It Came From the Cultosphere: The Bare-Knuckled, Atomic-Bomb Thrills of ‘Kiss Me Deadly’
Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane’s legendary private eye, was, to put it mildly, not a nice guy. Shooting first and asking questions, well, never, Hammer was violent, misanthropic, misogynistic and slightly to the right of Joe McCarthy. But because Spillane set Mike in a version of the world that was even more brutal, Hammer seemed like a bloodstained saint by comparison, and Mr. and Mrs. ’50s America fell in love with the lug, buying his books by the millions.
There have been several movies and even few TV series based those novels, but only one of them succeeds as genuine cinematic art — and that’s because it has the brains to take Hammer’s brawn and place it smack dab in a world he can’t hope to understand.
‘Kiss Me Deadly,’ which hit screens in 1955, is based on the 1952 novel of the same name, though writer A.I Bezzerides and director Robert Aldrich ditch the book’s narcotics plot for something a lot more resonant in the mid-’50s: the atomic bomb. And, in what turns out to be a genuine stroke of genius, they don’t reveal what the movie is about until the end. They let the viewer wonder and Hammer stumble along, getting closer and closer to a grim truth that he never even suspects.
Hammer is played by Ralph Meeker, a solid actor best known for playing one of the doomed soldiers in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory.’ He’s even better (and just as doomed) here, playing a thuggish version of Hammer proud of his own ignorance and bullheadedness. Snarling most of his dialogue and brutally pummeling virtually everyone he meets, Meeker is the living incarnation of the character in the novels. Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for us), he’s in over his head from the time the opening titles roll.
Which brings us to those titles and the skewed, almost surreal, vision Aldrich brings to the film. Those titles, you see, run down the screen, meaning that, for a few seconds at least, the movie appears to be called ‘Deadly Kiss Me.’ It’s just the thing to disorient an audience, especially since they’ve just watched Mike pick up a woman wearing nothing but a trenchcoat running down a deserted highway. Soon, that woman (sitcom legend Cloris Leachman, believe it or not) will be tortured to death, and Mike will be barreling along a bloody path to the apocalypse.
‘Kiss Me Deadly’ is full of strange touches, often appearing out of nowhere like a clenched fist to the back of the head. Mike, a smooth operator if ever there was one, has a 1955 version of an answering machine built into the wall of his apartment. His loyal assistant, Velda (the wonderfully sleazy Maxine Cooper), isn’t so much a secretary as a prostitute he pimps to entrap hubbies in divorce cases.
Mike’s “detective work” includes convincing people to talk by breaking opera records in one scene and fingers in another. His fighting style is so brutal that when he demolishes a thug off camera, the other thug gasps in horror and disgust. And, during all that brutality and bloodshed, Meeker almost never wipes Mike’s smarmy smile off his face.
Until, that is, the ending. When Mike finally uncovers the “great whatsit” that’s been driving all the murder and mayhem. He’s too dumb to know what to do and lets it fall into the hands of Carver (Gaby Rogers), a waif-like seductress who turns out to be even more psychotic than Mike. In its final moments, with an unearthly whine filling the soundtrack, ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ shifts from detective story to horror movie, unleashing an apocalyptic vision more unnerving than anything else that hit screens in the ’50s.
Hell, it still packs a wallop almost six decades later. I can only imagine what Mr. and Mrs. ’50s America must have thought.