Kiss Me Deadly

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Here’s Kiss Me Deadly, the American film that gave birth to the French New Wave, or so said both Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, so that’s a claim made with some authority. It starts with a terrified woman flagging down a car containing private eye Mike Hammer and ends with another woman who opens a box containing nuclear material and bursts instantly into flames.

In between one of the most abjectly nihilistic of the noirs, with not a smidgeon of light relief, not a smile, very little in the way of social nicety, and a detective who takes on a case not because he’s crusading for justice but rather, we sense, because there’s been an affront to his own person – after he reluctantly gave a lift to the frightened Christina (Cloris Leachman in her debut), she ended up dead and he wound up in hospital.

It’s pronounced Los Angeles with a hard G in this movie, which is usually the sign of a good noir, though in all other respects this is a very-forward looking movie, full of cultural references and artefacts from the popular end of the spectrum – push up bras, boxing gyms, sports cars, an appearance by Physical Culture magazine – and from this distance the suspicion is that it was all this, the vulgar stuff, that got this film such a poor hearing with the censors, who didn’t like it but couldn’t quite say why.

The fact that Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) specialises in divorce cases is another mark against him. Yet another is that he uses his assistant Velda (Maxine Cooper) as the honey in the traps he sets for wayward husbands. And add one more to the list because Mike and Velda are obviously also on good terms sexually.

Hammer does not care. He doesn’t care about much. He treats the cops with disdain. He treats women as if they were an all-you-can-eat buffet. He’s the obvious heir to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, though less obviously decent than either, and even more irresistible to women, who throw themselves at him.

Christina (Cloris Leachman) frightened
It starts with a terrified Christina (Cloris Leachman)

Either Meeker has decided to play Hammer as flat or Robert Aldrich has directed him to play Hammer that way. Whichever it is, Meeker’s performance is the only thing wrong with this film, and it’s not bad, just a little empty. Compare it to Stacy Keach’s Hammer in the 1980s. Where Keach managed to conjure up a universe of world-weariness and an ironic detachment from everything, Meeker just seems a little out of sorts.

It is one of the great Maguffin films, with the mysterious box – hot to the touch, emitting a piercing light when opened – as the otherwise meaningless linkage between scenes and characters, scenes which are vehicles for Mickey Spillane’s deadpan dialogue (as adapted by AI Bezzerides) which sails into the wind of cliché and yet somehow survives. “Look, Mike,” says villain Carl Evello (Paul Stewart) at one point. “I like you. I like the way you handle yourself.”

No-nonsense rather than cliched maybe, as befits Aldrich, one of the great directors of rough, tough masculine movies, like The Dirty Dozen, The Big Knife and The Longest Yard (and also, bizarrely, the likes of the highly camp What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and lesbian melodrama The Killing of Sister George). Aldrich’s direction is deliciously lean, superbly compressed.

Take the ending, one of the most spectacularly weird ones in any mainstream movie. A woman literally going up in flames before our eyes. Done at speed and yet with just enough “cop a load of this” to satisfy the hounds, while at the same time Hammer is knocking down a door and saving Velda from being burned down as the spectacular beach house they’re in goes up like dry brush wood.

Most versions nowadays show Velda and Hammer making good their escape but there was one, early on, which went one bleaker and cut a few seconds earlier to the end credits. The implication being that the two of them went up in flames with the house and the unlucky Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) whose curiosity got the better of her. The Pandora in this sorry tale of boxes that are better kept shut.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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