The fact that producer-director Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly is regarded as one of the classic films noir of the initial 1941-58 period is both self-evident it’s a great movie and a little odd, as it bears more in common with later movies, commonly called neo-noir, than it does most others of the classic period. Like those later movies, Kiss Me Deadly features all the hallmarks of noir because it is a film noir but it’s more, much more. It’s the first great hybrid between noir and SF.
It did not begin that way. Mickey Spillane’s novel, on which the movie is based, featured protagonist Mike Hammer going up against Mafia thugs and bears little resemblance to the movie, especially in the most important way: it isn’t any good. Mickey Spillane is a very bad writer with a distasteful (and omnipresent) ends-justify-the-means political worldview, with Mike Hammer serving as the avatar of that philosophy, doing horribly violent things, all of which are excused because he’s an agent of justice. My view of his work (which is, of course, subjective) was not shared by the millions of people who bought Spillane’s books; he was one of the best-selling authors of all time. These things happen. Spillane’s popularity, and that of his favorite protagonist, led to United Artists acquiring the rights to bring Mike Hammer to the screen. The first, I, The Jury, was negligible. Kiss Me Deadly would be the second.
Neither Aldrich nor writer A.I. Bezzerides particularly liked the book, but weren’t about to let that get in the way of making the movie. Bezzerides took Spillane’s plot about gangsters, sidelined most of them, and introduced the notion that “the great whatsit” that everyone was chasing had something to do with the Manhattan Project and the then-quite-current Cold War. The “whatsit,” a smallish box that’s hot to the touch and emits a glaring, brutal light that burns the skin of anyone who opens it, is a weapon of semiotic mass destruction, a symbol of the certain doom that awaits any who fail to respect the awesome power of atomic energy. Bezzerides, though open about his progressive politics, denied that he was trying to make any big political statement with his script for Kiss Me Deadly, insisting that his sole intent was to write a fun movie. And it’s true, he avoided overtly pedantic content no one sits Mike Hammer down for one of those Sidney Greenstreet lectures in The Maltese Falcon where he tells Humphrey Bogart the entire history of the Knights Templar, except about nuclear weapons and that’s precisely what makes Kiss Me Deadly so fun. The audience knows only as much as Mike Hammer does, which is enough to keep us on the edge of our seats, but not very much in any quantifiable sense.
That’s the biggest change made by Bezzerides and Aldrich: highlighting the fact that Mike Hammer, as played by Ralph Meeker, is not an exceedingly smart man, and that he has very few qualms about asking those close to him to put themselves at risk for his sake. He takes an unsettling pleasure in violence. But in spite of all this, he has his redeeming qualities. Although not the sharpest tool in the shed, he can nonetheless add two and two together, even if three and three is a bit ambitious. And condescending as this may sound in 2011, in 1955 this was kind of a big deal he gets along comfortably and intimately with people who have accents and aren’t white. At a time when most hard-boiled dicks tossed the n-word around like it was punctuation (including, distressingly, my beloved Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely), Meeker’s Hammer is on a friendly enough basis with a black bartender and lounge singer that they’re the company in which he chooses to mourn a fallen friend. While by no means am I suggesting that we canonize St. Mike Hammer the Racially Tolerant, it’s a humanizing touch that the character needs, and it’s a great improvement over Spillane’s version of the character. And Meeker captures all the tricky nuances quite well.
Another is the relationship in the movie between Hammer and his ever-faithful secretary Velda, a mainstay of Spillane’s novels. Spillane sketched out the relationship between them in a very See Spot Run fashion, establishing romantic tension between the two of them, and periodically Hammer would have to rescue her from Commies. In the movie, the relationship between them is extremely deep, incredibly convoluted emotionally, and absolutely fascinating to watch. For one, Maxine Cooper’s Velda exudes an eroticism strong enough to stop clocks. She’s drawn to Hammer, desires him desperately, and gives herself to him completely even though she knows he’ll never do the same. This is subtext for most of the picture until finally about two-thirds of the way through she vents her frustrations. Hammer, stunned, just leaves. This conflict is never fully addressed, as the bad guys kidnap Velda soon afterward and the rest of the story is Hammer coming to her rescue. That undermines her strength, sadly, but up until that point Velda, through Maxine Cooper’s excellent performance, radiates power and agency in what was originally drawn as a powerless character without any agency whatsoever.
The rest of the movie sees familiar genre elements invested with just as much nuance and complexity. In inferior noirs, character motivation is often a sticking point: the hero more often than not goes through the motion of solving the mystery because otherwise there would be no story. In Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer’s motivation is quite clear. The whole business starts because he’s driving late at night and almost hits a very upset woman (Cloris Leachman) wearing nothing but a trench coat. He gives her a ride back into town, and comes to feel for her, realizing that she’s in very real if mysterious danger. She tells him she was named for the poet Christina Rossetti and asks him to drop her off at the first bus station they reach when they return to Los Angeles:
Christina: “Get me to that bus stop and forget you ever saw me. If we don’t make it”
Hammer: “We will.”
Christina: “If we don’t….remember me.”
They don’t make it to the bus stop. The bad guys kill her, and very nearly kill Hammer as well. That simple two word phrase, “remember me,” is what guides Hammer through the rest of the movie. Instead of the kind of abstract policeman’s principle that pervades many other detective stories and other crime fiction, the experience of meeting this woman and almost dying with her is profound enough that the audience is right there with Hammer, wanting to know who Christina was, why she died, who killed her, where those killers are, and what the best way to kill them might be. Even things like the always-dumb sodium pentothal interrogation gambit play out more realistically in Kiss Me Deadly; the baddies shoot Hammer full of the stuff but he just passes out and babbles useless gibberish until it wears off, telling the baddies nothing they want to know.
One thing that has nothing directly to do with anything but that nonetheless adds a great deal of flavor to the movie is the production design. Mike Hammer’s apartment looks like something in a 50s SF movie set in 1970, complete with a wall-mounted reel-to-reel tape recorder answering machine (that thing is, beyond any subjective opinion, cool). Between Hammer’s apartment and these weird cable car things in Bunker Hill that look like miniatures from Fritz Lang’s Expressionist proto-SF opus Metropolis (but are actually there in real life) and the fact that “the great whatsit” is a box with some indeterminate device or object or substance inside that melts stuff and makes people explode, it’s beginning to feel a lot like SF, everywhere you go.
The SF and the noir go together quite well, especially considering that the exact nature of “the great whatsit” is left ambiguous; Hammer’s cop frenemy Wesley Addy explains the situation thusly: “Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. ‘Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity'” and leaves it at that. So we, the audience can get the sense that, in the words of the great temporal explorer Mr. Marty McFly, “this sucker’s nuclear,” but the kind of over-explanation that stops a good noir story dead in its tracks and lobotomizes a good SF story is thankfully absent. (Also, “the great whatsit” inspired the business with the trunk of the Chevy Malibu in Repo Man, and without Repo Man Western culture is simply not worth defending.)
There is but one flaw in Kiss Me Deadly: the actress playing the femme fatale isn’t very good. Gaby Rodgers looks the part, with a blonde pixie cut and an air of slightly vacant vulnerability (all the better to lure the not-so-bright Mike Hammer to his doom with, my dear), but ruins it all when she opens her mouth; she recites her dialogue in a weirdly dull, rhythm-less fashion for the most part, but has a couple flashes where that works perfectly, and she’s quite good in her last scene. So, aside from a couple clunky line readings, we’re talking about pretty much a perfect movie.
Admittedly, that might be a bit of a stretch. But Kiss Me Deadly is a wildly entertaining good time for fans of classic films noir and classic SF, blending as it does all the best qualities of both. It heralded a long career of interesting movies from director Robert Aldrich, all of which bear his signature touch, and today Aldrich is regarded as one of a very select few of “auteur” directors to survive consistently within the Hollywood system. And he started it all with the first science fiction noir.