Kiss Me, Deadly (1955) – Private Eye flick is an unsung classic of science ficiton

Kiss Me, Deadly (1955)
KISS ME DEADLY ranks among the greatest science fiction movies ever made, yet few people realize that it is indeed part of the genre. Rather like SUNSET BOULEVARD (which is considered a classy Hollywood drama in spite of its horror trappings), producer-director Robert Aldrich’s film version of the Mickey Spillane novel is labeled as a mystery-movie – a private eye film noir, in particular. Aldrich (who also gave us the exellent HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, among many others), certainly delivered a film that deserves its place among the great detective movies, at least in part because it undermines much of the ethos of the mystery genre; in fact, it uses the science fiction element like a  nuclear-bomb-sized to blast the mystery trappings to smithereens (much as Alex Cox would, decades later, use the radioactive aliens in REPO MAN to blow holes in a story about a young suburban punk).*
KISS ME, DEADLY displays a wonderful black-and-white cynicism as its brutal and somewhat ineffectual anti-hero Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman) on the run from some thugs who catch up and kill her, then try to fake Hammer’s death as well. Barely escaping alive, the private detective tries to unravel the mystery of why the woman was killed, hoping this will be the case that takes him into the big-time. Instead, he nearly gets himself and his secretary Velda killed in a nuclear conflagration.
Shot on a relatively low-budget, the film suffers from some technical lapses: during a slow nighttime tail job, a clock in the background jumps forward several minutes in the space of a few seconds; when Hammer is unable to question a suspect because he’s unconscious, the snoring sound effect is overdone almost to the point of sounding silly.
But these little grains of sand are vastly outweighed by the boulder that is Hammer as personified by Meeker. At most a competent character actor in other roles (e.g., Stanley Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY), Meeker is by far the best of many screen incarnations of Spillane’s violent private eye. He captures the physicality of the character; more importantly, he conveys the brutal enthusiasm. What made Hammer interesting in the books was that he was quite proud of being just as brutal as the bad guys – a fact he justified because his brutality was in the service of protectng the innocent (a la the various tough guys in Frank Miller’s SIN CITY), but you always got the feeling that, when push came to shove, Hammer just plain enjoyed cracking heads and blowing crooks away for the sheer helluva it. Although the level of brutality is in the film is truncated to suit 1955 standards, Meeker manages to get the point across with the enthusiastic smile he flashes at each new opportunity for mayhem – smile that virtually announces, “I’m really gonna enjoy kicking your ass!”
There is a brutal, pulp effectiveness to the writing of Mickey Spillane. The power employed in the telling of the Mike Hammer mysteries failed to impress the king of hard-boiled writing, Raymond Chandler (who considered the combination gunplay and foreplay little better than pornography), but it cannot be denied. Especially in Hammer’s debut, I, The Jury, the result is breathtaking: Spillane has such a handle on conveying the voice of his hero (the stories are related in the first person) that ultimately a critic must acknowledge that the lowest common denominator combo of violence and vendetta actually adds up to a great piece of writing. Unfortunately, Spillane never deepened Hammer’ characterization in the subsequent novels, never confronted him with a challenge that caused him to question his values and beliefs. The result is that the latter books are basically rewrites of the first, and their cumulative effect is much less impressive than that of Chandler’s Marlowe stories.
On the page, Hammer never faced a problem bigger than he – a problem too big to solve with a gun – at least, not until he appeared in this 1955 cinematic masterpiece . In a truly awesome piece of deconstruction, the film undermines the character of Hammer at every turn, transforming him into a sleazy loser who’s barely a step away from being a brutal Neanderthal. Whereas the novel’s character was always right (even when he appeared to be wrong, his instincts inevitably led him to the killer’s identity), the filmic Hammer (as excellently embodied by Meeker) is merely able to keep up with events, not to alter or solve them. Because, finally, he has come up against a phenomenon that is beyond his control.
The screenplay for KISS ME, DEADLY takes the skeletal outline from Spillane’s namesake novel (one of Hammer’s better outings) but replaces the majority of details. The most important change involves the mysterious MacGuffin that drives the plot (or as the film calls it, the “Great Whatsit”). Whereas the book revolved around a cache of illegal drugs, the black box everyone is chasing in the film turns out to contain some undefined but deadly substance that is obviously radioactive in nature.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)This revelation, over halfway into the running time, suddenly leapfrogs the film beyond the boundaries of hard-boiled mystery into science-fiction territory. When the Pandora’s Box is opened, KISS ME, DEADLY visually mutates into what looks like an old black-and-white episode of THE OUTER LIMITS (think of “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork”), complete with pulsing lights on screen and growling electronics on the soundtrack – which convey the enormous power of the nuclear genie being let out of its bottle. No longer faced with human thugs whom he can simply dispatch with bullets or fists, Hammer barely has the wits about him to survive this new threat, which comes damn nearly close to destroying him and his secretary, Velda.
The question of whether Hammer and Velda survive is one that remained unsettled for decades after the film’s release, until a restored version of KISS ME, DEADLY reached home video in the mid-1990s (and also popped up at some isolated theatrical screenings, including an American Cinematheque retrospective of Aldrich’s work). Most prints available, subsequent to the initial release, end with a shot of a seaside cabin engulfed in flames, ignited by spreading radiation from the opened box. This left audiences to ponder whether Hammer and Velda were still inside – a downbeat ending not entirely out of line with the film’s take on the Hammer character.
Yet, somehow, it did not feel satisfying dramatically to imagine them dying inside the inferno. The momentum of the story seemed to be moving towards Hammer’s rescue of Velda – just about the only unselfish act we see the slob perform throughout the whole movie, and one that deserves to be rewarded. Also, the last interior shot before the explosion shows Hammer and Velda stumbling toward the door, and the exterior scene of the cabin that follows is such a long shot (and at night) that one could easily imagine they did get out, but we just could not see them.
Kiss Me, Deadly (1955)Well, the restored version clarifies their escape, providing the missing shots that we always expected to see, of Hammer and Velda stumbling away from the burning cabin and into the nearby surf as the flames leap behind them. (Contrary to popular belief, these scenes have not been totally absent from screens for the last forty years; in 1991 a revival house in Los Angeles screened a 16mm print that contained these shots – although, ironically, other footage was missing!)
The tough guy hero is an important icon in American literature and film – a comforting fantasy that any problem can be solved with guns and bravado. KISS ME, DEADLY stands out as a unique American film of its era, one that undercuts this mythology to a devastating degree. The inclusion of its small science-fiction element is no mere gimmick but a warning on the way America saw itself at the time – a nation capable of wielding atomic energy with moral force. If all America’s heroes turned out to be as dubious as Hammer is portrayed here, that that conviction deserved to be very much in doubt.

  • Alex Cox obviously had KISS ME, DEADLY in mind when he wrote and directed REPO MAN. The aliens decaying in the trunk of the car that everyone is pursuing – and the lethal effects when the trunk is opened – are a deliberate homage to the deadly secret in Aldrich’s film.

Rodan/War of the Gargantuas – DVD Review

For kaiju(i.e. Japanese Giant Monster movies) fans, this double-bill of two of the best non-Godzilla movies represents a must-have. Featuring both the original Japanese and the revised American versions, this double-disc DVD presents these kaiju classics with the respect they have never before received on U.S. shores.
While Rodan went on to become Godzilla’s sidekick in a number of the later monster team-up movies, the original RODAN is quite a respectable achievement in its own right. This is something of a transitional film, abandoning the somber black-and-white moodiness of Toho’s earlier monster movies but still retaining the serious science fiction tone. Although shot in color, this was the last Toho kaiju in the Academy 1.33 aspect ratio. Subsequent releases from THE MYSTERIANS on were shot in the widescreen scope ratio of 2.35, and from MOTHRA onward the movies would veer toward light-hearted fantasy. Unlike many of these later kaiju efforts, RODAN shows director Ishiro Honda still striving to build an atmosphere of unease, much like the original GODZILLA.
Rodan (1956)RODAN’s storyline features a slow build-up over the discovery of the mutilated bodies of some miners on the island of Kyushu. Brave miner Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) leads an investigation but winds up getting trapped in a cave-in. The miners have been killed by some giant insect-like larvae, but when a giant pterodactyl egg hatches, the real menace -Rodan – emerges and makes quite a breakfast of the killer larvae, while leaving the observant Shigeru in a state of shock. Unlike Godzilla, who knocked buildings over with his claws or burned them with his radioactive breath, Rodan spends most of his time in the sky, creating hurricane-force winds with his wings and wreaking major devastation with the shock waves as he passes overhead. Instead of old stand-by Tokyo, the city of Saseabo gets leveled by the onslaught as Rodan is joined by a female mate. The whole thing reaches an unusual climax with a suicide pact between the monsters who plunge themselves into a growing volcano for a memorably somber finish.
This disc represents the DVD Region 1 debut of the original Japanese version of the film, which is 10 minutes longer than the truncated American version with which American fans are familiar. In addition, the Japanese version comes with stronger and brighter colors. At the same time, the American version is interesting, especially as almost the entire dialgoue track was dubbed by Paul Frees (WAR OF THE WORLDS) and Keye Luke (GREMLINS), doing different characters with stock Asian accents, and with a very young George Takei (STAR TREK) giving the English dialogue for Japanese children.
War of the GargantuasEven more exciting is the first widescreen presentation of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS on domestic home video (previously released on a full screen laserdisc). I had originally caught up with the movie on the Million Dollar Movie as a kid, where it seemed to play every night for a week, and I enjoyed it so much that I re-watched it almost every time.
The film was created as a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERED THE WORLD, which depicted a monster that could regenerate from a single body part, in this case resulting in two monsters. Both retain a flat-topped Frankenstein-type dome and headpiece, but American producer Henry G. Saperstein decided to rename the monsters “Gargantuas” and obscured the continuity.1In the Japanese version, after the revelation that there are two Frankensteins, the monsters are given the names to distinguish them: Sanda (brown one) and Gaira (evil green one, spelled “Gailah” in the English subtitles). The Japanese version is actually 4 minutes shorter than the American cut and has a darker picture quality.
War of the GargantuasWAR OF THE GARGANTUAS has an intriguing opening: in the midst of a rainstorm, a giant octopus attacks a Japanese freighter; helps seems to arrive when a Green Gargantua pries the octopus away, but instead of rescuing the sailors, the monster starts eating them. We are then introduced to Dr. Paul Stewart (a likeable but indifferent Russ Tamblyn, replacing Nick Adams who starred in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD) and his beautiful assistant Akemi (Kumi Mizuno, returning from FCW), who refuse to believe that the carnivorous beast could have been the baby Brown Gargantua (looking much like LAND OF THE LOST’s Chaka) they had nurtured until he ran away.2
It’s not long before the Green Gargantua emerges from Tokyo Bay and ambles across Haneda airport where he devours a female office worker. The American version adds a shot of the worker’s chewed clothing, but the Japanese version cuts poignantly to some flowers on the ground. Green Gargantua runs away when sunlight emerges from behind some clouds, returning at night to pick up a Caucasian lounge singer warbling the memorably awful song “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” (sung in English in both versions), whom he drops when all the nightclub lights are turned on.
One distinction for GARGANTUAS is that, for once, the Japanese military prove somewhat effective. They bring out their giant Maser cannons and do some damage on Green Gargantua  before he gets away to wrestle around the city with his better-natured brother, Sanda. Also notable: after this film and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, Toho decided to save money on miniature buildings by setting their monster rumbles in the countryside rather than in cities, rendering GARGANTUAS one of the last epics of destruction before Godzilla was revived in the ‘80s.
The print of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is bright and vibrant, though there are some rare instances of aliasing problems due to compression. The sound is good overall, though Gailah’s chirping noises can remind one of a French rooster and begin to grate on the nerves after a while. The Japanese soundtrack presents Akira Ifukubie’s complete score (with a great march like the one the composer wrote for DESTROY ALL MONSTERS); the American version replaces some of the original score with library music.
A great bonus feature is BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE, written and produced by GODZILLA experts Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle. Though it has some pacing problems, the documentary gives us behind-the-scenes stories concerning Eiji Tsuburaya (special effects supervisor) and art director Yasuyuki Inoue (miniature city designer and unsung hero of kaiju movies), as well as commentary and reminiscences from Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma and Tsutomu “Tom” Kitagawa, who played Godzilla in the ‘50s-‘70s, ’80-‘90s, and GODZILLA 2000 on, each explaining and demonstrating their interpretation of the character as well as offering anecdotes about difficulties and near accidents, especially in Toho’s large water set. While similar features have been included on Japanese import DVDs (sans English subtitles), it is great to see a number of Japanese artists who worked on kaiju movies and hear their stories in a feature-length documentary.
This set is highly recommended to all lovers of kaiju eiga!
RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. Classic Media release through Genius Entertainment.

  • RODAN (Sora no Daikiaju Radon [“Rodan, Monster from the Sky”], 1956). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Takeshi Kimura and Takeo Murata from a story by Ken Kuronuma; English dialogue by David Duncan. Cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Harata, Akio Kohori.
  • WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Furankenshutain no Kaiju [“Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda versus Gaira“], 1966). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Ishiro Honda and Takeshi Kimura, story by Reuben Bercovitch. Cast: Russ Tamblyn, Kumi Mizuno, Nobuo Nakamura, Kenji Sahara, Jun Tazaki.


  1. The original trailer for WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (which unfortunately is not included in this set) was constructed from takes featuring the dialogue recorded on set, with the Japanese cast speaking their native language and imported American star Russ Tamblyn speaking in English. This reveals that the decision to rename the monsters for American consumption was not a last-minute change made while dubbing the American version – Tamblyn can be heard calling the monsters “Gargantuas” while his Japanese co-stars call them “Frankenstein.”
  2. The existence of this flashback creates some continuity problems, because it does not comform precisely to what we saw in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, which featured a very human-looking monster, not the bigfoot-like creature seen here. The scene seems to exist for the benefit of the American version, which pretends to be a stand-alone film.