Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time - at the close of the classic noir period. The hard-edged film's 50's Los Angeles hero (transplanted from New York), created by pulp novel writer Mickey Spillane, follows in the footsteps of other detective heroes from the pens of Raymond Chandler (Phillip Marlowe), Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain.
Director Robert Aldrich's previous films had only been two routine Westerns and one film noir: Vera Cruz (1954) and Apache (1954), and World for Ransom (1954). He would go on to direct the follow-up The Big Knife (1956), and two macabre psychological horror-thrillers: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965). Cinematographer Ernest Lazlo had worked on another famous, earlier film noir, D.O.A. (1950), which prepared him for this film. In both, he used German expressionistic lighting and shadows, reminiscient of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
This independent film features a cheap and sleazy, contemptible, fascistic private investigator/vigilante named Mike Hammer whose trademarks are brutish violence, the end-justifies-the-means philosophy and speed. The tough, ruthless cop's selfish, solitary pursuit of the white-hot apocalyptic object in a mysterious 'Pandora's box' ("the great whatzit") leads to nuclear catastrophe and annihilation during the explosive ending at a Malibu beach cottage - although there is no explicit mention of the words bomb, atomic, or thermo-nuclear in the nihilistic film. A censored version of the reckless film, due to the Catholic League of Decency's protests, resulted in alternate endings - but both finales were cataclysmic.
Producer/director Aldrich's brutal, fast action, paranoid film with a series of disconnected scenes, was based upon pulp fiction writer Mickey Spillane's 1952 sensationalist detective best-seller of the same name (the seventh in his series of eleven books). [The notorious character of Mike Hammer first appeared in Spillane's I, the Jury in 1947.] It was adapted from a screenplay by A. I. Bezzerides. The film is a low-budget, B-grade film (at a cost of about $400,000) without recognizable actors. As a counterpoint to the hard-boiled film, cultural allusions abound: the Christina Rossetti poem "Remember," and a Caruso vocal recording - to name a few. Its posters heralded: BLOOD-RED KISSES, WHITE-HOT THRILLS!
Kiss Me Deadly is rich with symbolic allusions, labyrinthine and complex plot threads, and Cold War fear and nuclear paranoia about the atomic bomb. The film, shot over a one month period in late 1954, is a masterpiece of cinematography, exhibited in the disorienting camera angles and unique and unconventional compositions of Ernest Laszlo. It has all the elements of great film noir - a stark opening sequence, destructive femme fatales, low-life cheap gangsters, an anti-hero, expressionistically-lit night-time scenes, a vengeful quest, and a dark mood of hopelessness. And women are abused quite predominantly in the film: the trench-coat-wearing woman Christina by an unknown killer, the faithful Velda by Hammer, and Lily by Dr. Soberin. Later films would repeat the motif of the mysterious box, such as Repo Man (1984) and Pulp Fiction (1994).The Story
The film opens with a striking pre-credits sequence. A pair of naked feet stumbles and runs down the middle of a lonely highway at night. A near-hysterical, panting, barely-clothed woman with closely-cropped hair who wears only a white trenchcoat, rasps and breathes heavily on the highly-amplified soundtrack, as she helplessly tries to flag down passing cars that flash by her. Desperate to get one of the cars to stop, she strategically positions herself in the middle of the road, by standing and holding her arms out in a V [or crucifixion pose] as a two-seated, Jaguar sports car/convertible approaches and blinds her in its high-beamed headlights. The driver swerves to avoid the apparition while applying his screeching brakes. His tires squeal as he pulls sharply off the road into a swirling cloud of dust and barely misses running her down. Angered, he snarls as he looks over and coldly tells her:
You almost wrecked my car. Well? Get in!
He begrudgingly gives a ride to the woman who has appeared out of the darkness. On the driver's car radio, the announcer introduces the next jazzy piano selection by Nat King Cole, Rather Have the Blues. The driver's ignition grinds repeatedly as he attempts to restart his engine.
The camera positions itself behind the two and is pointed toward the windshield and the highway's white line as the most disorienting, skewed, upside-down set of film credits begins to scroll. The slanted credits cryptically move from the top to the bottom of the screen, yet they must be read backwards from bottom to top. The woman's breathing is labored and she sobs as they drive along without speaking. The words of the NKC song on the radio additionally amplify the film's dark, melancholic themes:
The night is mighty chilly, and conversation seems pretty silly
I feel so mean and wrought, I'd rather have the blues than what I've got.
The room is dark and gloomy, you don't know what you're doing to me
The way it has got me caught, I'd rather have the blues than what I've got.
All night, I walk the city, watching the people go by.
I try to sing a little ditty, but all that comes out is a sigh.
The street looks very frightening, the rain begins and then comes lightning.
It seems love's gone to pot, I'd rather have the blues than what I've got...
In a snide, sneering mood, the driver, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) [with a deliberately forceful, pounding, hard phallic name] reveals that he is returning to Los Angeles. He speaks to the terrified woman who is naked under her trenchcoat:
Hammer: Thumb isn't good enough for you. You've got to use your whole body.
Woman: Why sir, would you have stopped if I'd used my thumb?
Hammer: No! (Terrified and paranoid, she looks back at a set of headlights following them) What's this all about? I'll make a quick guess. You were out with some guy who thought 'no' was a three-letter word. I should have thrown you off that cliff back there. I might still do it. Where are ya headed?
Woman: Los Angeles. Drop me off at the first bus stop.
Hammer: Do you always go around with no clothes on? (She reads his name on the registration wrapped around the steering column. He snaps off the radio.)
A massive police roadblock appears, and Hammer overhears that a search is being conducted for a "woman escaped from an asylum upstate, young, and wearing a trenchcoat." He glances over at her, realizing that his evasive hitchhiker fits the description. She squeezes his hand and cuddles next to him - convincing him to cover up for her and tell the law officers that she is his wife. After saving her from the police and proceeding on, he wants his hand back. As "a fugitive from the laughing house," she doesn't explain any more about her background:
Hammer: Can I have my hand back now? (Pause) So, you're a fugitive from the laughing house.
Christina: They forced me to go there. They took away my clothes to make me stay.
Christina: I wish I could tell you that. I have to tell someone. When people are in trouble, they need to talk. But you know the old saying.
Hammer: 'What I don't know can't hurt me'?...
They stop at an unidentified, rural, flourescent neon-lit gas service station (in Calabasas) after a few miles to remove a branch stuck in the car's wheel - it was causing the car to pull to the right. She surreptitiously gives a letter to the attendant (Bob Sherman) to post for her. While they continue driving (and the camera views them head-on through the windshield in a medium two-shot), she is condescending toward his kind of affluent, narcissistic, 'playboyish' man - character traits that she has analyzed and deciphered from all his unfavorable outward appearances and clues: a flashy sports car, jazzy radio, trench coat and fancy clothes, and a tough-guy, hedonistic, self-serving pose.
The spunky, intrusive woman's name is Christina (Cloris Leachman, in her first theatrical film role) - a name derived and linked to a lyrical poetess, her favorite. [Her last words to Hammer -- "Remember Me" -- are a reference to lines in a Christina Rossetti sonnet titled Remember. The words are also taken from Shakespeare's Hamlet - referring to the last words spoken by Hamlet's father's Ghost.] She has been institutionalized as a "loony" in a "laughing house", although she has accurately defined Hammer as an archetypal tough-guy:
Christina: You're angry with me, aren't you? Sorry I nearly wrecked your pretty little car. I was just thinking how much you can tell about a person from such simple things. Your car, for instance.
Hammer: Now, what kind of a message does it send ya?
Christina: You have only one real lasting love.
Hammer: Now who could that be?
Christina: You. You're one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard.
Hammer: You against good health or somethin'?
Christina: I could tolerate flabby muscles in a man who may be more friendly. You're the kind of a person who never gives in a relationship - who only takes. (Sardonically) Ah, woman, the incomplete sex. And what does she need to complete her? (Mocking) Why, man, of course. A wonderful man.
Hammer: All right, all right, let it go. That bus stop will be comin' up pretty soon and I don't even know your name.
Christina: You forget. I'm a loony from the laughing house. All loonies are dangerous. Ever read poetry? No, of course you wouldn't. Christina Rossetti wrote love sonnets. I was named after her.
Christina: Yes, Mike. I got your name from the registration certificate, Mr. Hammer. Get me to that bus stop and forget you ever saw me. If we don't make that bus stop...
Hammer: (confidently) We will.
Christina: ...if we don't, 'Remember me.'
At that instant, a barrier waylays their car - they are run off the road by a black car. Unknown and faceless, darkly-dressed gangsters, viewed from the waist down with closeups of their shoes, approach.
Christina's screams overlap into the next scene as she is tortured to death. [The instrument of torture is not shown until later - a pair of pliers held in the right hand of one of the abductors. One problem with the scene - Christina continues to scream on the soundtrack even after her legs stop moving.] From the knees down, her legs dangle over the side of a table and twitch from pain - two pairs of shoes are on either side and her trenchcoat lies in a pile at her feet. A pair of shiny blue suede shoes belonging to the smooth-talking, master-mind criminal stands next to a beaten, semi-conscious Hammer as he lies on a bare, mattress-less bedframe. He is kicked onto the wood-planked floor in the same room and helplessly witnesses Christina's demise (her lifeless legs hang in the background) before she reveals the unbearable secret that the criminals want. Shadows of the coils of the bedsprings are cast upon him, as he hears the unemotional words of the chief hitman:
If you revive her, do you know what that would be? Resurrection, that's what it would be. And do you know what resurrection means? It means raise the dead. And just who do you think you are that you think you can raise the dead?
Their bodies are placed in Hammer's car - it is pushed off the side of a cliff and bursts into flames. Her body is incinerated inside the car, but miraculously, Hammer appears to have survived. After three days, he awakens in his hospital bed without any visible scars or injuries - resurrected from death and unconsciousness or from within a dream. While looking up at two female faces - of the nurse and his secretary Velda Wakeman (Maxine Cooper) in a rippling effect, one voice calls out "Mike." Velda kisses him as they neatly describe their discordant male-female relationship:
Hammer: You're never around when I need ya.
Velda: You never need me when I'm around.
Another visitor is "flatfoot" police detective Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) who jokes about Hammer's revival: "Three days ago, I was figuring I'd have to finance a new tux to bury the corpse." The private investigator has little recollection of what has happened to him.
Immediately after he is released, Hammer is taken into an Interstate Crime Commission room for informal questioning by a federal investigating board composed of unidentified government agents. The simple-minded, blunt-thinking, amoral detective is grilled about his deceptive, manipulative, illegal, outside-the-law business that depends on divorce frame-ups. He manufactures adulterous evidence for clients to collect payoff fees ("the big squeeze"). [In Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), detective J. J. Gittes has a similar occupation as a divorce specialist]. As a 'bedroom' detective, his devoted secretary Velda is used as date-bait to snare potentially adulterous husbands. Framed in the foreground, Hammer stares off into blank space somewhere off-camera, and avoids the questionners as they bait him and answer all their own inquiries. As the mysterious hitchhiker had also done earlier, they assess his basic worthlessness. He acknowledges that they have pegged him accurately as a "real stinker":
First Questioner: Your full name, please, Mr. Hammer.
Second Questioner: Michael Hammer. 10401 Wilshire Boulevard. Los Angeles, California.
Questioner: Now, just what do you do for a living?
Second Questioner: According to our information, he calls himself a private investigator.
Third Questioner: His specialty is divorce cases. He's a bedroom dick.
Second Questioner: He gets information against the wife. Then he makes a deal with the wife to get evidence against the husband...
Third Questioner: Thus, playing both ends against the middle.
First Questioner: Just how do you achieve all this? You crawl under beds?
Second Questioner: Nothing so primitive.
Third Questioner: He has a secretary. At least that's what he calls her.
First Questioner: What's her name, Mr. Hammer?
Second Questioner: Velda Wakeman.
Third Questioner: She's a very attractive young woman. Real woo-bait. Lives like a princess. He sics her onto the husbands and before you know it, he's got his evidence and he's ready for the big squeeze.
First Questioner: Who do you 'sic' onto the wives, Mr. Hammer?
Second Questioner: That's his department.
Hammer: All right, you've got me convinced. I'm a real stinker. Now if that's all you've got on your minds, I'd like to get along home.
First Questioner: Yes, I know. You're anxious to get back to your life's work. You're free to go. (As Hammer exits) Open a window.
Murphy waits for him outside in the corridor's hallway and realizes the contemptuous Hammer might take matters into his own hands with an investigation into the mystery of Christina's murder: "You could do it a lot better, is that it?" Because of his own disdain for the law, happen-stance and because Hammer has become inspired by everyone else's curiosity, he begins his own self-serving, mercenary quest for "something big":
An ordinary little girl gets killed and it rings bells all the way to Washington. There's gotta be a pitch....I picked up a girl. If she hadn't gotten in my way, I wouldn't have stopped. She must be connected with somethin' big.
Disdainful, Murphy assumes that Hammer's own underworld investigation will be brutal, callous, self-serving, and shabby, like his own demeaning profession:
Too many people like you have contempt for anything that has to do with the law. You'd like to take it into your own hands. But when you do that, you might as well be living in a jungle.
The police detective vainly attempts to be persuasive and have Hammer mind his own business: "Mike, why don't you tell us what you know? Then step aside like a nice fella and let us do our job." Hammer counters rhetorically that he is only in it for his own opportunistic, personal gain:
What's in it for me?
Soon afterwards, to apply pressure on him, Murphy revokes Hammer's private investigator license and his gun permit, while helping himself to a free dose of Hammer's vodka in the apartment. Obviously, Hammer misunderstands Christina's advice to "forget you ever saw me" - and doesn't give up on an investigation into her demise.
Hammer's Greek repair mechanic buddy, Nick (Nick Dennis) is overjoyed to see the fast, sexy and powerful Hammer, using his catchphrase-signature greeting a few times for his well-dressed, fast-driving, female-attracting friend:
Va-va-Voom! Pretty POW!
[The epigrammatic greeting signifies the film's lesser and greater episodes of speed, orgasm, explosiveness, and cataclysmic finale.]
"I'm sure glad you're back, Mike, like Lazarus rose out from the grave." It is determined that Hammer's car is only good for scrap junk: "It's never gonna go va-voom no more." He learns that some "very tough guys" were "lookin' for" him and "askin' a lot of questions."
When Hammer returns to his Wilshire Blvd. apartment, he notices two guys in a parked car keeping surveillance outside of his place. Warily and cautiously, he enters his #904 apartment - an elaborate, L-shaped suite that is a marvel of the latest, materialistic possessions and gadgets. It has a wall-mounted, reel-to-reel primitive telephone answering machine to screen phone calls, a full liquor bar, a television and hi-fi, golf clubs, and a front window overlooking a tree-lined Los Angeles boulevard (with cars streaming back and forth). After screening a phone call, Hammer answers and speaks to Velda - she is concerned about his safety.