Kiss Me Deadly (BluRay Review)
The classic film noir genre usually dealt with many of the same types of subject matter such as gangsters, double crosses and femme fatales, but Robert Aldrich‘s film adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s novel Kiss Me Deadly (1955) really took the genre to the edge. Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides left the worn out mafia storyline about drugs behind and brought the Cold War nuclear era sci-fi into focus, ultimately making the film more contemporary and shocking. It was in effect the first rock n’ roll era film noir.
A young woman clad only in an overcoat runs down the middle of a dark Califiornia highway waving for help. A car driving directly at her screeches to a stop and nearly crashes from swerving as not to hit her. Inside the car is an angry brute Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) who tries to restart the stalled machine. After telling the girl to get in, the two drive through the night, filmed from the back, making the small sportscar look like some kind of careening go-cart. The unique opening credits begin but are backwards, letting us know right away that this film is sure to be a different type of experience.
The woman is Christina Bailey (Chloris Leachman) who talks to Mike and seems sweet but she also has an air of danger to her. Mike is uninterested in anything but getting home, staring coldly ahead as he drives. Christina does all the talking with Mike giving quick answers. She says one thing that stands out to him, a fatalistic message in which she tells him to “remember me”. Suddenly the two are blocked on the highway before the bus stop they’re headed for so he can drop her off. Some mysterious men kidnap the two, bringing them to an undisclosed location where they knock Mike out and torture Christina. As Mike lays on the floor unconscious, Christina’s feet dangle nearby and we hear her bloodcurdling screams, creating a disturbing effect. The two are then pushed off a cliff in Mike’s car. He survives but poor Christina perishes in the wreck, leaving him haunted about why they were both targeted to be killed.
After his release from the hospital, Mike visits his friend Nick (Nick Dennis), an exuberant Greek auto repairman to check on his car, but finds out it died in the crash too. Like clockwork, Mike along with the help of his sexy girlfriend/secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) begins investigating Christina’s past and that’s when he finds her roommate Lily (Gaby Rodgers) has suddenly moved out of their apartment. Thanks to an old man who lives in the building he gets some information on her whereabouts. When he arrives at her new place and walks in, shes already got a gun on him. Lily thinks he might be one of the people out to get her. At his place, Mike is contacted by Carl Evello (Paul Stewart) with a message (on his modern answering machine) that he’ll be receiving a gift for the trouble he had to go through regarding the crash. The next day he discovers a brand new shiny sportscar, a buy off that’s supposed to keep him from investigating further. Only this is just a ruse, Mike’s private eye skills and sixth sense tell him something’s rotten. He has Nick, who has stopped by to say hello, to check the starter and he finds a bomb hidden inside. Mike’s reaction is so matter of fact, you would think it was nothing but a smudge of dirt he found.
Mike decides to pay a visit to Evello and uses one of the big man’s cute kittens to get access to his home and find out who this guy is. After being confronted by his two main thugs Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert) and Charlie Max (Jack Elam), Mike swiftly flattens Sugar out and Charlie smartly decides to keep his distance. Even he can see Mike is a no nonsense ass kicker. Evello is set on getting Mike off his back but when the price is too high for him, he tells Mike to hit the bricks. Hammer continues to replay Christina’s words in his mind and after paying a visit to the coroner, in a moment of inspired thought, he realizes Christina had swallowed a key before she died. The coroner Doc Kennedy (Percy Helton) lets him know he’s right, but wants money for it. Mike lays down some dough but doesn’t want to go higher. When the Doc refuses to give it up for his price, Mike sadistically slams the doctor’s fingers in his desk and just takes it. The key leads him to a sports club and a locker. Inside, Mike finds a leather covered metal box. A heat radiates from it and when he opens the lid, an intensely bright glow and disturbing noise emits from the box which Mike quickly closes. Now he knows that this item, a “great whatsit” is something much more important than any PI job he’s had before about a missing husband or crook on the lam. The film noir genre itself almost appears as a mere game of cops n’ robbers compared to this new type of apocalyptic threat.
Ralph Meeker was known for playing tough guys in B-movies but his version of Mike Hammer was something of a departure. He really was a new kind of hard boiled super-gumshoe with a surly, sadistic persona and even the ability to imitate voices (look for the sodium pentathol sequence and watch how Mike escapes Evello’s men). Hammer seems to be unbeatable from the beginning of the film. Every encounter with thugs who trail him or tie him up, he gets the drop on and leaves ’em mashed like potatoes in his wake. Meeker’s Hammer was the epitome of the anti-hero, a man who was only interested in what was in it for him. He is right at home slapping around anyone who gives him attitude. This iconic character would inspire generations of tough guys in film from Dirty Harry to John McClane in Die Hard.
A variation on the “great what’s it” nuclear device would turn up decades later in two L.A. based genre films. Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) features a stolen car which contains a trunk full of alien remains which when opened creates the same nuclear blast death effect as in this film. In Quentin Tarantino‘s gangster-comedy Pulp Fiction (1994), a briefcase (which was used as a MacGuffin) with mysterious glowing contents that causes the characters to stare in awe would become famous for driving millions of film geeks crazy trying to figure out what was inside.
BLU RAY REVIEW
Studio: Criterion Collection
PICTURE: Presented in (1:66:1). The new high-definition transfer was created on a Sprit Datacine from a 35mm fine grain master positive. Thousands of particles of debris were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system. Digital Vision DVNR system was also used for small grain and noise reduction.
The film transfer looks the best out of any previous home video release. Another incredible detailed restoration by Criterion.
AUDIO: The original mono soundtrack was remastered at 24 bit from a 35mm optical track. Noises were removed using a Pro Tools HD. Crackles were reduced using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.
– Audio commentary by film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini
– An informative and entertaining look at the film through Director Alex Cox’s eyes. Cox also happens to be an expert on spaghetti westerns and its always a treat to listen to his theories and thoughts on genre cinema.
– Excerpts from The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides a 2005 documentary on the Kiss Me Deadly screenwriter: A brief interview with the screenwriter who gives some humorous insights about his style of writing, thoughts on Spillane’s book and contributing to the project.
– Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, a 1998 documentary about the life and work of the author: A special extensive look at the author from his beginnings up to his passing in 2006. Featuring interviews with several modern pulp fiction writers who were inspired/influenced by him and fans of his work. It’s clear from watching this feature that Mickey Spillane was a larger than life character who everyone liked. There’s some really interesting stories about his life and work.
– Video pieces on the film’s locations
– Controversial altered ending: The original American release of the film had Hammer and Velda escaping from the burning house and running into the ocean as the words “The End” come up on the screen. After its release, the ending was altered removing over a minute’s worth of shots where Hammer and Velda escape with only the words “The End” placed over the burning house. It implied they both died in the blaze making it even more downbeat.
– Theatrical trailer
– Booklet featuring essay by critic J. Hoberman and 1955 reprint by director Robert Aldrich.
FINAL WORD: Criterion prides themselves on giving serious film enthusiasts the creme de le creme of cinema in the home entertainment format and this dark gem is a welcomed addition to their expansive archive of genre treasures.