“As the world becomes more primitive, its treasures become more fabulous.” –Dr. G.E. Soberin, Kiss Me Deadly
In many ways, Mickey Spillane’s influential purple prose marked the apex of the startling violence and tawdry milieus of post-war American detective and crime stories. That’s partly because Spillane, who popularized an innovative and dynamic prose style that became synonymous with the “hard-boiled” aesthetic in genre fiction, wanted detective Mike Hammer to be seen as a graceless caveman of a private dick.
Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, which the Criterion Collection released earlier this week, is more violent, sexist and overpoweringly primitive than rival fictitious detectives like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Here was a character too rough around the edges to be played even by Humphrey Bogart, whose early gangster pictures emphasized his brawler’s charisma. Hammer was most memorably portrayed by Ralph Meeker in Dirty Dozen director Aldrich’s classic 1955 film noirKiss Me Deadly. In it, Meeker’s muscular physique and well-practiced squint convey Hammer's flinty skepticism as written by Spillane.
Kiss Me Deadly was neither the first nor the last film adaptation of Spillane’s Hammer stories. Almost
twoa decade after Deadly’s theatrical release, Spillane himself played Hammer in the 1963 film The Girl Hunters. That film was made at a time when the real-world, war-fueled malaise that fueled Spillane’s prose was in the process of transforming into a paranoia that Spillane’s Hammer character wasn't ready for.
Hammer’s character belonged smack inside the ‘40s and ‘50s (Spillane also played a detective in the 1954 film Ring of Fear). Kolchak star Darren McGavin found fame playing Hammer from 1958-1959 in the popular TV series Mike Hammer, which signaled the end of the first wave of Hammer popularity. Throughout the ‘80s, especially from 1986-1988, when nostalgia for atomic age alarmism in genre fiction was at its peak, Hammer returned in a couple of made-for-TV movies produced by HBO. Stacy Keach starred as Hammer and played him with a brio that the character hadn’t enjoyed since Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly.
Meeker’s Hammer brings across little intimations of violence without having to speak a word. Meeker’s body language is perfect: his lip curls when he slowly snarls, “Tell her to shut up.” He puts a sneering emphasis on “shut up” that makes the line drip with palpable disdain. Hammer’s misogynistic streak in the film’s stunning opening scene is an essential part of the character. When Hammer tells a young and nearly-naked Cloris Leachman, “I’ll make a quick guess: you were out with some guy who thought 'no' was a three-letter word,” Meeker believably sets up a power dynamic that, once overturned, defines much of Hammer’s latent attraction to Leachman’s wispy dame.
As the definitive Mike Hammer, Meeker makes Kiss Me Deadly the definitive Spillane adaptation.