15th Aug2019

‘Kiss Me Deadly’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Ralph Meeker, Nick Dennis, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rodgers | Written by A.I. Bezzerides | Directed by Robert Aldritch

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Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is driving down the freeway, minding his own business, when he almost hits a woman. Mike is a private investigator, and he knows trouble when he sees it, but he can’t just leave her in the road. His decision to stop and help triggers a confrontation with a group of thugs. When he comes around, the lady is dead – and Mike wants to know what the hell just happened.

With the help of his assistant and lover, Velda (Maxine Cooper), Mike takes a deep dive into the L.A. underworld. Scouring the backstreets, bars and boxing clubs, he uncovers a web of intrigue and violence, involving all the usual men of power, i.e. gangsters and cops. Countless bodies are left in the wake of his pursuit of the truth – and it’s a journey that leads him to a most unlikely and devastating revelation.

Original and unpredictable in terms of its plotting, Robert Aldritch’s 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly almost acts as a segue between the hard-boiled noir of the 1940s and the paranoid science fiction of the 1950s. You wouldn’t believe it from the first hour, which hits familiar detective-mystery beats – but then the film opens up in the final act, propelling itself toward an unforgettable ending which would influence the likes of Pulp Fiction and Raiders of the Lost Ark. With its bleak outlook, Hollywood setting, and menacing tone – not to mention the unspooling conspiracy at its core – the echoes in Polanski’s Chinatown are obvious.

Based on a Mickey Spillane novel, all the film noir iconography is on show in this City of Fallen Angels. Smoky blues bars. Shadowy back alleys. Even more shadowy apartments. Adding to the immersion is Aldritch’s decision to shoot largely on location (mostly around Bunker Hill, which would be earmarked for “slum clearance” the same year). It gives the picture a unique rawness, grounding it even when some of the performances drift into melodrama. It’s an unusual approach for the time, giving the film a muscularity and a sense of real danger sometimes lacking from its contemporaries. Aldritch proudly shows off his locations with the kind of languid tracking shots of which Scorsese would be proud.

At the film’s centre, Meeker is understated, and he brings brooding charisma and a hint of ambiguity to what could have been a one-note role. Mike Hammer is quick-witted and cool and he can kill with a single punch – but he’s no soulful warrior stereotype. He is addicted to the case and addicted to the chase. At one point we cut to Mike’s face as he tortures a meek man, and he’s smiling a sadistic smile. “Hammer” indeed: Mike punches his way through virtually every situation, and he loves it.

Velda’s “great whatsit” observation – her confusion about what drives Mike toward self-destruction – is perhaps a metaphor for Cold War paranoia. But it can also be seen as a comment on masculinity: the peculiarly male competitive drive underpinning the patriarchy of the underworld, mirrored in regular society. In their pursuit of the “whatsit”, cops and robbers are as machinating and cruel as each other. For Velda, she wonders what Mike is fighting for. Could they not just leave L.A. and find peace? Mike’s need to cling to the city’s underbelly is not a moral decision, it’s about the desire to win.

Kiss Me Deadly is very fine thriller. Push through the slightly plodding first act and you will be rewarded with a smart and strange odyssey, eerie and absurd in the end, but consistently watchable and supremely well-made.

Blu-ray Special Features include:

  • New high-definition restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini
  • New video tribute from director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Walker)
  • Excerpts from The Long Haul of A. I. Bezzerides, a 2005 documentary on the Kiss Me Deadly screenwriter
  • Excerpts from Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, a 1998 documentary on the author whose book inspired the film
  • A look at the film’s locations
  • Altered ending
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic J. Hoberman and a 1955 reprint by director Robert Aldrich

Kiss Me Deadly is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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