Kiss Me Deadly [Blu-Ray]
Director : Robert Aldrich
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1955
Stars : Ralph Meeker (Mike Hammer), Maxine Cooper (Velda), Gaby Rodgers (Lily Carver), Wesley Addy (Lt. Pat Murphy), Paul Stewart (Carl Evello), Albert Dekker (Dr. G.E. Soberin), Juano Hernandez (Eddie Yeager), Marian Carr (Friday), Cloris Leachman (Christina Bailey), Nick Dennis (Nick), Jack Lambert (Sugar Smallhouse), Jack Elam (Charlie Max), Jerry Zinneman (Sammy), Leigh Snowden (Cheesecake), Percy Helton (Doc Kennedy)
Warning: This review contains some spoilers. Proceed at your own risk if you have not yet seen the film.
Arriving near the end of the classic period of film noir, which is usually dated as beginning with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and ending with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil in 1958, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is both the epitome of film noir’s dark view of human nature and the subsequent corruption of the social order and a literal explosion of the genre. Based on Mickey Spillane’s 1953 novel of the same title, which was the sixth to feature his hardened protagonist detective Mike Hammer, the film’s screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides (who had previously written Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway) subverts Spillane’s reactionary politics and Old Testament violence by recasting Hammer as a tawdry, narcissistic antihero and setting him in the West Coast decadence of Los Angeles rather than the East Coast grime of New York City. The result is one of the most memorable of American film noir, a remarkable fusion of hard-boiled mystery and atomic horror that still maintains its bite, especially in the era of homegrown terrorism in which the idea of a suitcase-sized nuclear device is no longer science fiction.
Mike Hammer, who had already been portrayed on-screen by Biff Elliott in the 1953 United Artists adaptation of Spillane’s first novel I, the Jury and by Brian Keith in an unaired television pilot in 1954, is here played by Ralph Meeker, a character actor known primarily for his work on Broadway and in television anthology series. Meeker turned out to be a perfect casting choice, as he was unafraid to play Hammer the way Aldrich and Bezzerides imagined him: as a sleazy, but roguishly charming opportunist who had no qualms about breaking laws and breaking people. As his name would seem to indicate, Hammer’s primary mode of getting information is grabbing a person and slapping him around, whether he be a hired thug or an elderly gentleman working the desk at a health club. His immediate resort to violence runs contrary to most private detectives of previous film noir, who tended to be more subtle and restrained in extracting information. However, Meeker went even further in showing that Hammer likes--no, relishes--inflicting pain, grinning perversely as he slams a thug’s head repeatedly against a brick wall or smashes a stubborn coroner’s hand in a desk drawer.
The general thrust of the narrative is largely the same as Spillane’s novel, beginning with Hammer being flagged down on a lonely back road by Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman), a desperate woman in a trench-coat running barefoot from unidentified pursuers. Both she and Hammer are soon caught, and she is tortured to death (in a scene that, while keeping the violence off-screen, is nevertheless striking in its viciousness for a movie made under the strictures of the Production Code Administration) and Hammer is put in the hospital. When he gets out, he begins to track down her killers, an endeavor that begins largely out of his own curiosity but is soon driven primarily by his sense that there is something huge at stake and he wants a piece of it. That something--eventually referred to as “the great whatsit”--drives Hammer (and the film) and keeps the mystery constantly charged. Far from being Spillane’s pillar of righteous vengeance, Hammer is a self-serving cad who simply wants his piece of the pie, and he’s willing to do anything to get it. He enlists the aid of his beautiful “secretary” Velda (Maxine Cooper), who usually works for him by seducing divorce clients even though she is masochistically in love with him, as well as a gregarious Greek auto mechanic (Nick Dennis). His search eventually leads him to Christina’s frightened former roommate Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), who is afraid that she will be killed next; an even more frightened science journalist (Mort Marshall), who knows what Christina is hiding; and Carl Evello (Paul Stewart), a wealthy crime boss intent on keeping Hammer out of the way.
Aldrich, who was then primarily a television director with only three feature films to his credit (1953’s The Big Leaguer and 1954’s Apache and Vera Cruz), holds Kiss Me Deadly at a fever pitch from the opening credits, which inexplicably roll down the screen backward, to the bizarre climax that finds the femme fatale, revealed in all her devious glory, being incinerated by a nuclear device (“the great whatsit” everyone has been searching for) that hisses like something that crawled out of a demonic horror movie. Cinematographer Ernest Lazlo, who had also shot Aldrich’s previous two films, gives Kiss Me Deadly a constant edge with his mix of visual styles, including canted angles, deep focus, and a constant sense of tension in his framing and lighting (Hammer’s face is frequently obscured by shadows, suggesting that he is juts as bad as the villains he is pursuing). Lazlo gives us all the film noir clichés, from vertical slats of light on the wall to dark city streets, but the film never feels derivative or tired, perhaps because it is so relentless in escalating the genre’s darkest impulses.
Similar to Jake Gittes’s misadventures in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), a Los Angeles-set neo-noir that owes quite a debt to Kiss Me Deadly’s astute modernity and apocalyptic cynicism, there is no sense of closure at the end of the film because Hammer stumbles into something that is profoundly bigger than he is and is thus beyond his capacity to contain. The “great whatsit,” is the Pandora’s Box of the 20th century, and the fact that we the audience want to see it opened as much as anyone on screen implicates us in the subsequent fallout. More directly, Hammer gets his comeuppance in the film’s climactic inferno, which leaves him and Velda stumbling in the California surf as the night lights up in a mini-apocalypse (for years the film had a truncated ending that suggested he and Velda were incinerated in the explosion, which gave the film an even bleaker outcome). For all his bravado and arrogance, Hammer learns that he is ultimately a speck in the grand scheme of things; in a nutshell, the lesson of the atomic age.
|Kiss Me Deadly Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|Kiss Me Deadly is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||June 21, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Kiss Me Deadly had long been in need of a new release, since all we’ve had for more than a decade is MGM’s nonanamorphic DVD from 2001. Thus, Criterion’s new 1080p high-definition transfer, taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive, is a particularly welcome replacement. The image, nicely framed in the more European 1.66:1 aspect ratio, looks gorgeous, with good detail and contrast to go along with a strong presence of film grain. There is a slight softness to the image that is most likely the film’s inherent look, so the fine details don’t always pop like the do in other black-and-white films of the era (bear in mind that this was a low-budget B production, so the film stock probably wasn’t of the highest quality). Digital restoration has removed all but the slightest hints of age and wear, which gives one the feeling of seeing the film for the first time all over again. The lossless monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track, certainly bears the limitations of age and budget, but it sounds sharp and clear, especially when “the great whatsit” is seething and hissing. Those sounds effects, which fill the room even in mono, are a reminder of how simplicity can be so unnerving.|
|Unlike the largely bare-bones MGM DVD, Criterion has assembled a wide range of supplements to augment the film’s presentation. Anyone with even a passing interest in Kiss Me Deadly or in film noir in general should spend some time with the first-rate commentary by film scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini, authors of numerous books, including What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? and Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. Their commentary is rich with detail and analysis, and is even more meaningful given that they were some of the first scholars in the early 1970s to draw attention to the fact that the ending of the film had been truncated from its original presentation, an error that was not corrected until the film was restored in 1997. The truncated ending, which is what everyone saw from roughly 1960 until the late 1990s, is included here, as well. The film gets a rather odd video tribute from director Alex Cox, who made an homage to its “great whatsit” in his cult favorite Repo Man (1984). The disc also includes a short, 9-minute excerpt from the 2005 documentary The Long Haul of A. I. Bezzerides and a shortened 40-minute version of the 1998 documentary Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, which features extensive interviews with Spillane and numerous detective and mystery writers. The disc also includes a 7-minute featurette on the film’s locations in the Bunker Hill neighborhood, including short segments that show what they look like today, and the original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet features an essay by critic J. Hoberman and a 1955 reprint by director Robert Aldrich.|
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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