Talk about the tension between a director and his material—which was one of the critical cornerstones of the French New Wave’s reassessment of American movies—-and they were the first to point out this frisson in the work of iconoclastic director-producer Robert Aldrich; perhaps most noticeably in his aggressive independent film, the dark and dangerous 1955 thriller, KISS ME DEADLY (available on DVD). Aldrich hated detective-fiction writer Mickey Spillane’s novels so much that he took one of the author’s most popular and typical Mike Hammer private-eye stories and transformed it into not only the best picture ever made from Spillane (which isn’t saying much) but a savagely angry film noir classic of annihilating dimension—-literally: At the end, everybody, including Hammer, gets blown away in a dusk-lit Malibu beach house by no less than a nuclear blast. What then happened to L.A. is left to the imagination.
The whole thing starts out quietly one night with a terrified young woman—-Cloris Leachman’s first role—-running barefoot along a deserted blacktop wearing only a raincoat. Hammer—-played exceedingly tough, with virtually no charm, by Ralph Meeker—-picks her up, tries to help her. When she gets murdered anyway, it really pisses him off and this is how he gets involved in the labyrinthine mystery that unfolds and remains fairly difficult to figure out all the way through. But, though often impenetrable, it’s also completely riveting—-like a down and dirty The Big Sleep—-Howard Hawks’ equally mystifying 1946 detective picture with Humphrey Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe (also available on DVD).
However, while the Hawks-Bogart movie is somewhat satirical, reluctantly romantic, Aldrich’s remains vicious and paranoid, strangely anticipating the bleak present more than representing the ambiguous 1950s; in this way, Kiss Me Deadly today seems remarkably modern. If only current pictures could be as well made, and as personal. The hardboiled script is by veteran shady-world scenarist A.I. Bezzerides, who wrote one of Jules Dassin’s most underrated movies, Thieves’ Highway (1949), and the excellent photography is by Ernest Laszlo, who conspires with Aldrich in the kind of angles that would have been unthinkable before Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1948). Clearly Aldrich had seen all the good movies. The ensemble cast includes edgy, unsentimental performances from numerous pros in this line of work, like Paul Stewart (a Welles alumni), Albert Dekker, Maxine Cooper, and Wesley Addy.
Aldrich had greater box office success with some of his later pictures, like the sardonic horror story, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962); the troubling war film, The Dirty Dozen (1967); or the hard-hitting football yarn, The Longest Yard (1974). He did several others in the same angry mood, such as The Big Knife (1955) and Attack! (1956), but none of his other movies has quite the unbridled hostility and reckless panache of Kiss Me Deadly, a uniquely perverse turn in picture history—-even the title rolls up backward: Deadly Kiss Me. (The director’s production-company name also refuses to conform: The Associates and Aldrich.)
Having started out as assistant to such legendary filmmakers as Jean Renoir, Charles Chaplin, Abraham Polonsky, Joseph Losey and William Wellman, Aldrich inherited their pull toward freedom, and he was in the forefront of the independent movement, though he had the ability as well to work successfully within the system (was for a while president of the Directors Guild). His most explosive film, Kiss Me Deadly may also be his best: When the world turns as ugly as this, Aldrich seems to be saying, it is all bound to end in unredeemable catastrophe. What could be a more appropriate cautionary fable these days?