Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (ouf of 5): *****
Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled detective The Continental Op made his fiction debut in 1929, and the more famous Sam Spade followed in 1930. Raymond Chandler followed in 1939 with the debut of Philip Marlowe. Movie versions of these were made throughout the 1940s. In 1947, another hard-boiled detective hit the scene, in a book called I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane. Private eye Mike Hammer wasn't like the others; he was tougher, greedier, more lowdown, maybe not as bright... in a word, he was more primal. He struck a chord with readers and the Hammer books outsold their predecessors in huge amounts.
And so it goes that the Mike Hammer movies aren't much like those quaint old moody detective movies of the 1940s. Although Spillane's stories were adapted into many movies and TV shows--mostly TV shows--only one of them really matters: Kiss Me Deadly. (Although it is an interesting bit of trivia that Spillane himself played Hammer in a movie, The Girl Hunters, in 1963.)
A vicious bit of nastiness, Kiss Me Deadly succeeds mainly because of the symbiosis of Spillane, the screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, and director Robert Aldrich. Bezzerides reportedly hated Spillane's book (and Spillane subsequently hated the screenplay); Bezzerides changed many things, but the crucial thing he changed was the mysterious box that everyone is after. In Spillane's book, it's filled with drugs. In the movie, it's filled with a strange, glowing, possibly atomic device; Alex Cox's Repo Man and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction famously paid tribute to this device.
Thus the movie tapped directly into the climate of fear of the 1950s. Yet it was also a very anti-1950s movie, since Hammer is such a brutal beast. He's violent and/or callous with just about everyone he meets, including, perhaps most shockingly, some frail older men. On the surface, Hammer's motivations seem to be about the same as Spade's or Marlowe's: he's solving a murder. But at the same time, he's definitely after something more personal.
The movie begins, famously, with a woman -- presumably naked under her raincoat -- running down a road. She jumps in front of a convertible, which belongs to our hero (played by Ralph Meeker). He grumbles that she almost ruined his car (never mind that her life was in danger) and gives her a ride. Her name is Christina (Cloris Leachman), and there's something odd about her. The credits roll backwards while they ride in silence, her heavy panting filling the soundtrack, along with a gentle Nat "King" Cole song. Some critics have guessed that the backwards credits resemble street signs, and that may have been the intention, but regardless, it sets the weird tone for the rest of the movie.
Christina is killed, and Hammer wants to find out why. He becomes mixed up with Christina's roommate Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers) -- who becomes the movie's "Pandora" -- as well as Dr. G.E. Soberin (Albert Dekker) and a cast of other bizarre characters. We also meet Velda (Maxine Cooper), who is seemingly Hammer's lover as well as his partner in crime. As part of his sleazy business practices, she seduces clients so that Hammer can cash in on adultery cases. Velda has the movie's most revealing lines. She sums up the story by referring to the bad guys as "they" and the goal as the "great whatsit." It's as if the events of this story are not at all important and could just as easily be replaced by any others; it's the most cynical idea in the movie. (You wouldn't see this kind of thinking in a Spade or Marlowe tale, until decades later with Robert Altman's adaptation of The Long Goodbye.)
Yet as brutal and cynical as the movie is, Aldrich knows how to seduce the audience; it still resembles a crackerjack crime movie. It makes extraordinary use of Los Angeles locations as well as its peculiar atmosphere (note Hammer's bizarre answering machine). It still moves through the logical paces of a crime movie, and Meeker looks something like the handsome, tough hero of a detective movie. According to Joe Bob Briggs, it's a classic of the drive-in, and it has, frankly, entertained audiences for decades.
Now the Criterion Collection has given it a deluxe Blu-Ray treatment, as well as a new DVD. The quality is exemplary, and looks much clearer than it has any right to. Extras include a commentary track by film scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini, a video tribute by Alex Cox, a clip from The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides (2005), a short documentary on Spillane, video pieces on the film's locations, a short featurette on the film's inexplicably altered ending, and a trailer. The booklet includes an essay by film critic J. Hoberman, as well as a 1955 article by Aldrich, defending the film's violence.
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