Hernandez as Eddie Yeager
Wesley Addy as Lt. Pat Murphy
Maxine Cooper as Velda
Cloris Leachman as Christina Bailey
Gaby Rodgers as Gabrielle (Lilly Carver)
Nick Dennis as Nick
Jack Lambert as Sugar Smallhouse
Jack Elam as Charlie Max
Leigh Snowden as Cheesecake
Percy Helton as Doc Kennedy
Strother Martin as Harvey Wallace
Paul Richards as Paul Richards
Fortunio Bonanova as Carmen Trivago
Femme Fatales v07n07
Femme Fatales v06n010/11
The Face on The Cutting Room Floor by Murray Schumach