The Criterion Files: Kiss Me Deadly

Kiss Me Deadly

Directed by: Robert Aldrich
Written by: Mickey Spillane (story), A.I. Bezzerides (screenplay)
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Albert Dekker, Gaby Rodgers
Cinematography by: Ernest Laszio
Music by: Frank DeVol
Release: May 18, 1955

“Va-va-voomPow pow!” Those words may encapsulate the masculine, grunting energy of Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich’s noir masterpiece, better than any of the film’s most striking images or its myriad other memorable lines of dialogue. After all, if you want to understand what makes Mike Hammer tick, you only need to look as far as the cars he drives; they’re the sleek, muscular sort of vehicles most men covet and can only dream of owning for themselves. That Hammer finds himself in possession of two such machines– a Jaguar and, later, a Corvette– asserts his dominance over his fellow males in ways that his numerous female conquests do not, which tells us all we need to know about what sort of person Hammer is.

That’s the real core of Kiss Me Deadly: Hammer’s sadistic inhumanity. Though strongly plot-oriented, the film plays much more like a character study of his self-aware amorality. That’s perhaps putting Hammer’s cruelty and barbarism lightly, of course, but no matter how despicably he behaves he’s still the closest thing Kiss Me Deadly has to a genuine hero. Without him, nobody else, save for the seemingly nonchalant and directionless police force, would be out to stop the nefarious plans of the picture’s heavy– even if that person’s identity isn’t made clear until the very end. There’s no arguing Dr. Soberin’s villainy, but sending a man like Hammer to stop a man like Soberin feels very much like fighting fire with fire, forget the fact that both men burn with very different passions and ambitions.

Hammer’s disregard for due process and ethics, coupled with his appalling lack of scruples, may be best explained by the era which Kiss Me Deadly inhabits. Aldrich’s movie landed in theaters at the tail end of McCarthyism’s hold over the country’s political institutions, and that by-any-means-necessary philosophy plays heavily into Hammer’s own quest for justice Despite his objectionable his personality and methods, he’s precisely the type of protagonist one might expect to spawn from a period in which prejudicial, sensational, improper investigative techniques and accusations were considered acceptable means for dubious ends. Whether he’s strong-arming opera singers (and taking grotesque pleasure in it), hurling attackers bodily down stone stairwells, or brutalizing witnesses for a potential lead, Mike Hammer is very much a product of his time.

Yet even at his most abhorrent, Hammer’s antics, as carried out by Ralph Meeker, are ceaselessly watchable. In fact, they’re mesmerizing in their callous, vulgar ruthlessness. That’s probably Aldirch’s and Spillane’s point, mind; we’re meant to root for this hard boiled gumshoe and look past the violent obscenity of his actions. Kiss Me Deadly never goes out of its way to condemn Hammer and take a stand against his approach to sleuthing; it does have the good decency to point out that Hammer’s a scumbag, and we’re clearly meant to bristle at the insensitivity he shows toward Velda (Maxine Cooper), his lover, secretary, and assistant, but there isn’t a single moment where Hammer is forced to reflect on his own wickedness and rise above it. He’s rotten when we meet him, and he’s still rotten at the end– though at least he knows it.

There could be a deeper purpose to that. Prior to shooting Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich worked with a large number of left-leaning filmmakers and actors ranging from John Garfield to Abraham Polonsky, and for his very first picture he made Apache, a Western yarn featuring an Apache protagonist. (Needless to say, the results strike a rather anti-American tone.) At the height of McCarthyism’s frenzied attacks on Hollywood, personified by the HUAC investigations, Aldrich probably anticipated that he’d wind up on the blacklist with countless other screenwriters, directors, and performers, though by chance or good fortune he did not. If nothing else, Kiss Me Deadly— based on the novel the legendary Mickey Spillane wrote three years prior– feels like a reaction to McCarthy tactics, a not-especially-well-disguised attempt at lampooning the social and political paranoia that defined them.

Given the environment of the mid-50’s, it’s amazing he thought to make the movie at all– and that he managed to push it through censors. Perhaps Aldrich saw Hammer’s no-nonsense, unlawful modus operandi as a means of appeasing a culture which fervently (if reluctantly) believed that the ends justified the means; if so, he may not have counted on the Motion Pictures Association of America giving him so much grief in the development process. Originally, Kiss Me Deadly‘s layers of violence revolved around narcotics and gangsters, but one run-in with the MPAA and everything changed– except for the violence. Gone were the drug and mob elements, replaced with atomic mystery and espionage. Clearly Hammer’s preference for slamming people’s fingers in drawers wasn’t a sticking point for them.

Nor was the film’s burgeoning sense of sexuality. It’s incredible that the MPAA allowed Aldrich even a quarter of the eroticism he injected into Kiss Me Deadly, but they did, and Hammer wound up juggling as many beautiful women in Aldrich’s film as he had limbs. Velda, Christina (Cloris Leachman in her film debut), Friday (Marian Carr), and, of course, femme fatale Lily/Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers) all vie for Hammer’s attentions, but he derives more satisfaction from the injuries he inflicts on bad guys and bystanders alike. Kiss Me Deadly is the story of his sexual repression; all of his savagery and automotive fixations stem directly from an inability to express his sexual desires, which sounds ludicrous in light of the number of potential paramours at his beck and call here but remains true nonetheless. He’s too caught up in his quest for the Great Whatsit, too wrapped up in his hermetic sense of manhood, to meaningfully engage his own libido.

And maybe for good reason. Kiss Me Deadly is often cited as one of the first films of the atomic age (though it’s worth nothing that Them! precedes it by a year); it deals, in its gritty, violent fashion, with fears of a new, powerful technology and its destructive capabilities. In other words, Hammer has more on his mind than the pursuit of sexual gratification, though in his defense he chooses Velda above all else when confronted with apocalypse. They face it together in the film’s final blazing shot, where Kiss Me Deadly fully crossed genre boundaries, solidified itself as an essential sci-fi film noir, and earned Aldrich his richly deserved spot in film history.