It’s a tough call, but one of my favourite films noirs is Robert Aldrich’s 1955 movie, Kiss Me Deadly. I’ve seen it at least fives times, most recently a couple of nights ago, and still find things about it to appreciate I hadn’t noticed previously.
Shot in just three weeks with a group of largely no-name actors, Kiss Me Deadly is very loosely based on a Mickey Spillane novel of the same name. Most Pulp Curry readers are probably familiar with the plot, so I won’t go into it here. If you’re reading this and you’re not, all I can say is go and watch it – right now.
It’s one of the last of the classic era noirs and a great piece of pulp cinema. Here are 8 things I love about it.
1. The opening
On a deserted stretch of highway, tough guy private investigator Mike Hammer almost runs over a near hysterical woman standing in the middle of the road. Reluctantly, he gives her lift. The credits roll in reverse above the sound of the woman, Christina, sobbing and Nat ‘King’ Cole singing Rather Have Blue Eyes.
No sooner does she recovered her composure than she proceeds to psychoanalyse Hammer with a devastating accuracy that’s worth reprinting in full:
Christina: You’re angry with me, aren’t you? Sorry I nearly wrecked your pretty little car. I was just thinking how much you can tell about a person from such simple things. Your car, for instance.
Hammer: Now, what kind of a message does it send ya?
Christina: You have only one real lasting love. Hammer: Now who could that be? Christina: You. You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard.
Hammer: You against good health or somethin’?
Christina: I could tolerate flabby muscles in a man who may be more friendly. You’re the kind of a person who never gives in a relationship – who only takes.
2. Ralph Meeker as Hammer
Meeker plays Hammer as sleazy, immoral bottom feeder whose speciality is divorce cases, a “bed room dick” as he is referred to as at one point.
His first response to any situation is almost always excessive force. He enjoys violence. Check out the grin on his face as he repeatedly slams the desk draw on the hand of the corrupt mortuary attendant, or the way he slaps the elderly man at the swimming pool when the old guy doesn’t cough up the information he wants.
Parallel with Hammer’s tough guy exterior is a man gradually coming apart. Profoundly shaken by his brief encounter with Christina, his whole personality literally appears to unravel as he gets deeper and deeper into a case, the ramifications of which he can’t even begin to understand. “I don’t know,” is all he can mutter, when his cop friend, Lt Murphy, asks him whether he knows what he’s up against.
Hammer’s wall mounted reel-to-reel answering machine must have seemed incredibly high tech for the mid-fifties, complete with a message from his lover cum secretary, Zelda (Maxine Cooper) in a tone that’s half sultry vixen – half HAL from Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey.
Zelda, his ballet dancing, highly intelligent Girl Friday, is one of the film’s highlights. She comes off as a better PI than he without the violence. That she’s largely wasted on Hammer is an understatement. They are lovers, but at the same time Hammer is more than happy to pimp her out if it’ll get him the information he needs.
5. Bit players
There’s a fantastic supporting caste, chief among them Albert Dekker as Dr Soberin and Gaby Rodgers as Gabrielle/Lilly Carver. Jack Elam plays a hood, Strother Martin (“what we have here is a failure to communicate”) puts in a brief appearance, as does film noir regular Percy Helton as the mortuary attendant.
6. More happens off the screen than on
My most recent viewing of the film made me realise just how much of the story takes place off the screen.
When Christina is tortured at the beginning, we see only her legs accompanied by her screams and a hand casually holding a pair of pliers. Ditto’s Hammer’s violent escape from the hoods who have drugged him and hold him prisoner takes place completely off screen.
But more fundamentally, most of the plot is unexplained or, at best, inferred. Where did the box come from and who is the mysterious, classics sprouting Dr Soberin? Who was Christina and why was she held against her will in an insane asylum? Why are the hoodlums involved? Kiss Me Deadly has more questions than answers, way more, and still works brilliantly.
As Zelda puts it: “They. A wonderful word. And who are they? They are the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares.”
There’s an overwhelming sense of confusion and paranoia throughout the film. Not just the atmosphere of the Cold War and the red scare.
With just three words, “Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity” Lt Murphy shuts Hammer up, evoking the authority of the nuclear state and fear of annihilation.
8. “The great whatsit”
It’s one of cinema’s best known MacGuffins. We don’t know exactly what’s in the box, but whatever it is people are prepare to kill for it.
The final word goes to Dr Soberin as he dies from a gunshot wound to his chest: “Don’t open the box”.