Wednesday 13 February 2013

Movie Review: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

A staggeringly effective film noir that plumbs the depths of abject fears propelled by the Cold War's promise of nuclear annihilation, Kiss Me Deadly is a small story that just happens to be about dark forces unknowingly toying with the possible end of the world.

In the dead of night, hard boiled, bottom-feeding private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up desperate hitch hiker Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman, in her film debut) on a lonely rural road outside of Los Angeles. Christina is wearing a trench coat with nothing underneath and has just escaped from a mental institution. She pleads with Hammer to "remember me" should anything happen to her. Sure enough, they are intercepted by a gang of thugs. Hammer receives a knock-out blow to the head; Christina is tortured and killed. Both are placed in Hammer's car and thrown off a cliff. Hammer survives, recovers, and with the help of his trusted assistant Velda (Maxine Cooper), starts to investigate Christina's story.

Hammer fends off police detective Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) as a convoluted thread leads to Christina's former room-mate Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers), who is quick to put on a threatened sex-kitten act and asks Hammer for protection. Soon Hammer uncovers a locker key cleverly hidden by Christina. In the locker is a mysterious and seemingly dangerous light-emitting device. The nefarious Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker), expert torturer, Christina's killer and Lily's co-conspirator, is eager to get his hands on the hidden contraption. Lily, Soberin and Hammer engage in what turns into a deadly battle to recover the devastatingly powerful energy weapon.

Kiss Me Deadly is a story of bottom-feeders racing to the abyss. The supposed hero, Mike Hammer, is worse than any of the low-lifes he investigates. Typically hired to snoop on cheating spouses, he resorts to blackmail and entrapment to maximize his fees, and even pimps-out Velda to create more infidelity as needed. In his pursuit of Christina's story, Hammer is a brute, breaking one man's precious music record for kicks and trapping another man's fingers in a drawer to get his attention.

Wanton violence is in Hammer's blood, and he becomes the perfect hard-skulled man to chase after the ultimate weapon of destruction, a box-sized nuclear device hidden under America's nose. The other evil-doers are either two-faced or faceless, Lily playing the waiting game and letting others do the dirty work, while Dr. Soberin's shoes are more prominent than his face, his army of interchangeable henchmen irrelevant.

The script by A. I. Bezzerides does not care about the who and why of the weapon; when widespread carnage and the potential for final extinction is the outcome, the what is the only thing that counts, and Kiss Me Deadly draws its terror from having exactly no one in control of technology packing a horrific outcome.

Ralph Meeker brings Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer to life with a sardonic smile, a perpetual cigarette, and an expression that acknowledges everyone is heading for the same final exit, but some will have a more exciting experience along the way. Maxine Cooper, in her debut, emerges as the major secondary role. Cooper creates a Velda who is both Hammer's victim and source of strength, the woman he abuses and depends upon. She suffers through it because she sees something worth loving in him, which is the main blemish on her judgement.

As with many great detective stories, Kiss Me Deadly loses its linear coherence early, director Robert Aldrich finding all the edgy camera angles and drenching the screen with enough fatalistic grit and raging sexuality to render logic superfluous. Once Hammer embarks on his quest to uncover Christina's backstory, Aldrich alternates overdoses of masculine violence with gushing feminine lust, Hammer intimidating every man standing in the way of the truth and encouraging every woman willing to throw herself at him. For good measure, Aldrich throws in a scene of Hammer talking with Velda as she just happens to be performing sensuous ballet stretches, mixed-in with stripper-pole twirls, in form-hugging clothing.

On the way to confronting bombs that can end the planet's liveability, there is no real need to ask any rational questions: it's just Hammer time.

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