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Kiss Me Deadly

by Peter Bogdanovich
January 6, 2011 4:46 AM
12 Comments
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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?

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12 Comments

  • Robert Markham | February 26, 2011 6:25 AMReply

    What a lousy film. (Just finished watching.) Nonsensical and scattershot direction, bad audio synch, flat performances (except for Elam) and the silliest ending just about ever.

    And you've got another important detail wrong. The apocalyptic ending you describe is a hacked-together version, not the original one, where Mike and Velda escape. Also, it's not a nuclear explosion, merely what is known as a "critcality accident", which, while destructive to those in close appoximation, would not destroy L.A.

  • Chris Barry | January 23, 2011 5:01 AMReply

    I was fortunate enough to have seen KISS ME DEADLY in revival at Chicago's Music Box Theater a handful of years ago. Its great seeing films like this loom larger than life.

    I was first exposed to the Aldrich film through an essay written by Danny Peary and published in his book "Cult Movies."

    Peary makes the interesting observation that much of the movie seems to reflect Mike Hammer's addled mind, as "scenes usually end with Hammer being knocked out - no less than six times does he lapse into unconsciousness - and begin with Hammer awakening but still feeling the effects of the blows received."

    Hence the brialliantly conceived disorienting nature of the film.

  • PB | January 19, 2011 10:47 AMReply

    Alan---
    That's very interesting information about Spillane and Buzz---I knew him
    when he worked with me on a script that never got made---thank you for
    sharing it with us. Buzz and Aldrich certainly did improve the original,
    which must have irked Spillane no end. PB

  • Alan K. Rode | January 18, 2011 2:42 AMReply

    I spent some time with Mickey Spillane, the most genial of men, and he hated what Buzz Bezzerides did to his book....which was make it better. Changing the McGuffin from a prosaic cache of dope to nuclear material was brilliant, but all I got out of MIckey was a flat, "It's not my book." When I persisted about Ralph Meeker as the embodiment of MIke Hammer, the Mikster allowed, "Ralph Meeker is a great actor...but it's still not my book. For his part, Buzz remarked that he didn't think Spillane cared much for his Kiss Me Deadly screenplay or him. He was right on both counts.

  • JeanRobie | January 14, 2011 4:34 AMReply

    Have you ever noticed that the Cloris Leachman opening--where she's running in the headlights--has a weirdly erotic soundtrack that sounds like a woman having an orgasm?

    Just an incidental to one of the great film noirs.

  • Allan Arkush | January 9, 2011 6:52 AMReply

    Always thought the breifcase in Pulp Fiction especially in the coffee shop scene towards the end was an hommage to the suitcase in "Kiss Me Deadly'. let's not forget Mr. Aldrich also Directed "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane", & "The Big Knife". The man had cinema style to spare.

  • Doug Krentzlin | January 9, 2011 5:33 AMReply

    Thanks, Peter. BTW, a couple of months ago, I showed WHAT'S UP, DOC? to a young couple I'm friends with. They loved it so much they gave a copy of it to the husband's sister for Christmas.

  • Len Guercio | January 8, 2011 8:59 AMReply

    Thanks for selecting this often-overlooked film. Among Aldrich's many excellent films, you forgot to mention one of the great metaphor movies of all time: "The Flight Of The Phoenix" (1965). That film, like "Kiss Me Deadly", is a classic and remains fresh and relevant to this day. Perhaps you'll devote one of your future blogs to a much-deserved review of that ensemble-driven tale of humans constrained by circumstance to deal with each other in order for all to survive.

  • PB | January 7, 2011 6:18 AMReply

    Thanks, Jessica and Doug, for the corrections; they've been
    addressed. PB.

  • Doug Krentzlin | January 7, 2011 4:32 AMReply

    Excellent write-up as usual, Peter. I guess it's been awhile since you last saw KISS ME DEADLY, though. In the opening scene, Cloris Leachman is NOT wearing high heels along with her raincoat. In fact, the very first shot of the film is a close-up of her bare feet as she runs down the road.

  • Shaun | January 7, 2011 4:26 AMReply

    I saw this for the first time the other day and it was quite brilliant that the movie turns from a film noir to science fiction without and hint. Being only 19 I look forword to exploring more of Robert Aldrich's movies. Plus this movie proves my theory that if you stick Jack Elam in your movie it's going to be good. And thank you for doing this blog. I saw The General and now it is one of my favorite movies.

  • Jessica | January 6, 2011 9:53 AMReply

    I am always glad to see an appreciation of KISS ME DEADLY which is my favorite film, but there are a few mistakes. Christine ( Leachman) is not wearing high heels in the opening sequence as she runs breathlessly down the road, she is barefoot and presumed to be wearing nothing but the raincoat. Also while it may be a matter of debate I would not call Kiss Me Deadly Aldrich's first independent film.
    Only his first film , The Big Leaguer was a studio film, his next film, World for Ransom was made for Allied Artist and he was both director and producer and his next two Vera Cruz & Apache were made for UA by Hecht/Lancaster which were basically high end independent productions.

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