KISS ME DEADLY
Review by Michael Jacobson
Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Wesley Addy, Marion Carr
Director: Robert Aldrich
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: See Review
Length: 106 Minutes
Release Date: June 21, 2011
“An ordinary little girl gets killed and it rings bells all the way to Washington. There's gotta be a pitch... I picked up a girl. If she hadn't gotten in my way, I wouldn't have stopped. She must be connected with somethin' big.”
You learn something new every day. Though I had been long familiar with the character of Detective Mike Hammer, through the countless mystery novels by author Mickey Spillane and the mid-80s television series starring Stacy Keach, I had no idea the character had existed in feature films. So it goes without saying that I'm glad I crossed paths with 1955's Kiss Me Deadly, which is a truly stunning film for multiple reasons.
This is film noir but with a maximum punch. The sub genre had been one of the most popular in all of film at the time. But, as was the case with most film genres, it gravitated towards a darker, much more bleaker feel in the 1950's. There's no doubt in my mind that Kiss Me Deadly was the first film of its kind to execute its story with a more darker edge.
The film opens with our hero, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), driving on a long stretch of highway. He almost hits a woman standing in the middle of the road. Her name is Christina (Cloris Leachman, in her acting debut), and she has just escaped from a nearby insane asylum.
Just moments after picking her up, Hammer's car is ambushed by a group of mysterious men. Christina is tortured to death, and Hammer narrowly escapes death. He manages to escape his car as it plunges down a cliff in a fiery demise.
Of course, this more than motivates Hammer to take a break from his usual string of divorce cases, leaving those to his secretary and part time lover, Velda (Maxine Cooper). He has two reasons for wanting to get to the bottom of Christina's murder. One is strictly out of vengeance, but it also may be connected to something big.
And that it is! Eventually, Hammer gets clues by way of Christina's roommate and lover, Lily (Gaby Rodgers), and his trail leads him to the discovery of what is referred to as “the big whatsit”. This is indeed the film's MacGuffin, which in this case is a tightly sealed package containing no less than destructive nuclear power. Pandora's Box is a very fitting comparison.
The most fascinating aspect about Kiss Me Deadly is how magnificently different it is from Spillane's original novel. Spillane, of course,, wasn't too thrilled at all with how director Robert Aldrich took the character of Hammer, an already brutal force of a man, and made him into a much more thuggish and immoral. This film pretty much presents Mike Hammer as the pre cursor to Harry Callahan.
Another intriguing element is the inclusion of nuclear holocaust paranoia. The big whatsit device figures heavily into what has to be a shocking climatic act for a film in this time period. And if that wasn't enough, the film's original ending (presented here as a bonus feature) suggested an even more horrific conclusion.
It's hard to believe that Ralph Meeker didn't go on to a much bigger, leading man career following this film, because he's simply fantastic as Mike Hammer. He has the look of the character down perfectly, and also possesses a menacing quality that's just right. He would eventually appear in such films as Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, but this is without question the signature performance of Meeker's career.
If anything, Kiss Me Deadly is a more than bold film for its time. It's also a top-notch B level noir thriller, and an important footnote in the legacy of Mike Hammer. The author may not have liked it, but hey...Stephen King didn't like Kubrick's The Shining either!
Criterion can simply do no wrong, as they once again present a classic film in a most brilliant form of high definition. This Blu-ray release boasts a striking, immensely detailed Black and White picture. The blacks are as rich as they can possibly get, and backgrounds in the LA setting are simply an amazing sight to behold. Both this and The Night of the Hunter came out in 1955, and both are also illustrations of Criterion's magnificent work in restoring classic films for the Blu-ray market. Nothing but visual excellence to be found here!
Equipped with a Dolby Mono sound mix, this presentation sounds quite spectacular for a film with nearly 60 years of age to it. Dialogue delivery is excellent from beginning to end, as are various music selections (most notably Nat King Cole's “Rather Have the Blues”). The intense climatic scene is also very well rendered!
Criterion ushers in a full out spectacular line up of supplements for this release, starting with a commentary with film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini, which includes a huge amount of insight into the film and its legacy. There's also a new video tribute by director Alex Cox, an excerpt from the 2005 documentary The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides focusing on the screenwriter's experience on the film, a documentary from 1998 titled “Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane”, which chronicles the author's work and his feelings on their many adaptations, video pieces focusing on the film's locations, the much talked about alternate ending, and a Theatrical Trailer.
And, like all great Criterion discs, we get a booklet (this time designed like a seedy 50s magazine) featuring an essay by critic J. Hoberman and a 1955 reprint by director Robert Aldrich.
I was unprepared by just how dark and nihilistic 1955's Kiss Me Deadly would turn out to be. But I do consider to be an important moment in film noir history, as well as the legacy of legendary character Mike Hammer. This Criterion Blu-ray is, as expected, a true must-have release for all true film collectors!