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.
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.
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.