Random Film of the Week: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

(thanks, criterioncollection!) 

kiss me deadlyIf you’ve never seen this Robert Aldrich-produced and directed film noir masterpiece, drop what you’re doing (well, unless you’re operating heavy machinery or in the middle of something where dropping anything will cause a major or minor disaster) and go look this one up. You’re guaranteed to say something like “What the…” at least two or three (or a dozen) times while watching this one, trust me. Mike Hammer is supposed to be a hard as nails private eye, but in this flick, he spends about a quarter of the film either getting chased, beaten up, shot at and otherwise maimed by assorted people who want him out of the picture he’s supposed to be starring in.

Deviating quite dramatically from the Mickey Spillane novel, this one’s a blazing hot mix of a downward spiral into a particularly dark hell for private eye Mike Hammer (masterfully played by Ralph Meeker), who has so many brushes with death here that the film ends up having a nasty comic edge thanks to the level of violence on display. No one here escapes unscathed, as everyone either wants Hammer dead or disabled (or both) and the few people on his side tend to drop like flies or come pretty close to it. The film also offers up a big twist at the end that turns it into a sort of wild sci-fi flick, but I won’t spoil that surprise other than to say it’s a big reason the film is so insanely brilliant…

Then again, when your movie starts off with its credits rolling in reverse followed by a lady in a trenchcoat running for her life barefoot down a highway (and yes, that’s Cloris Leachman!), you’re in for a wild ride. KMD doesn’t disappoint at all, getting Hammer to pick up the girl only to have them both get into a little accident thanks to the men chasing her. Fortunately, Hammer survives (the gal doesn’t) and he’s soon hot on the trail to find out who the mystery lady was and why she was killed. This leads to a meeting with the attractive but very off-kilter “roomate” of the deceased named Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers) who’s posing in order to get Hammer to help her recover a mysterious box that a whole lot of other people seem to want for some odd reason.

Hammer’s poor secretary/lover, Velda (Maxine Cooper) gets caught up in all the mess at one point and you end up feeling sorrier for her than Hammer, as at least he can take a punch to the jaw. She’s a tough chick indeed, but the men after Mike aren’t nice guys and Velda ends up in danger and in need of rescue. Of course, Mike is mixed up with Lily (who turns out not to be Lily) and by the time he realizes Velda is in danger, the film is racing to its crazy conclusion. Will he make it to Velda and solve the mystery of what’s in the box? Yeah, you can go read a more in-depth review elsewhere, but I live on SUSPENSE Street, so I’m keeping you on the corner for that bus that’s not coming because it’s on the other block…

In the novel, that box was full of dope, but here… well, you’ll just have to find out, ladies and gents. The film tosses a bunch of clues your way with a scientist, a scene with the box in a locker room (it’s literally too hot to handle!) and some choice dialog, but it’s the clueless nature of most of the characters (including Hammer) that helps propel the film forward at every moment. As a few attempts are made on Hammer’s life, there’s some great action scenes where you can almost feel that punch to the gut or tumble to the hard pavement. As noted, it’s a great thing to see Hammer not an invincible uber-man in this film, as he’s beaten up pretty badly during his case and even gets shot in a surprising scene. At one point when watching this for the fourth or fifth time, this time with a few friends who hadn’t seen it yet, one looked my was and quipped “You know, Hammer needs to call a detective so he can find out who’s trying to kill the hell out of him.” Indeed.

As for that socko finale, it’s a total killer (in more ways than one, folks) that still works and works even better as current prints of the film restore the original ending that packs more of a punch than the cut some saw many years back that was a wee bit too tough to decipher as to what exactly happened to everyone. Then again, according to a few things I’ve read that chop job finale seems to have led to what would later be known as “French New Wave” cinema thanks to budding directors there taking notes and thinking the film’s more nihilistic closing was something truly fantastic to see in a genre that was more or less on its last legs. If you can find it, I’d recommend seeing this on a double feature with 1963’s somewhat wretched but fun The Girl Hunters, which features Spillane himself as Mike Hammer (and yeah, it’s not a great film, but you’ll probably laugh a few times just from the absurdity of it all).

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14 thoughts on “Random Film of the Week: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

  1. Great review. You gave us the flavour and saved the secret. You’re my favourite resident of Suspense Street.

    I caught this on local TV just last week after having not seen it in a while. Wow! Some things hold up, but some things get better. “Kiss Me Deadly” definitely gets better.

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    • Thank you! I once lent the DVD to a friend who’d never seen this and he made the mistake of watching it after a long shift at his job (and a long drive home) only to doze off after Hammer picked up his hitchhiker only to wake up during the last two or three minutes of the picture (oops). He thought his TV had somehow switched back to cable (“I must have rolled onto the remote!”) and that he was watching the finale to an entirely different film. Ha! Of course, I told him to watch it again and yep, he was glad he did…

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  2. Fun post! You cracked me up with “otherwise maimed by assorted people who want him out of the picture he’s supposed to be starring in.” Come on, can’t a fella star in his own movie without all this fuss? Thanks for contributing!

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    • Thanks! The first time I saw this in its entirety was with my younger brother who’d rented it from the wonderful Kim’s Video in NYC and we were laughing so hard about poor Mike and his friends pretty much having the one of the worst work weeks ever in a noir (well outside of Tom Neal and Ann Savage in Detour). It’s as if everyone who goes after him wants to be the star of the film and Gaby Rodgers allllmost wins that prize (until she makes that little mistake of being too nosy). I also think it’s the credits rolling in “reverse” at the outset that set the mood. It’s a bit jarring at first and when the action begins, it makes sense and keeps the mood weird and tense…

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  3. The modified ending made an impression on me and the revised/original ending made an even bigger one. Totally unrelated, but I remember when I was a kid seeing Mickey Spillane on a local San Francisco interview show touting one of this books, perhaps The Erection Set. The host looked at the cover and said “What kind of a (tart?trollop?something) would pose for a picture like that?” Spillane said “My wife.” I like to tell that story.

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    • Ha! I think I’ve heard that story retold by someone a while back, but it’s still hilarious. I’m wondering if Spillane wanted to go after that interviewer (or just force him to read the book) afterwards…

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  4. I’ve always wanted to see this one, and your review made me want to see it even more than the crazy preview. It’s hard to believe they could fit so much into one mystery, but I suspect that’s part of what makes it brilliant:) Leah

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    • Thank you! Oh, it’s jam-packed, that’s for sure. A surprise every few minutes and that ending? It still gets me thanks to the noise (you’ll see… and hear)…

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    • Thanks much! I’ve always tried to never discuss the ending when I recommend this, but I’ve read reviews that give it away and I always shake a fist at them because it makes the film. I need to get that Criterion Collection Repo Man, as I’ve seen that movie so many times, but haven’t reviewed it because I wanted to talk about the TV edit Cox did that was nuts (I saw the film in theaters a few times and the TV version once, but it was memorable for what he did with it). Pulp Fiction is a LOT of films rolled together and I’m still finding influences every time I see it. All good stuff, but I need to sit down and study it a few more times with a note pad. Ah, time to do all this, though… that’s the problem!

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  5. Great review – I’ve never seen this and I really should. Thanks for not letting the cat out of the proverbial bag…Just from watching the trailer I can tell I’m going to love it!

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    • Oh, this one’s a “grab a friend and watch!” film, for sure. I think the trailer gives TOO much away, but this is one of those films that survives that sort of treatment because every scene has some punch to it. Thanks for the comment!

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  6. I really had the sensation “why did I take so longo to finally watched this?”. I mean, it’s brilliant, thrilling, and more violent than any film of the time. Mike Hammer is a ill-fated sleuth. And, if there is something we can learn here, is never to get a hitchniker. And never to believe her roommate!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Gretings!
    Le

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    • Thanks so much! This film does that to people whenever I ask “Have you seen it yet?” and they shake their head “nope!”. Then I let out a laugh because this one’s like a surprise kick to the head from one of those guys trying to get rid of Mr. Hammer. Oh, I have a LOT of reading to catch up on and replies to get out on those other posts. I’m way behind in that, but fear not – I’ll get to your contribution shortly…

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