In our increasingly innumerate series of 47 films to see before death, we present Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is one of the more brutal of the hard boiled private eyes. He doesn’t have the enigmatic power of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, or the tragic romanticism of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. But there’s an amoral sadistic verve to the character which Robert Aldrich’s movie version brings to the fore. Ralph Meeker stars as the PI who picks up a trench-coated (but little else) female hitch-hiker. Before he can work out what is going on thugs have kidnapped them and torture the woman to death, then fake the death as a car crash. Hammer wakes up in hospital and with the help of Velda (Maxine Cooper), his lover cum secretary starts to unravel a plot that leads to a mysterious glowing object in a box.
Released in 1955, Kiss Me Deadly is the beginning of the end for the first batch of film noir. They’d be back again in the late 60s and 70s, and once more in the 80s. But Aldrich’s film and Orson Welles’ definitive kiss off Touch of Evil close this phase.
You can see how the modern world is beginning to take the paranoia of the post-war in totally different directions. Now, we have nuclear warfare to worry about and the actions of our own government in trying to achieve supremacy. The film has no moral center. Hammer is a narcissistic sadist who enjoy dispensing the violence as much as the criminals he pursues. His misogyny and careless pursuit of money never succumb to anything deeper. Even the picking up of the girl that triggers the chain reaction at the beginning isn’t an act of chivalry but something he’s forced to do.
He’s like an orphaned James Bond who doesn’t have a government to work for.
Certainly, Aldrich’s bleakness has a thrilling boldness to it. Nihilism pure and simple. The two alternate endings are interesting to compare but the original is no less unforgiving in the end. The survival of Hammer and Velma really have little importance. Aldrich’s film proved inspirational to Alex Cox and Tarantino (what didn’t?). And even Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the raw original is a nightmare that offers no comforting bromide.