Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Tonight's entry:
Novel (1952) Film (1955)

On a lonely stretch of midnight road, a woman, Christina, bare of foot and wearing only a trenchcoat, flees an unknown danger. A car speeds towards her, and she forces it off the road by standing in its path. 

Its driver?

"You almost wrecked my car. Well? Get in."

So begins what Tim Dirks at filmsite called "the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time." 

The whole opening sequence is very interesting. The credits scroll from top to bottom but are written in reverse, so you read them upside-down.
The soundtrack is only Christina's suggestive sobs and shudders while Nat King Cole sings "I'd Rather Have the Blues Than What I Got," introduced by a velvet-throated female DJ.

I had no idea when I blogged up "Murder Me, Murder You" a few years back that I'd be covering so much Mike Hammer for the blog. I still have yet to read any of the original Spillane books (or any of the continuation books - including a sequel to Kiss Me, Deadly co-authored by Max Allan Collins) which I feel kind of bad about. What kind of yahoo does five-and-counting blogs on an iconic character without reading any of the original books? It's absurd. I'll get there eventually. As mentioned here:

"If you’re only familiar with (the movie) then it needs to be said up front that the movie doesn’t have a huge amount in common with the book. Some plot elements were retained as was the idea of an immensely valuable something that everybody wants to get their hands on. The whole flavor of the movie is however radically different compared to the book; (it's) really was more of an anti-Spillane movie than an actual Spillane movie. (It's) cynical and ironic and presents Mike Hammer as little more than a thug. Anyone who has actually read Spillane knows that Spillane’s Mike Hammer is no thug. He’s a tough guy and he’s prepared to use a great deal of violence but he’s also a spiritual descendant of Philip Marlowe. In his own way and in his very different style he is as much of a knight-errant as Marlowe. Hammer has a very definite moral code and he lives by it. He might not worry about bending the law but he will never ever break his own moral code."

I'm sure that's true. It's definitely true that the Mike Hammer of Kiss Me Deadly (the film) is sleazier and more sadistic than the other incarnations of the character I've seen. At one point he seems agreeable to taking a payoff ("What's it worth to you to turn your considerable talents back to the gutter you crawled out of?" The offer is withdrawn before Mike can name a figure.) And his entire private detective practice is centered around pimping out Velda (his secretary) to married men so he can blackmail her paramours.

Spillane was angry about this aspect of Bezzerides' script and apparently wasn't shy about telling him. (Was this the driving motivation behind his playing Mike Hammer himself in The Girl Hunters? To re-set the silver screen perception of his character? If so, I haven't heard it, but it makes sense.) But as mentioned here:

"in spite of all this, (the movie's Mike Hammer) has his redeeming qualities. Although not the sharpest tool in the shed, he can nonetheless add two and two together, even if three and three is a bit ambitious. And —condescending as this may sound (today), in 1955 this was kind of a big deal: he gets along comfortably and intimately with people who have accents and aren’t white (...) Meeker’s Hammer is on a friendly enough basis with a black bartender and lounge singer that they’re the company in which he chooses to mourn a fallen friend." 

"While by no means am I suggesting that we canonize St. Mike Hammer the Racially Tolerant, it’s a humanizing touch that the character needs (...) And Meeker captures all the tricky nuances quite well."  

And his best friend Nick is a swarthy Greek immigrant who says excited things like "My mustache! My father's mustache!"

The script goes above and beyond to individuate and distinguish everyone who walks into frame. Why have someone say "No, don't revive her" when they could say "If you revive her, do you know what that would be? Resurrection, that's what it would be. And do you know what resurrection means? It means raise the dead. And just who do you think you are that you think you can raise the dead?" And why have the bartender say "Cheers" and clink Mike's drink when he could say "Va-va-Voom! Pretty POW!"

Anyway, different though they may be, there's still plenty of familiar territory even for Hammer novices like me:

He's much more gleefully sadistic in the movie, but his general push-and-shove-manner and willingness to kill are in full swing.
Familiar faces Velda (Maxine Cooper) and Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy), a composite of Captain Pat Chambers and perpetual Assistant-District-Attorney foil "Barry".
As mentioned above, Velda's and Mike's relationship is sexed up considerably, both professionally and personally. Not without purpose, though -
their borderline co-dependence is the only thing that saves them.
Meanwhile, every woman Mike meets follows the same pattern as in the 80s and 90s TV shows.

Even if you've never seen this movie, you've seen its influence in plenty of places without likely realizing it.

Most notably, perhaps, is the glowing-mystery-box motif, seen in everything from Pulp Fiction
to Repo Man. Repo Man also references the if-you-open-it-it-vaporizes-you business.
As does Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Anyway! Back to the plot. After the credits, Mike agrees to drive Christina to the bus station. They run into a police roadblock, and Mike overhears the cop tell the car in front of them that they're looking for a woman who escaped from an asylum upstate, young, and wearing a trenchcoat. He covers for her, but before they get much further, they are forced off the road and kidnapped.

She is tortured to death, and the unseen assailants push Hammer's car off a cliff with her and Mike's unconscious body inside.

When Mike wakes up in a hospital, he's immediately told to back off. Naturally this impels him to pursue things further: out of a need for vengeance, a sense of guilt (as Christina had asked him to "remember me" if she got killed), and opportunism: "she (Christina) must be connected with something big" behind it all.

He is immediately pursued by very film-noir-y looking tough guys. As well as a man whom the audience can only identify by his suede shoes.

Mike's investigation first takes him to many places and through many twists and turns. Too many to exhaustively detail here - I'd end up reproducing everything if I tried. Broad strokes-wise, though, he goes to the apartment of Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), a sexy, waif-like woman who is posing as Christina's ex-roommate. Lily tells Hammer she has gone into hiding and asks Hammer to protect her. It turns out that she is after a mysterious box that, she believes, has contents worth a fortune.

Nice interview with Gaby here.
She had kind of an Emma Thompson circa-Dead-Again-thing going on in this movie.

It also takes him to the home of gangster Jackie Treehorn Carl Evello (Paul Stewart), where he is immediately accosted by Bunny Lebowski a nymphomaniac named Friday (Marian Carr). 

The scenery at Carl's place is very Mike Hammer-esque, including an impressive if somewhat lascivious camera maneuver tracking this bathing-suit babe as she circuits the pool.

When Mike enters a changing house to get a look at everyone's shoes to see if any are a match for the blue suedes that have been following him around, Evelo sends in his two thugs (familiar noir-and-elsewhere-tough-guys Jack Lambert and Jack Elam) to rough him up. It doesn't go as planned. 

This scene is especially interesting for the surreal way it ends. 

After his partner is subdued by a judo chop, Elam's character slowly backs out of the pool bath house. The camera stays with him for a conspicuous few beats, then he turns and stumbles past the silent observers.

I wasn't exactly sure how to interpret this. Elam's last scene in the film is similarly surreal. Watch for it next time you see it / when you eventually do. 

Mike eventually tracks down the mysterious box to a locker in an athletic club. 

When he opens it a crack, only for a split second, it emits a ghastly sound and burns his wrist.
Mike instructs the attendant not to let anybody near the locker until he gets back. Ah well.

Later, at an isolated beach house, Hammer finds "Lily," who has been revealed to be an imposter named Gabrielle, with her boss, Dr. Soberin, (Albert Dekker, who died in real life under very mysterious circumstances), the chap with the suede shoes. Velda is their hostage, tied up in a bedroom. Gabrielle shoots Soberin, believing that she can keep the mysterious contents for herself. 

She also shoots and wounds Hammer, but when she opens the case and is exposed to the radioactive contents inside (the words "radioactive" "nuclear" or "atomic" are never used, but it's clearly some kind of radionuclide material in there) he and Velda manage to escape. 

Behind them, the house explodes.
The End.

As mentioned here: "The original American release of the film shows Hammer and Velda escaping from the burning house at the end, running into the ocean as the words "The End" come over them on the screen. Sometime after its first release, the ending was altered on the film's original negative, removing over 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."

I believe it was the pre-1997-restoration version I first saw, so the Mike-and-Velda-survive version was new to me. Puts a whole different spin on things.

Kiss Me Deadly has several motifs, be they literary (Sonnets of Christina Rossetti) audio (Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Chopin's Revolutionary Etude or all the dialogue-less scenes with only the noise of the radio for sound design) or visual, namely all the great Ernest Laszlo (last seen in these pages for his work in D.O.A.) compositions that emphasize so many nuances of each scene.  

The art direction in general (by Walter Glasgow) re-enforces Mike as the kind of Playboy male coming into vogue in America: affluent, narcissistic, flashy sports car: 

jazz on the turntable, African sculptures, and fancy clothes with a hedonistic and self-serving demeanor.

Complete with this reel-to-reel answering machine with a sexy woman's voice built into the wall.

Easy to see how this would chafe at Spillane, Mike's creator, who saw him less Playboy-Philosophy-esque and more wounded knight-errant. But, for the purposes of the film, it works, as we see it all fail to sustain or save him; the only thing that does is what he goes to the beach house to rescue: Velda.

One last bit of visual design - when Mike's investigation takes him to a gallery of modern art, there's this fantastic cross-cut sequence between his slowly walking through the gallery and the guy whom he's there to question upstairs guzzling down sleeping pills.

Modern art and film noir go together surprisingly well.


In addition to:

there's the aforementioned Gaby Rodgers, film debut of Cloris Leachman, Marian Carr as the gangster's moll
and lounge singer Madi Comfort as the lounge singer at the night club who offers another take on the theme song.

I'm skipping, like, a hundred people. And crew members. This is why TCM hasn't offered me a fat contract, folks. Well, that and my uncomfortable lack of good breeding.

The director Robert Aldrich is probably best-known for The Dirty Dozen. If he'd done only that film, he'd still be a director of note for the twentieth century, but to have that and this one on his c.v. (not to mention any of his other classics) is one helluva an accomplishment. Good on ya, old-timer. What's lesser known about the director was that he was one of the heirs to the great Aldrich/Rockefeller marriage dynasty but was disowned for his interest in a career as a filmmaker. He stuck to his guns, and the family cast him out.

I'm sure his grandkids love having an auteur of his quality in the fam, but there's got to be some "Holy dear God, who did you say we're supposed to be related to again?!" moments at family get-togethers. He died "not far from broke" in 1983.