“Kiss Me Deadly” - Robert Aldrich (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is considered by many reviewers to be the ultimate film noir [1,2,3,4,5,6].  Consider, for example, these critical remarks:
[Kiss Me Deadly is] “arguably the greatest example of American noir cinema. Film historian Steven Scheuer called Kiss Me Deadly 'the apotheosis”\' of the classic film noir period. More than once, the film has been called the best film noir ever made. Certainly the film was decades ahead of its time.” [2]
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time.” [6]
Personally, I wouldn’t go that far.  But the film does have a spectacular, over-the-top presentation of some of film noir’s flashy features.  As film critic Robert Weston commented [2]:
“So what makes Kiss Me Deadly the paramount of the film noir tradition? Frankly, it’s got everything. The predominance of darkness and nighttime? Check. Morally ambiguous protagonists? Check. Existential underpinnings? Check. Dramatic compositions influenced by German Expressionist artists and filmmakers? Check, check, check.”
However, I would say that a truly great film noir needs a kind of narrative unity that Kiss Me Deadly doesn’t quite deliver.  But I will come back to that point later.

The story of the film is based on famous crime novelist Mickey Spillane’s novel Kiss Me Deadly (1952), and it features as its lead character Spillane’s famous hardboiled private investigator Mike Hammer.  Screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides adapted this story for the film, which was directed by Robert Aldrich and photographed by Ernest Laszlo.

Actually, as the above quotations seem to testify, Laszlo’s in-your-face, expressionistic cinematography is very much a key creative element to the film.  It features numerous atmospheric high- and low-angle shots, including many shots looking up and down steep staircases.  These are sharply punctuated by expressive closeups shot from a low angle.  In addition there are a number of well-crafted indoor moving-camera shots, some lasting three minutes.  These various images all combine to portray a dark, threatening, and labyrinthine world having obscure antagonists and no clear-cut answers or goals for the protagonists. 

The story of Kiss Me Deadly plays out over four acts.

1.  A Mysterious Murder

The film begins in spectacular film-noir fashion by showing a young woman, wearing only a trench coat covering her otherwise nude body, running frantically down a dark highway.  She is desperately trying to hail a ride from passing cars, but noone will stop for her.  Finally she stands in the middle of the road, forcing the next car to swerve off the road to a stop to avoid hitting her.  The driver is Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker), who grudgingly allows the young woman to get into his sports car.  She tells him that he only has to drop her off at the nearest buss station.  But they are soon stopped by police looking for a young woman who has escaped from an insane asylum, and Hammer, no friend of the police, shields her by pretending to them that she is his wife.  Proceeding, they soon have to stop at a service station, and while stopped the woman goes inside and quietly gives the attendant a letter she would like him to mail for her. 

Back on the road, the woman (Cloris Leachman) gets into some friendly banter with the sullen Hammer.  She tells him that it is obvious from his flashy car and his demeanor that he is the ultimate self-indulgent male:
“You have only one real, lasting love – you.”
And indeed as the tale progresses, we will see just how true her observation is. 

She also tells him that her name is Christina Bailey and that she was named after the Pre-Raphaelite poetess Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894).  Then turning serious, she urgently tells Hammer that if they don’t make it to a bus stop, to “remember me”.  This phrase, “remember me”, turns out to be a “MacGuffin” [7,8], which is a an artifact in a film that serves as a motif for a revealing narrative element.  Scriptwriter Bezzerides introduced this “MacGuffin”, which was not present in Spillane’s original story.

Sure enough, they don’t make it to that bus stop.  Hammer’s car is stopped by some gangster thugs, who for most of this tale are only shown by their lower legs and black shoes.  The gangsters torture Christina to death and beat Hammer until he is out cold.  Then they dump the two bodies into Hammer’s car, which is pushed into the river.

Evidently rescued from the river, Hammer comes to in a hospital bed, where he is greeted by police lieutenant Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) and his beautiful secretary and girlfriend, Velda Wickman (Maxine Cooper).  From subsequent police and FBI interviews we learn that several people have recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances.  We also learn that Hammer is a private investigator who operates as a lowly “bedroom dick” – he rigs divorce cases by getting Velda (who is obsessively enamored with Hammer and so willing to do anything he asks of her) to prostitute herself and seduce the male member of a litigant married couple, thereby establishing that person’s marital infidelity.

2.  Following Some Leads
The fact that the FBI is involved in the missing-person investigations convinces tough-guy Hammer that something “big” (i.e. lucrative) is going on and he should get himself involved in privately tracking down this “whatzit”, whatever it is.  He gets Velda to use her seductive charm to dig up some contact info and then uses that to trace down further evidence.  In this way he finds out Christina’s old address and then tracks down her old roommate, Lilly Carver (Gaby Rodgers). 

While he is following these various trails, Hammer learns that he is sometimes being followed, and he brutally punches out one of these thuggish shadows on the street.  Eventually Hammer’s pursuits lead him to the plush home of a gangster, where he is greeted by one of the gangster boss’s “girls”, Friday (Marian Carr), who, like all of the beautiful girls in this film, comes on to Hammer and offers herself to him.  But Hammer is only obsessed with money and revenge, and he ignores Friday’s lascivious advances so that he can talk to the gangster boss Carl Evello (Paul Stewart).  Evello is clearly involved in the mysterious whatzit, and he wants to either scare off or buy off Hammer from the trail, but their conversation comes to nothing.

Knowing that Lilly is now in danger, Hammer goes to her flat and rescues her.  When they are safely back in Hammer’s apartment, the beautiful woman, as we might expect at this point, offers herself to him.

Meanwhile the thug shown only in black shoes comes and murders Hammer’s friend and auto mechanic, Nick.

Later when Hammer visits Velda, she criticizes him for obsession with revenge.  But she also informs him about a key figure she has discovered, a certain Doctor Soberin.     

3.  Putting Some Pieces Together
A bit later Hammer learns that the gangsters have come and taken away Velda.  And then Hammer, himself, is ambushed at home by Evello’s men (one of whom is memorably played by expressionistic character actor Jack Elam) and taken to an isolated beach house, where they drug him with a “truth serum” to find out what Hammer might know about the whatzit.  But Hammer still doesn’t know anything about the whatzit, and neither does the viewer.  Anyway, Hammer, in typically ruthless fashion, manages to kill Evello and one of his guards and get away.

Back at his home, with Lilly, Hammer has discovered that the letter that Christina had asked the service station attendant mail for her was paradoxically addressed to him.  But when he opens and reads the letter, it just says, “Remember Me!”.  Now Hammer puts two and two together and looks in a book of Christina Rossetti’s sonnets for the poem “Remember Me”.  When he finds it, he asks Lilly to read it to him, and he pays particular attention to the following lines:
        Remember me when no more day by day
        You tell me of a future which you plan
        Only remember me, you'll understand
        But if the darkness and corruption leave
        A vestige of the thoughts that once we had.
This suggests to Hammer that Christina’s secret must have been small and on her, perhaps something so secret that she had even swallowed it. 

So Hammer and Lilly go to the city morgue and ask to examine Christina’s corpse.  When the morgue attendant refuses permission without a bribe, Hammer cruelly smashes his hands in his desk drawer until he relents.  What they find is that what Christina had swallowed was a key to a locker at the Hollywood Athletic Club. 

Going to the club, Hammer muscles his way past the attendant at the counter and uses the key  to unlock the locker.  What he finds in there is a case containing a lead-lined box.  When he starts to lift the lid of the box, though, he sees that the box contains something blinding and white-hot.  So he quickly closes the lid and relocks the locker, warning the attendant to keep everyone away from the locker.  Leaving the club, Hammer finds that Lilly has disappeared.

At home, Hammer encounters police lieutenant Murphy, who tells him that the real Lilly Carver drowned a while ago and that the woman calling herself by that name, whom Hammer had been hiding in his home, is an imposter.  Murphy, who has been working with the FBI investigation, also cryptically tells Hammer that the lead box he had seen at the club contains radioactive material and is linked to nuclear weaponry.  So now we know a little more about the mysterious whatzit.  As Murphy is about to  leave, Hammer beseeches him to help in rescuing Velda, but Murphy, in keeping with the selfish tenor of all the characters in this story, cynically dismisses the idea.  He has his own business to attend to.

After Murphy leaves, Hammer phones the athletic club, but there is no answer.  The camera shot at the club end of the line shows that the attendant has been murdered, the locker has been broken into, and the mysterious box is gone.

4.  Tracking Down the Box
Hammer is still trying to rescue Velda, and his further bullying investigations lead him to believing that the Dr. Soberin Velda had mentioned is a key figure in the mysterious goings on.  And Hammer ultimately traces Soberin’s whereabouts to the same beach house where Evello and his gang had held him prisoner.

Now the focalization finally shifts away from Hammer and over to the beach house, where Dr. Soberin is shown to be the mysterious and treacherous man wearing the black shoes.  He is with the woman who had passed herself off as “Lilly Carver”, but whose real name is Gabrielle and who is shown to be Soberin’s lover.  They also have with them the mysterious box that everyone has sought.

When Soberin tells her he is going away alone and taking the box with him, the greedy Gabrielle shoots him dead in order to get the box.  Just then Hammer breaks in, and she shoots him, too.  Now Gabrielle wants to finally see what’s inside the treasured box, but when she opens it up, there is a flash of heat and light, and the woman is engulfed in flames.

Hammer is severely wounded, but still alive.  He staggeringly gets up, finds Velda locked up in one of the beach house rooms, and together they stagger out onto the beach, as the beach house explosively erupts in flames behind them.

There are several aspects of Kiss Me Deadly that distinguish the film, even among the film noir genre.  One is its cartoon-like image of masculinity.  Hammer’s explosive belligerence seems to invariably feature one-punch knockout power.  But when Hammer is hit, he always gets up and escapes.  The women he encounters – Christina, Velda, Friday, and Lily/Gabrielle – all throw themselves at him.

Another extreme aspect of the film is the universal expressions of contempt on the part of just about all the male members of the story.  And these goes beyond the usual noirish obsession for revenge; it applies to everyone.   This is true of the police and FBI, in particular Lt. Murphy, as well as Carl Evello, Dr. Soberin, and the other gangster assailants.  And above all, it is a constant behavioral feature of Mike Hammer, himself.  There are basically no sympathetic male characters in this film with whom the viewer might want to empathize.  For these reasons Kiss Me Deadly doesn’t present a compelling narrative that can draw in the viewer’s attention and fascinate him or her with what goes on.
More interesting is the quizzical nature of the never-fully-revealed whatzit – the contents of the box.  Kiss Me Deadly was made when there was more awareness of the likely apocalyptic fate of mankind [9].  The whatzit in this story was the subject of multiple dreamlike interpretations that might provide answers in this respect.  In this connection Robert Weston has commented [2]:
“But the great whatzit is clearly a symbol of truth. The idea that all will be revealed once it is found is each character’s fundamental motivation. Everyone is desperately fighting to find the mysterious box because it represents an answer to something they can’t explain, a desire for the ultimate; a divine explanation for everything. They have no idea that such an object is unattainable in an existential world. Each character, even Mike, who for most of the film does not even know what he’s looking for, rationalize the great whatzit into something they want or need. For Christina, it might have been truth or beauty. For Mike, it appears to be money, or perhaps redemption. For Dr. Soberin and the FBI agents, it is power.”
Overall, it is that apocalyptic mystery element that elevates Kiss Me Deadly above the mundane members of its genre.

  1. David Mattin, “Kiss Me Deadly (1955)”, BBCi, (16 June 2006).   
  2. Robert Weston, “Kiss Me Deadly(1955)”, Film Monthly, (4 May 2001).   
  3. Andrew L. Urban, “KISS ME DEADLY”, “Urban Cinefile”, (3 October 2019).   
  4. Mick Lasalle, “FILM REVIEW -- `Kiss Me Deadly' Still Packs Punch / Ralph Meeker stars in 1955 film noir”, SFGATE, (6 October 1995).   
  5. Alan Vanneman, “Whose Noir Is It, Anyway? Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (1 November 2007).   
  6. Tim Dirks, “Kiss Me Deadly (1955)”, amc Filmsite, (n.d.).   
  7. "MacGuffin", Wikipedia, (23 September 2019).   
  8. The Film Sufi, "Alfred Hitchcock", The Film Sufi (23 May 2009).   
  9. The threat of nuclear annihilation, however, is no less now than it was in 1955 – especially when you consider some of the narcissistic and irresponsible world leaders now in power.

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