When you read the plot synopsis and cast list, Kiss me Deadly, adapted from a novel by Mickey Spillane, sounds like a run-of-the-mill detective movie: A private eye finds a lost girl along on a road at night. This film, however, is really more complex.
I rented it recently because I thought it would be filled with campy fun. Turns out, some people see this as a classic noir detective yarn that ranks with the best of the genre.
The film, a Mike Hammer detective story, is a product of two period influences, one of which anchors the 1955 movie in the film noir category, albeit a late comer, and the other links it to the string of atomic-age, nuclear scare films that filled screens throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
You can view the film, directed by Robert Aldrich, as escapist crime fare or as a specimen of filmmaking that includes requisite noir scenes, creative cinematography, good and less-than-good acting and enough plot roadblocks and violence to keep Hammer constantly on the alert.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the film is the opening scene. A very young Cloris Leachman is running down a lonely highway at night dressed only in a trench coat. She waves at cars to stop, but finally resorts to standing in middle of the road. Spillane, played by Ralph Meeker, is forced to swerve his top-down Jaguar onto the shoulder to avoid hitting her. He picks up Leachman who is panicky and out of breath. They pull back on to the road, we hear Nat King Cole singing Rather Have the Blues on the radio and the slanted, Star-Wars-style credits start to roll, in reverse, from top to bottom.
Meeker, appearing in the fourth film of his movie career that ran from the early 1950s to 1980, is a creditable Hammer. The sleazy PI specializing in divorce, gets caught up in a mysterious plot that involves gangsters, scientists, government investigators and an assortment of suspicious characters.
The mostly snappy PI dialog is enhanced by Meeker’s I-don’t-really-care-what-you-think deadpan delivery. “Alright, you’ve got me convinced. I’m a real stinker,” he tells investigators grilling him.
Another highlight of the film is the cinematography. Scenes are shot from almost every possible camera angle. In an early scene, Hammer is in the hospital and we see him in a bed-level profile. Then as two people talk to him, we see them from his viewpoint, towering over the bed.
Hammer’s swanky Wilshire Blvd. apartment is shown from eye level, from outside the window, looking in and even from a bird’s eye view from the ceiling. Dark street scenes framed with shadows or arches, a scene shot in a mirror and one highway view looking over Meeker’s shoulder when he’s driving, keep the movie always visually interesting.
Be sure to watch for familiar faces. A hugely rich supporting cast of character actors includes Jack Elam, Strother Martin, Paul Stewart, Percy Helton, Leachman and many others.
Not every player turns in a superb performance. Hammer’s mechanic, for example, is an over-the-top ethnic stereotype and some of the dour state crime commission investigators are straight out of central casting.
The movie’s creepy, silly ending, and the lead up to it, could spoil the picture. But you just need to accept that in the 1950s, atomic bombs were everyone’s bogeyman even while radiation was little understood. Don’t miss the “alternate ending” included in the DVD. It’s even darker than the semi-Hollywood ending shown first.
Although Kiss Me Deadly will not replace films such as The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity in the top tier of most critics’ noir favorites, it’s highly recommended. Sort of.