Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Directed by Robert Aldrich
Cinematography Ernest Laszlo

Kiss Me Deadly is a 1955 film noir produced and directed by Robert Aldrich starring Ralph Meeker. The screenplay was written by A.I. Bezzerides, based on the Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer mystery novel Kiss Me, Deadly. Kiss Me Deadly is often considered a classic of the noir genre. The film grossed $726,000 in the United States and a total of $226,000 overseas. It also withstood scrutiny from the Kefauver Commission, which called it a film designed to ruin young viewers, leading director Aldrich to protest the Commission’s conclusions.

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Noir for a Nuclear Age

1 May 2006 | by evanston_dad (United States) – See all my reviews

Sleazy, tawdry B-noir doesn’t get any sleazier or tawdrier than Robert Aldrich’s jazzy and astonishingly entertaining “Kiss Me Deadly.” This film was released late in the life cycle of the film noir genre. By 1958 and Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” true noir would be just about washed up. Any noir film from that point forward would be self-consciously aware that it was tipping its hat to an established genre. But “Deadly” came out when films still didn’t have to work at being noirish—they just WERE, and dazzlingly so.

Born-to-play-a-bully Ralph Meeker plays tough-guy detective Mike Hammer, who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and picks up a mysterious panic-stricken girl (Cloris Leachman), who’s just escaped from an asylum. From that moment forward, he finds himself tangled up in a barely lucid plot, in which a bunch of baddies want to get their hands on something the girl either had or knew about. Hammer doesn’t know what it is, but he knows that if so many people want it, it’s something he probably wants too, and the race for the great “whatsit” is on.

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If you wanted to teach a film class about the look and attitude of a film noir, you couldn’t pick a better film than this one. I found myself on a recent viewing of this film pausing my DVD player and studying the frame (because, sadly, this is what I do in my spare time), rehearsing in my mind what I would tell a class about any particular composition. And aside from the style, the film is steeped in noir sentiment–it’s not simply cynical, like the glossier studio noirs of the 40’s; it’s downright apocryphal. It’s not simply one man undone by the vengeful forces of fate here, but an entire civilization on the brink of extinction.

So pop this in and have a great time with it–feel free to quote it liberally, as there are plenty of juicy lines worth quoting. But as you watch it, you might want to stay away from the windows, for as Mike Hammer’s hot-to-trot sometime girlfriend, sometime secretary Velda says, someone may “blow you a kiss.”

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Mike Hammer, detective

8/10
Author: jotix100 from New York
23 July 2005

Robert Aldrich was a no-nonsense film director. When he undertook the direction of this film, little did he know it was going to become the extraordinary movie it turned out to be. The fame seems to have come by its discovery in France, as it usually is the case. Based on Mickey Spillane’s novel and adapted by Al Bezzerides, the movie has an unique style and it’s recommended viewing for fans of the film noir genre.

Right from the start, the film gets our imagination as we watch a young woman running along a California highway. That sequence proved Mr. Aldrich’s ability to convey the idea of a disturbed young woman that seems to have escaped from a mental institution. The plot complicates itself as Hammer learns that Christine, the young woman, has died. He decides to investigate, which is what he does best.

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Some excellent comments have been submitted to this forum, so we will not even try to expand in the action but will only emphasize in the tremendous visual style Mr. Aldrich added to the film, which seems to be its main attraction. For a fifty year old film, it still has a crisp look to it thanks to the impressive black and white cinematography of Ernest Lazlo, who had a keen eye to show us Hammer’s world as he makes it come alive. The great musical score by Frank DeVol fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the L.A. of the fifties.

Ralph Meeker made an excellent contribution as Mike Hammer. He dominates the film with his presence. Albert Decker, Paul Stewart, Miriam Carr, Maxine Cooper, Fortuno Bonanova, and especially Cloris Leachman, in her screen debut, make this film the favorite it has become.

Fans of the genre can thank Mr. Aldrich for making a film that didn’t pretend to be anything, yet has stayed as a favorite all these years.

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Critical commentary generally views it as a metaphor for the paranoia and nuclear fears of the Cold War era in which it was filmed.

Although a leftist at the time of the Hollywood blacklist, Bezzerides denied any conscious intention for this meaning in his script. About the topic, he said, “I was having fun with it. I wanted to make every scene, every character, interesting.

Film critic Nick Schager wrote, “Never was Mike Hammer’s name more fitting than in Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich’s blisteringly nihilistic noir in which star Ralph Meeker embodies Mickey Spillane’s legendary P.I. with brute force savagery… The gumshoe’s subsequent investigation into the woman’s death doubles as a lacerating indictment of modern society’s dissolution into physical/moral/spiritual degeneracy – a reversion that ultimately leads to nuclear apocalypse and man’s return to the primordial sea – with the director’s knuckle-sandwich cynicism pummeling the genre’s romantic fatalism into a bloody pulp. ‘Remember me’? Aldrich’s sadistic, fatalistic masterpiece is impossible to forget.”

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 97% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 37 reviews.

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Plot

Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, a tough Los Angeles private eye who is almost as brutal as the crooks he chases. Mike and his assistant/secretary/lover, Velda (Maxine Cooper), usually work on “penny-ante divorce cases.”

One evening on a lonely country road, Hammer gives a ride to Christina (Cloris Leachman), an attractive hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat. She has escaped from a mental institution, most probably the nearby Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Thugs waylay them and Hammer awakens in some unknown location where he hears Christina screaming and being tortured to death. The thugs then push Hammer’s car off a cliff with Christina’s body and an unconscious Hammer inside. Hammer next awakens in a hospital with Velda by his bedside. He decides to pursue the case, for vengeance, a sense of guilt (as Christina had asked him to “remember me” if she got killed), and because “she (Christina) must be connected with something big” behind it all.

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The twisting plot takes Hammer to the apartment of Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), a sexy, waif-like woman who is posing as Christina’s ex-roommate. Lily tells Hammer she has gone into hiding and asks Hammer to protect her. It turns out that she is after a mysterious box that, she believes, has contents worth a fortune.

“The great whatsit,” as Velda calls it, at the center of Hammer’s quest is a small, mysterious valise that is hot to the touch and contains a dangerous, glowing substance. It comes to represent the 1950s Cold War fear and paranoia about the atomic bomb that permeated American culture.

Later, at an isolated beach house, Hammer finds “Lily,” who has been revealed to be an imposter named Gabrielle, with her evil boss, Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker). Velda is their hostage, tied up in a bedroom. Soberin and Gabrielle are vying for the contents of the box. Gabrielle shoots Soberin, believing that she can keep the mysterious contents for herself. She also shoots and wounds Hammer, who manages to find Velda.

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As Gabrielle slyly opens the case, it is ultimately revealed to be stolen radionuclide material, which in the final scene apparently reaches explosive criticality when the box is fully opened. Horrifying sounds emanate from the nuclear material as Gabrielle and the house burst into flames just as Hammer and Velda escape.

Alternative ending

The original American release of the film shows Hammer and Velda escaping from the burning house at the end, staggering into the ocean as the words “The End” come over them on the screen. Sometime after its first release, the ending was altered on the film’s original negative, removing over a minute’s worth of shots where Hammer and Velda escape and superimposing the words “The End” over the burning house. This implied that Hammer and Velda perished in the atomic blaze, and was often interpreted to represent the apocalypse. In 1997, the original conclusion was restored, where Velda and Mike survive. The DVD release has the original ending, and offers the truncated ending as an extra.

The movie is described as “the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time – at the close of the classic noir period.”

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One of the greatest detective thrillers ever made.

Author: Bryan Ho (bigsleep@hotmail.com) from Mississauga, Canada
28 November 1998

If The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the definitive true detective movie, The Big Sleep (1946) the definitive glamourized detective movie, and Chinatown (1974) the definitive allegorical detective movie, then Kiss Me Deadly is the definitive sleazy detective movie.

Mickey Spillane’s sadistic private eye Mike Hammer, turned from successful private eye to sleazy bedroom dick, is the quintessential anti-hero, doing just about anything and everything wrong to get a piece of the pie that the characters call “The Big What’s-it.”

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Percy Helton

The movie survives by giving the usual Spillane buckets-of-blood story and its protagonist new dimensions. Right from the electric opening scene and the audacious opening credit sequence, the audience is drawn into Hammer’s seedy world, where morality is suspended, and the credo of the end justifying the means dominates Hammer’s actions. His reckless abandonment is almost never questionned and the film seems to understand his brutality as what he must do to get the job done in an equally brutal world.

Director Robert Aldrich observes all of it with an objective eye that neither glorifies nor condemns the action on-screen, letting the audience draw its own conclusions–even where the plot is concerned. The pace is unrelentless and the plot turns are never fully explained, forcing the audience to participate willingly in all that Hammer does to, hopefully, see the story through to its ending.

And what an ending! I’d de damned to a special place in Hell if I elaborated, so I’ll just say that it’s one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. That goes same for the movie itself, which is one of the most stylish, jarring and truly entertaining movies of its genre.

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It’s The Bomb

7/10
Author: ccthemovieman-1 from United States
1 March 2006

This late entry into the film noir genre has some harsh and memorable scenes and an ending unlike any other film noir. Of course, most of those weren’t made during the A-Bomb scares of the mid 1950s, as this was.

The movie features a tough, no-nonsense Mike Hammer-like private eye, played well by Ralph Meeker, whose tough-guy dialog is a little dated but still fun to hear. This is one of those noirs in which everyone is a tough-talking, tough-acting mug and one never knows who to trust. Except for Cloris Leachman, who is only in the first quick (but haunting) opening scene, the females in here are unfamiliar actresses but people with interesting faces and personalities.

That opening with Leachman is a real attention-grabber and is one of the best starts I’ve ever seen in a crime movie. It’s very creepy, as is the unique ending. I also appreciated the cinematography in here a lot more once the DVD was issued.

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Stinks on ice.

1/10
Author: helleberg from NY
16 August 2004
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I don’t know whether the blame for this ought to rest on Spillane, Bezzerides, or Aldrich. Doesn’t matter, there’s more than enough to go around. It’s unfortunate that this movie was “rediscovered” (I use the term with hesitation because I don’t think it was ever discovered in the first place. Released, yes. Discovered, not quite) but even more unfortunate that it’s received such a glut of critical attention lately. One of the “virtues” critics have been pointing out in this flick is what a great job it does capturing the “soullessness” and “spiritual vacancy” of 50s Southern California.

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One writer went so far as to liken Meeker to “Marlon Brando with the soul burned out of him.” The problem is that the movie doesn’t depict a soulless Los Angeles, but that it tries to depict a vibrant and lively LA and does so ineptly. Nick, the mechanic; the elderly Italian porter who gives Hammer a clue; the opera singing informant; the boxing manager; to a lesser extent, Velda, all these characters are lively and engaging and suggest a real humanity against this “soulless” backdrop. However, Ralph Meeker makes Mike Hammer about as interesting as a bag of doorknobs (betcha thought I was going to say hammers). The women characters are painted very shallowly and with trademark Spillane misogyny. I gotta say, I don’t know exactly what that’s about.

These are broad complaints with the film. I’ve got a few very specific gripes, but they involve plot points, so be aware of spoilers below.

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First, the movie telegraphs just about every major event rather stiffly. Two seconds after Christina, the asylum escapee, says “If we don’t make it to the bus stop . . .” viola, they are waylaid and don’t make it to the bus stop. Every time the plot needs a forward push, Velda shows up and says “I got a few more names.” Very convenient, very wooden, very unsatisfying.

The dialogue is not stylized, it’s unnatural. I would say that the delivery is bad, but I don’t think this script could have been read well by anybody, which is to say Meeker and Cooper are not up to the task. I think one of the lowest moments comes at the end, when Dr. Soberin is warning Lily about the atomic pinata. In four lines, he piles on the allusion like cold cuts and mixes his metaphors like oil and vinegar to sprinkle on this ugly submarine sandwich of a scene. “What’s in the box?” says Lily. “It’s like Pandora’s box,” says the doctor. “You’re like Pandora.

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Don’t you know the story of Lot’s wife? Please don’t open the box, there’s a Medusa’s head in there. I’m barking like the three heads of Cerberus at the gates of hell.” Well, maybe not that bad, but you can check the memorable quotes link for the terrible transcript. A smart mystery writer would limit the allusion to the one significant reference rather than trying to impress with the ridiculous repetition (Robert Parker titles one Spencer mystery “The Widening Gyre,” then makes no further reference to this allusion throughout the two-fifty pages that follow).

A final complaint is that there obviously wasn’t much research done by Spillane or Bezzerides. Having the good cop Pat explain the entire atomic dilemma simply by saying “Manhattan Project. Los Alamos. Trinity,” really sums up the problem. Rather than devising a clear plot, the writers opted to throw around a few atomic age buzzwords that seem to say something while saying very, very little. And then we end up with an image of the Malibu beach house exploding in the 1950s equivalent of a dirty bomb while a gut-shot Hammer clings to Velda in the waves. What is the parallel here? That the hardboiled Hammer will walk off his injury just as the fallout will roll off the back of this soulless Los Angeles?

Idiotic. Reforget this rediscovered tripe and go rent “Out of the Past.”

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Amazingly Modern for a 50s film

7/10
Author: DoloresHaze-1 from United States
9 March 2007

By 1950s standards this film is totally cutting edge. Just off the top of my head here is a list of things in this film that were VERY uncommon in the 50s: 1. African-Americans and non-Americans in several supporting roles 2. Main character has an answering machine (yes it’s a giant wall-mounted reel-to-reel, but still..) 3. Location shooting (lots of exteriors and cool cars) 4. Risqué shots of bare legs, sexy actions by female characters, etc. It’s implied the characters have a sex life (in most 1950s movies no one had sex EVER). 5. Violence – OK – there is no GRAPHIC violence, but lots of implied violence. Some of the camera angles are quite modern and unusual (punches into the camera, walking into camera to end scene, female character stepping over male characters outstretched legs, etc.) Censorship of EVERYTHING was the norm in the 50s. I don’t know how this one made it past the censors but I’m glad it did – it’s a quirky gem for film noir fans LK

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