It’s been suggested that Kiss Me Deadly (1955) signals an end to the classic era of film noir, by conveying a retrospective/subversive knowingness of noir’s by-then familiar tropes (Dutch angles, shadows, fatales both femme and homme), by draining all pretense of romance from the private eye archetype, and by audaciously hybridizing genres, leading to a finale that literally blows its protagonist’s quest for “the great whatzit” to kingdom come. It makes sense that this ultra-modernist thriller made in the thick of the atomic age, fueled by Cold War paranoia, sexually liberated (okay, nymphomaniac) women, and rabid consumerism marks the end of something. At the halfway point in what is arguably Hollywood’s greatest decade, Kiss Me Deadly, now available from Criterion, and its new cognizance of postwar realities (packaged in a deliciously fantastical plot) draws a line in the sand that can’t be washed away—because everything behind it lies smoldering and in ruins. To quote the film’s most sympathetic character: “Va-va-voom! 3-D pow!”
It begins already in a state of agitation, with Christina (Cloris Leachman, here something of a precursor to Glenn Close), barefoot, in just a raincoat, running down a freeway at night, so desperate she plants herself in the middle of the road as our so-called hero’s Jaguar comes hurtling toward her. “You almost wrecked my car,” says Mike Hammer (the inimitable Ralph Meeker), assuming this woman’s he reluctantly picked up to be a date rape victim, though he gradually determines she’s “a fugitive from the laughing farm,” not that it makes any difference to him. Hammer’s descent into Kiss Me Deadly’s labyrinth of secrets and spies begins when the people looking for Christina catch up with her and torture her to death with Hammer lying semi-conscious nearby. Hammer only narrowly escapes Christina’s captors yet, utterly self-interested as he is, he can’t resist investigating what happened to Christina, which demands techniques beyond those normally employed by a detective who lives off divorce cases. Hammer’s investigation bridges the architectural, geographical, aesthetic and class dichotomies of 1950s Los Angeles, leading him away from the comforts of his sleek apartment with its futuristic devices (and his always horny secretary, Velma, whom he pimps out to seduce unwanted husbands) to busy boxing gyms, dilapidated Victorian houses in Bunker Hill (a neighbourhood memorialized so eloquently just a few years later in The Exiles), and jazz clubs with all-black clientele to find the answers that can’t bring back Christina, can’t save Hammer, and can’t prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction that lay at the heart of this apocalyptic noir.
Boldly and beautifully directed by Robert Aldrich and scripted by A.I. Bezzarides, Kiss Me Deadly takes Mickey Spillaine’s über-macho, pro-vigilante source novel and simultaneously exploits its sordid thrills and critiques its meathead ethos, particularly through its parade of women who warn Hammer of his callowness even while seducing him. Meeker’s Hammer is a misanthropic, materialistic sadist. He childishly grins while crushing a mortician’s fingers in a desk drawer. While constantly eyeballing women (or “goodies”), it’s unclear whether or not he actually likes sex. The only person he cares about is his crazy Greek-American mechanic, Nick (Nick Dennis), though fair enough, since Nick is a loveable, only slightly annoying fireball of energy and perpetual generator of nonsequiturs, the finest being a chant about his moustache family tree. In a sense Nick’s the only character to represent both the old and brave new worlds of Kiss Me Deadly, who reminds us of American ethnic diversity and antiquated male bravado while embodying its new obsession with acceleration and technology. But Nick is just one of a gallery of wonderful supporting players (the cast includes character actors like Jack Elam, Strother Martin and Juano Hernández), each of whom play their part in luring Hammer closer to the Pandora’s box waiting to be opened in a locker room or on some moonlit beach, ushering in the dawn of a new age we’re still unable to contain.