Criterion // 1955 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 17th, 2011
Blood red kisses! White hot thrills! Mickey Spillane's latest H-bomb!
Mike: They tried to get her last night.
Velda: They? A wonderful word. And who are they? They're the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?
One night, private investigator Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker, Paths of Glory) picks up a desperate female hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman, Young Frankenstein). The hitchhiker tells Mike that her name is Christine, and asks him to take her to a nearby bus stop. Suddenly, the two are abducted. When Mike returns to consciousness, he's in a hospital and Christine has been killed. Shortly after Mike recovers, he receives a phone call from a man asking him to forget all about Christine. Alas, the threat merely drives Mike to figure out what's going on for himself. Slowly but surely, Mike begins to unravel a dark secret far bigger than anything he could have imagined.
The dialogue exchange reprinted above is indicative of what Robert Aldrich's legendary noir flick Kiss Me Deadly is all about: uncertainty. A sense of paranoia is present in much of film noir, but perhaps no film captures the fusion of post-war cynicism, cold war terror, and the near-apocalyptic sense of gloom that permeates the genre quite like this one. Though the film initially plays like a straightforward mystery procedural, after a while it becomes apparent that we're circling questions that we'll never actually get specific answers to. It seems that Mike Hammer has tapped into the most secretive inner circle of the great whatsit, and whatever is happening is more than his simple "bedroom dick" mind can handle.
Kiss Me Deadly is technically based on one of Mickey Spillane's popular novels (Mike Hammer was to Spillane what Philip Marlowe was to Raymond Chandler -- who intensely disliked Spillane's writing, incidentally), but Aldrich reportedly despised both Spillane and his central character. Spillane glorified Hammer's small-minded brutality in his writing, but Aldrich was determined to expose the character for the scumbag that he was. The result was a film dramatically different from the original novel (the film's McGuffin, which proves a defining element in the film, was not in the novel) and which presented Spillane fans with a startlingly nasty take on the writer's violent hero. Unsurprisingly, Spillane hated the film.
Even so, Kiss Me Deadly's version of Hammer is one of noir's most distinctive protagonist, as Ralph Meeker plays him as a thoroughly unlikable brute. No, he's not "unlikable" in a charmingly rakish way or even in that rough-cut Sam Spade manner. Hammer is a small-minded sadist who can't see the forest for the trees until it's too late; a bottom-feeding opportunist who rarely demonstrates better character than the villains he pursues. In one scene, Meeker cruelly snaps a man's valuable opera record in half and grins in the most unpleasant manner. He looks happiest during the moments in which he's getting the opportunity to cause others pain, and is too selfish to change his behavior even when people he knows get hurt. Aldrich and Meeker strip the conventional noir hero of all of his downbeat nobility; amplifying the ugly selfishness and greed at his core.
As the film twists and turns toward its final act, its true subject matter simultaneously becomes increasingly vague and increasingly clear. The infamous box (I would never dream of hinting at what it contains, as this should be a surprise if you've never seen the film) is described in increasingly epic, mysterious ways, building to an ending in which we're told everything and nothing. It's the terror of knowing and the terror of the unknown wrapped into one, and "The End" arrives at a point that is both ruthlessly abrupt and right on time. If you take the film at face value, it's a fairly frustrating way to wrap things up, but it becomes apparent early on that this is a film meant to be examined metaphorically. It's a microcosm of the entire country stuffed within the confines of a hard-boiled adaptation of a piece of pulp fiction.
Kiss Me Deadly arrives on Blu-ray sporting a strong 1080p/1.66:1 transfer, offering superb detail throughout. A prominent layer of natural grain has been left intact which never proves distracting; no DNR or other problematic tampering has been done. This certainly doesn't have a lot of polish (the film looks its age), but it's about as sturdy and clean as one could hope for otherwise. Black levels are impressively deep, too. The audio isn't quite as strong, as there are moments which seem to lack the punch they need, but it's mostly a clean, well-balanced, hiss-n-crackle-free track.
Criterion has delivered an impressive supplemental package to enhance your viewing experience: a commentary with noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursani (riveting as always), a tribute to the film from director Alex Cox (7 minutes), a 40-minute 1998 documentary entitled "Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane," a 10-minute excerpt from the documentary "The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides," some brief video pieces on the film's location, an alternate ending (which is arguably even more merciless than the actual ending), a trailer and a booklet featuring essays by Aldrich and J. Hoberman.
There's an (intentionally?) stilted quality to many of the performances in the film, which some viewers may find off-putting (personally, I feel the performances are well-suited to the film's unusual tone). Additionally, some may find the film's lack of closure in certain areas more frustrating than thought-provoking. To have the latter complaint is perhaps to miss the film's purpose, but there you have it.
Kiss Me Deadly remains an unforgettable slice of dirty, paranoid film noir. It's essential viewing for fans of the genre. Criterion has done a splendid job with the hi-def release.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Video Tribute