Mike Hammer was the prototype of the tough private investigator, and "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) was a quintessentially 1950s take on that character. If you want cool, suave and deadly, you get that from this Mike Hammer, a small-time hood with a nose for trouble.
|Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer: as stolid as a Redwood.|
The best parts of this film are isolated scenes that are complete in and of themselves: a woman is running down the highway at night trying to flag down a car, wearing only a trench coat.... some unsavory types are lounging around a pool, with girls in revealing bathing suits bestowed with names like "Cheesecake".... Hammer is driving around town in his snazzy car, a camera on the back showing us the empty streets ahead....
|Velma the professional seductress, up against the stoic Hammer.|
More than anything, "Kiss Me Deadly" is a collection of disjointed vignettes with wild implications that lead nowhere, but are atmospheric and intoxicating. An opera singer - the film is full of classical music, but no '50s pop - belting away.... An unrecognizable Strother Martin pops in for a quick, nervous scene... Hammer's secretary, sidekick and lovelorn girlfriend Velda (Maxine Cooper) practices ballet moves in a home dance studio, complete with a stripper's pole that she clearly knows how to use.... A gym full of African American fighters managed by a shady promoter....
There truly are some scenes that are decades ahead of their time. You can see where this film might have influenced the style of 1960s spy films such as "Goldfinger." The atmosphere is intoxicating, and there are hardly any 1950s songs around to date the film - instead, characters listen to timeless opera and classical tunes. As in many 1950s films, the cars are stars, and you don't see many bulk dinosaurs, but rather trim little roadsters that still look like they would be fun to drive. I love the interplay of light and shadow, night and day, and think this is a brilliant exercise in film noir. The opening scene on the highway with Meeker's character almost running over a desperate, befuddled terrified, and stunning (and naked save for a trenchcoat) Cloris Leachman (her dialog at first consisting only of strangled wheezing) is simply stunning film noir - though right away you see how stoically and stiff-necked Meeker is going to play the role. To be honest, the opening sequence reminds me of video game " Grand Theft Auto: Vice City." It has that city-of-weirdness vibe, complete with the atmospheric radio station.
Several inventive themes are hammered over and over to give this film its style. Until things get hairy towards the end, Hammer swaggers through each setting as if he owns it, hair immaculate, impeccably dressed, coolly in control of every situation. While Hammer is the quintessential tough guy who doesn't flinch at knocking people out or torturing them to get information, his role is reversed with women in that classic adult film way that creates a fantasy world where every woman desires him, but he is oblivious and interested only in finding answers to his questions. He is immune and must be seduced, and he resists when any other man would acquiesce. This is a very modern film for the 1950s. With all the violence and sexual innuendo, it belongs more in the 1970s or later than in the Eisenhower era.
|Cloris Leachman hailing down Mike Hammer.|
All these scenes and the swaggering style do not join together to create a great tale. They call whatever they are looking for - which isn't revealed until the end - a "whatsit," but they might just as well have called it the "McGuffin," Hitchcock's term for the unknown object of desire for which everyone in a film ceaselessly searches. Throughout the meat of the film it really doesn't matter what it is, but when we find out, it is kind of a '50s joke.
By striving for the ultimate payoff, the film completely loses its way. Much better if the "whatsit" had turned out to be something purely sentimental, or that answered an important question. What it turns out to be makes Hammer and everything he did seem insignificant, and that's no way to end a movie. And the police and everyone else who are interfering with Hammer's search suddenly disappear at the end after revealing what this is all about - how convenient, and how unrealistic.
|The shots of Mike Hammer driving are awesomely realistic.|
If you want only the best part of "Kiss Me Deadly," the choice cut of the steak as it were, I would suggest watching the first half of the film, then turning to something else. That way you get the incandescent atmosphere while avoiding most of the needless brutality and the strange ending that mar this film. I'm glad I watched it all the way through, and scenes from it will stick with me. However, Meeker's performance and the novelty touches aren't enough to save the weak script.