Kiss Me Deadly
Director: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Gaby Rodgers
I originally saw Kiss Me Deadly about five years ago. I only thought it was alright. Since then, I have developed a full blown passion for film noir. I absolutely adore it, and can’t get enough. I was looking forward, therefore, to giving Kiss Me Deadly a second gander in the hopes that it would rise meteorically in my estimation.
The plot (convoluted as always, but what do you expect from a noir?) centers on private detective Mike Hammer (Meeker) who specializes in dirty divorce cases. One night, a woman comes running at him down the road, naked under her trench coat. He gets caught up in her case, and after she is killed, he keeps on investigating. Enter lots of unsavory characters, random plot turns, and some bizarre references to nuclear warfare, and, well, there you go, that’s your movie.
It’s really painful for me to talk about this as a noir that I didn’t really like. I mean, that’s my thing. I love noir. Try as I might, though, I can’t love Kiss Me Deadly, and I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why.
There’s a surreal aspect to Kiss Me Deadly that seems to transplant it from noir to Bunuel, and I’m not really a Bunuel fan. From the opening sequence where Cloris Leachman (her first role) runs down that street in that trenchcoat, panting heavily over the soundtrack, and the credits role in reverse, the film makes me feel uncomfortable. And not in a good way. In a “I was really hoping to watch a great noir tonight, I guess this isn’t it” kind of way.
Meeker’s Hammer is acceptable as our noir lead, but he’s too emotionally removed for my taste. The classic noir hero is someone who is fundamentally good but has a fatal flaw (lust, greed, etc.) that leads them to their, well, fatality. Classically speaking, the hero identifies the good choice, but cannot help him or herself from making the bad choice. I really do not get that impression from Mike Hammer in this film. I do not feel his internal struggle. He has none. He just randomly stumbled into something and people keep on swarming around him. He’s far more Holly Martins than Sam Spade, and Holly Martins is the furthest thing from a noir hero there is. Hammer is unapproachable and reprehensible, without one iota of likeability to him. No, I take that back – he did get legitimately drunk when his mechanic was killed by some baddies, so I guess that means he has feelings somewhere in that hollow steel shell he calls a body.
It’s comical how the women in Kiss Me Deadly fawn over Mike Hammer. I mean, I get that noir is supposed to be about the femme fatale batting her deadly lashes at our hero, cuddling up to him then clocking him over the head, but there are almost too many women to keep track of in this film, and they all can’t keep their grubby paws off Hammer. In one scene, Hammer drives up to some random estate to investigate some random person (again, it’s a noir, plot doesn’t really matter), and a doll strolls up to the side of his car. They’ve never met. She immediately sticks her tongue down his throat. Seriously? That’s not seduction. I want to see seduction, dammit, not a nymphomaniac.
Bitch, get your tongue out of my ear, I'm trying to think.
Perhaps the most likeable, in terms of the noir universe, character was that of Carver (Rodgers). Carver was Cloris Leachman’s roommate, who, since old Cloris Leachman was killed, is now being protected by Hammer. From the get go, we can tell that this bird is a little off her rocker. Rodgers does a really nice job of toeing that crazy/sane line, just enough so you never know what to expect from her, but not so much that she cannonballs off the deep end. With her wide open eyes and lilting, soft voice, she is the closest thing the film has to a classic noir femme fatale.
I will say this for the film: the casting of bit players was nice. Aldrich uses some people with some very odd and disturbing faces and voices, and I can see how he was going for creating a disturbing world. The problem was I wanted to see more of these people. Hammer’s secret agent friend (I have no idea what the character’s name was, this is a noir, they mention thirty names and you lose track eventually) felt darkly dangerous in his purred threats to Hammer. But he was only in three scenes! The film would have been much more interesting had he been the focus rather than Hammer.
Although I’ve done a great deal of Kiss Me Deadly bashing thus far, I have to mention one particular shot that made me gasp, it was so beautiful. In one scene, when Mike is running up some stairs in an apartment building, the camera pulls back to show the entire staircase. Aldrich lines up the lighting so that the rails along the staircase cast shadows of approximately the same size as the stairs. The effect is to make the shot look like an M. C. Escher drawing, and it’s fabulous. Just breathtaking. Overall, as well, the photography was very nice. Lots of low key lighting and shadows. Exactly what a noir should be.
On a final note, I have to get all obnoxious and scientific. I have personally worked with radiation. I know how to work with it and what effect it has on the human body. The central macguffin of the film is, apparently, nuclear power, specifically this little box filled with some crazy hot, radiation-wise, nuclear sample. Let me just say that if that nuclear sample was as powerful as the film seems to imply, ain’t no way in hell Hammer is getting out safe because he’s 5 yards away from it, but the villain dies because they’re right next to it. That’s not how radiation works, folks. Yes, that bothered me. Yes, I know the filmmakers probably weren’t going for scientific accuracy. Ah, my chemistry background rears its ugly head yet again.
Look, I don’t want to totally trash Kiss Me Deadly. It’s fine. It’s just not great. I love noir, but I don’t think I’ll rewatch this. It’s just too surreal for its own good, which pushes it past the thrilling point and into utter silliness. As Squish of “1001 Movies Blog Club” fame points out, you can’t help but laugh when Mike Hammer slaps another man in the face… for the fifteenth time.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10 There are at least a dozen other noirs I’d recommend before this one.