‘Kiss Me Deadly’ is One Weird Noir
For sheer brazen strange, it’s hard to top Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir adaptation of the skull-busting Mickey Spillane novel. It’s a mystery that never gets solved and a thriller that creeps more than excites. The closest that it gets to an explanation is a cynical, tired reference by the hero’s gal Friday to “nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit.” All this confusion very likely derives from Aldrich clearly holding Spillane’s book in some contempt (as he did most things). But then it’s hard to say that a greater fidelity to the source material would have cleared matters up much.
Ralph Meeker plays Spillane’s Mike Hammer, a private detective several rungs down the evolutionary ladder from Bogart’s Sam Spade. Instead of delivering wisecracks and puzzling through things, Hammer prefers to get information by smashing up people. He likes to slam hands in drawers and slap people around, often with his lips skinning back from his teeth in a horrible, sadistic smirk.
A generally irritable sort, Hammer is already inching toward full-blown rage when Kiss Me Deadly starts. In the movie’s spectacular opening sequence, Hammer is blasting his sportster along twisting mountain roads in the inky-black night while cool jazz burbling from the radio, only to get run off the road and left for dead after picking up terrified hitchhiker Christina (Cloris Leachman). Aldrich plugs the movie into an oddly dreamlike sensibility right there, with Hammer woozy in his chamber of captivity as Christina is tortured by unseen men, only her bare legs visible as her screams rend the night.
After that, Hammer is back to his bachelor pad digs in Los Angeles. There, instead of solving mysteries for untrustworthy femmes fatales like a more upscale private eye, he runs a grimy divorce surveillance business that usually involves either himself or his sidekick Velda (Maxine Cooper) seducing one of the parties involved. But something about Christina’s last words (“Remember me”) sticks with him, and Hammer starts pulling at strings to see what unravels.
At no point is the viewer under any suspicion that Hammer is particularly good at his job. Meeker…