Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

*. Why Kiss Me, Deadly? Note the comma, so I’m talking about the Mickey Spillane novel this film (whose title goes without the comma) is based on.
*. What I mean is, why bother with a book that producer-director Robert Aldrich didn’t seem to much care for, and that screenwriter A. I. Bezerides thought was “awful”? “I wrote it [the script] fast because I had contempt for it,” Bezerides would later say, “It was automatic writing.” Spillane, naturally, hated what Bezerides had done.
*. Were they just making fun of Spillane’s already cartoonish Mike Hammer, using him as a means to parody the crime genre? That may be, since he’s made into an even less likeable character here than he is in the book. He’s more of a heel, pimping out Velda as part of the scam he runs as a “bedroom dick,” and he seems to take more pleasure in dealing out callous punishment, even to the innocent.
*. As if all this weren’t enough, note how big a brickhead Aldrich makes Hammer out to be. As Alex Cox puts it in his video introduction to the Criterion release, where Spillane’s Hammer is violent, thuggish and stupid, Aldrich’s is violent, thuggish, and stupider. Of course, Christina knows, he doesn’t read poetry. But can he even read? Does he need Gabrielle to read that Rossetti poem to him because he can’t? Then there’s the scene where the feline Pat (Wesley Addy) says to him “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.” Presumably Pat knows Mike pretty well, but it’s like he’s talking to a pre-schooler. And the stubbornly dull look on Hammer’s face as he’s being told off by Pat tells quite a story. Does he get it now?

*. Another nice comment on Hammer’s empty head is the fact that when shot up with sodium pentathol he has nothing to say. Of course he doesn’t give the gang any information about the great whatsit because he doesn’t know anything about that yet. But he doesn’t say anything at all. His stream of consciousness is just a dull moan.
*. What makes Hammer’s dullness even more striking, and perhaps significant, are the number of cultured and intelligent people he’s surrounded by. On the commentary track James Ursini adverts to the “intellectual-artistic patina the film has,” while J. Hoberman, in his essay, notes how “the movie unfolds in a deranged cubist space, amid the debris of Western civilization—shards of opera, deserted museums, molls who paraphrase Shakespeare, mad references to Greek mythology and the Old Testament. A nineteenth-century poem furnishes the movie’s major clue.” All of this goes right over Hammer’s head. Is Aldrich getting at something here?
*. Note what Danny Peary says in this regard: “Culture is on the way out as these barbarians [the brutes and gangsters, like Hammer] take over: Trivaco, who sings opera (badly), is beaten; Velda, who practices ballet exercises (badly), is used by the man she loves as if she were a hoooker and he were her pimp; Christina (the most likable character in the film), who appreciates poetry, classical music, and art, is eliminated. Intellectuals (Soberin) are killed, and the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of stupid Gabrielle.” Yes, stupid, sleepy-eyed, butch Gabrielle (Aldrich wanted Gaby Rodgers to play her as a lesbian). And remember, she’s the one Mike gives the book to so that she can read him the poem!

*. So is all this part of advancing the parody? An example, as Alain Silver suggests on the commentary, of noir’s vision of class war? Is it political? Have Spillane’s dirty commies been replaced by poetry aficionados and gallery owners? Or is the point simply that modern life only proves the survival of the dumbest, its explosive ending expressive of what David Thomson calls “the sheer rapture of stupidity”? Poor Gabrielle just can’t help playing Pandora and opening that damn box. Though why she wants to is beyond me. Soberin was presumably the only guy who was going to be able to fence whatever was inside. It’s amazing how she keeps getting the drop on people. I don’t think that’s because she’s playing dumb. She really is dumb, but that works to her advantage.

*. Is such a movie meant to be torn apart on this level? Are we supposed to wonder about that missing comma in the title? Are we meant to find that significant? Of course noir is notorious for having plots that are balls of yarn, with lots of unanswered questions and threads that lead nowhere, but Kiss Me Deadly seems more chaotic than most. And we never actually see Hammer figuring anything out. There’s no real plot because if there were it would be too difficult for him to follow. So what we get is just an almost random string of incidents and accidents. There are no clues to follow How, for example, does Hammer get from anything in Rossetti’s poem to Christina swallowing the key? There’s no connection at all that I can see.
*. Question: What is the art gallery owner Gish’s connection to all this? Diker points him out to Velda at a bar, but that’s all we’re told. I guess Soberin is his doctor, and Gish sees him as collecting some new kind of art, but what does that mean? It’s just information like Rossetti’s poem, not even a clue. I mean, I could ask the same question as Christina’s connection to all this as well. Was she part of the gang?

*. Perhaps tearing apart and tearing down is the point. The French New Wave were in love with Kiss Me Deadly I think because it’s a movie that seems to be coming undone at the seams. And by that I mainly mean its editing, which is discontinuous and at times incoherent, becoming an all-too-visible art. The early scene where Hammer fights the hood in the street sets the tone. Do the rapid cuts make sense? It seems to my eye as though the two paired closeups are repeated, or at least the one of the hand Hammer is holding behind the hood’s back. It’s quite jarring.
*. To me it seems like a grab bag of a movie. For example, I hate the way things start, after Christina is picked up. While the opening titles scroll backward (something that has always struck me as just a stunt) we get the incredibly annoying heavy breathing/sobbing of Christina over top of Nat King Cole. Her noises sound totally forced and unnatural to me and she goes on far too long, to the point where I have to think Aldrich had a point he was trying to make. I don’t know what it might have been.

*. Standing at the center of it all is Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer. Meeker is someone who really shouldn’t work in the role, and it’s a strange performance that has been often remarked upon. He smiles or smirks a lot at seemingly inappropriate times. Some find him sadistic. He’s certainly a bully, slapping people around just for giggles (though I think the coroner asks for it). I guess he’s a tough guy as well (what horrific move does he pull on Sugar Smallhouse?), but he’s just got a jerky quality to him that’s beneath the usual noir hero. It’s not that he doesn’t come off as a latter-day knight or anti-Galahad (as Ursini calls him) patrolling the dirty streets of L.A. — he actually does have some sense of loyalty, at least to Velda and Nicky — as that he’s charmless. Naturally the babes swoon all over him, but even that seems like a joke.
*. In any event, Aldrich was supposed to do a couple of Hammer films, but My Gun Is Quick would be directed by Victor Saville (executive producer of Kiss Me Deadly) and star Robert Bray as Hammer. The Aldrich-Meeks experiment was over. But given that the edited version of Kiss Me Deadly (not the “original” version but the version audiences saw) had Mike and Velda presumably dying in the beach house meltdown I doubt he really had plans for a sequel. As it is, he is often credited for drawing the curtain on the classic age of noir and after Kiss Me Deadly struck out on his own.

*. Of course the ending makes no sense. The box that screams and sends out an incendiary glow before exploding is a wonderful construct, but can’t be squared with any understanding of the behaviour of radioactive material. Silver sees it as something like a dirty bomb but that’s more than a stretch. I wonder if Aldrich or Bezerides even knew about things like that. Well, I’m sure they didn’t care.
*. Many critics comment on the mythic characteristics of the plot, especially given the references made to classical figures. One thought that has always niggled away with me is that Mike actually does die in the opening car crash and the rest of the film plays out like a noir version of Carnival of Souls. I think this occurs to me for two reasons: (1) despite falling down the cliff in his car, without a seatbelt on, and the car bursting into flames on its way down, Hammer seems totally uninjured when he wakes up the next day in the hospital; (2) Soberin makes a strained reference to Christina’s resurrection after he’s killed her, and when Nicky sees Mike after his accident he says “Look Sammy! My friend just returned from the grave!” That may not seem like much, but more has been made of less in suggesting that Lee Marvin is actually dead at the beginning of Point Blank.
*. So maybe the whole thing is the dream of a dead man. It’s a weird enough movie to allow the conjecture, a film “real yet surreal” in Thomson’s judgment. As with most such films you’re left wondering how much of the chaos was intentional. To be honest, I don’t think it’s a very good movie. Much of the dialogue feels wildly overwritten, even for a comic book. The pieces don’t fit together and not all of the pieces are interesting. I couldn’t stand the character of Nick Va Va Voom, for example. Still, it’s a movie I enjoy, and for a genre flick it remains something of a singularity.

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