MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic. Kiss Me Deadly


“Kiss Me Deadly” (Four Stars)

U.S.: Robert Aldrich, 1955 (Criterion Collection)

Something went dark and sour and more than a little crazy in American culture in the post-World War 2 era. And more than a little of it comes bubbling up like hell-froth in Robert Aldrich‘s and A. I. Bezzerides’ hard-boiled, high-style masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly.

One of the great film noirs of the 50s, this gut-grabbing, hellbent movie — almost as visually baroque as an Orson Welles thriller and mean as a pair of brass knuckles cracking a jaw — takes Mickey Spillane’s ferocious detective thriller and twists it inside out. Aldrich’s show, in an amazing piece of narrative subversion, turns Spillane’s ultra-tough but justice-minded private eye, Mike Hammer into a brutal, greedy gun-toting lecher with the morals of a pimp and the ethics of a swindler, while transforming Spillane’s hard-edged, dirty-minded, right-wing mystery novel into a stylish, taut, left-wing investigation of some of the sleazier sides of American pop culture and the underworld.

Kiss Me Deadly is about urban America at its seediest and most dangerous. It’s about the atomic age, and corruption, and misogyny, and boxing, and crummy divorce work, and phony psychiatrists, and gangsters and gunsels, and murderers who seem to get away with it. It’s about prowling around L. A. in the kind of wheels Randy Newman was born to ride. (Los Angeles from Bunker Hill to Hollywood to Santa Monica).

And it’s just about as cinematically inventive and inky-noir as a 1955 Eisenhower era movie thriller can get. Watch it and you’re descending into a Great American Nighmare — beginning with that first breathless night-on-the-highway view of a blonde beautiful mental institution escapee (Cloris Leachman as Christina) racing down the road, breathing hard, nude under a raincoat, flagging down Hammer’s sports car by standing right in its path. (In the book, Spillane goes farther: according to Hammer, Christina opens up her coat and “uses her whole body” to thumb the ride.)


The jittery, screw-loose feel of that wild opener continues through the movie‘s bizarre backward rolling credits, unscrolling like Star Wars‘ opening crawl, but with all the words and names dropping down from the top in reverse order, while Christina cries and Nat King Cole purrs the Frank DeVol ballad “Rather Have the Blues.” 106 breathless minutes later, “Deadly, Kiss Me” ends with another woman opening up a Pandora‘s box in a beach house, and hell finally catching up with the movie‘s unsavory crew.


There are several constants through all this: sex and death and money and classic black-and-white photography. Both these women (one good, one evil) want Hammer — though Christina subjects him to a scathing personal critique in the car. Upshot: He’s good at sex, bad at love, just like ‘50s America. Hammer has also been stripped of his good-vigilante rationale in this film. But he’s still the same brutal guy who, at the end of Spillane‘s first novel I, the Jury, blasted a femme fatale with his smoking rod, and when his dying victim asked him why, answered “It was easy.”

All the women seem to want Hammer, especially his faithful Girl Friday and sometime divorce case bed-bait Velda, played by Maxine Cooper. And all the bad men want him shit-beaten-out-of or dead, including Albert Dekker as the suave villain Dr. G. E. Soberin, Paul Stewart as the smooth gangster Carl Evello, and those two memorably ratlike torpedoes Sugar Smallhouse and Charlie Max (played with maximum evil by Jack Lambert and Jack Elam).

Did I mention there were tough cops? Not genial Ward Bond-tough or sullen Barton MacLane-tough, like the coppers in Huston and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, but a lean and fashionable-tough fuzz: Hammer’s dour antagonist Lt. Pat Murphy, played by Wesley Addy, without a qualm. Thre are also some pals and bystanders: Nick Dennis‘s Nick, an explosive auto mechanic who should never trust a jack (or a Jack), Fortunio Bonanova (the opera coach of Citizen Kane) as an opera buff whose classical 78s were made to be broken (or hammered), Juano Hernandez (who was also the great old man who wanted to talk in The Pawnbroker) as Eddie Yeager, a vulnerable fight manager, and Percy Helton as Doc Kennedy, a sleazy little police mortician who peddles corpse access.

What a rotten world. What a rotten city. What a mostly rotten, but strangely familiar crew. In the books, Hammer‘s sadism and cruelty are justified because he’s dealing with scum: killers, dealers, tramps and Commies, people who (in Hammer‘s world view) deserve what he gives them. (“It was easy.”) But, if Spillane hated the movie, scriptwriter Bezzerides hated the book, and he deliberately threw most of it away.

It’s an archetypal story anyway, with all those icy private eye thriller routines Spillane was lifting (and coarsening) from Hammett and Chandler, with the setting switched in the film from Spillane’s trashy New York City to Aldrich’s (and Chandler’s) slick, bright L. A., and with the movie’s maguffin altered from dope to dangerous atomic stuff. Aldrich shot it all in something of the style of those revolutionary 1941 film classics, Kane and The Maltese Falcon, while also giving it the bright, hard mean look of a ‘50s Phil Karlson or a Don Siegel — with stark views of 1955 L. A., in the areas where the people from Sunset Blvd. don’t go, down the mean streets Philip Marlowe prowled in a slightly earlier time.

That’s one reason intense movie buffs love Kiss Me Deadly — because it’s both familiar (comfortingly so, even though we’re in a city of psychopaths) and startling (those angles, that modern art, that answer-phone, that classical music, that stalker with the knife, that boxful of hellfire). Aldrich was a left-winger — he’d been assistant director for a first-class progressive Hollywood directorial gallery that included Chaplin, Milestone, Max Ophuls, Robert Rossen and Abe Polonsky — but he was also from a very rich, very well-connected family: the “Nelson Aldrich” side of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (who was Bob’s first cousin).

Aldrich, or “Le Gros Bob” as his French admirers called him, never lost his politics. But in a way, he never lost his privileged roots either — which is why he understands Hammer’s money-grubbing mercenary heart, and probably why he gives this divorce detective such a spiffy apartment. (Catch Philip Marlowe in digs like that!) It‘s good that Aldrich had the immigrant Greek leftie Bezzerides for a scriptwriter, and also good that they were adapting a book that, however conservative its politics, was what proletarians everywhere were reading. (It was 1955, and in that year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture Marty, Ernest Borgnine’s more literary pal keeps insisting “That Mickey Spillane: He sure can write!”)

It’s easy to see why the American mass audience — and Spillane himself — didn’t like Deadly Kiss Me. They didn’t like Aldrich‘s Mike Hammer. They didn’t like the story, told upside down. It took the French to see the whole picture.

And though Kiss Me Deadly may not have played well in Des Moines or Houston or Tallahassee — in Paris, the movie caught on like a Hitchocko-Hawksian wildfire. Future New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol gave it a rave, and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinema “Holy Family” (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette), and fellow French buffs as well, canonized Aldrich. His other 1954-1956 movies, the pre-Leone Westerns Apache and Vera Cruz, the scalding Clifford Odets Hollywood expose The Big Knife, the blistering war movie Attack! and the Joan Crawford soap-opera-noir Autumn Leaves, all helped his case too: smart, stylish, subversive, visually socko genre pieces with lots of spin on the ball.

But Kiss Me Deadly is the show that still seems Aldrich’s chef d’oeuvre, and one of the great ‘50s American movies. The cinematography (Ernest Laszlo) breathes noir. Aldrich‘s great editor Michael Luciano cuts it like a dream. DeVol’s music jazzes it up. The mood and the angles keep reminding you of Welles and Huston, but Aldrich is less a romantic than Welles, more of a cynic about life and politics and movies than Huston. He was also working with Bezzerides, a great noir screen writer (On Dangerous Ground). If Aldrich never made a better film noir, except maybe Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, he’d already swept the table with Kiss Me Deadly.

A word about Ralph Meeker, who’s far from meek: the Mike Hammer of your worst nightmare. Every good actor has at least one good run, and for Meeker, it was the early ’50s. He took over (successfully) from Brando as Stanley Kowalski in the original Broadway “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He starred in William Inge’s “Picnic” (in William Holden‘s movie role, in a stage cast that included Janice Rule, Kim Stanley, Paul Newman, understudy Joanne Woodward, Eileen Heckart and Arthur O’Connell). He made an Anthony MannJimmy Stewart Western (the best one, The Naked Spur). And he played Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, and played him with only one ounce of sentimentality, when Mike learns of Nick‘s death.

It’s an oddly selfless performance. Meeker, who later specialized in character heavies, is playing a babe magnet, a bully and an egomaniac, not to mention one of the most then-famous fictional characters on the planet, and he does nothing, nothing, to make us like Hammer — except maybe to rescue Velda and to look numbed and sorry when Nick is killed. Yet the character makes complete sense, especially since Aldrich and Bezzerides slot him as a fancy-dressing divorce detective rather than a Marlowe-type private eye.

Meeker’s Hammer is not unredeemed. He does save Velda, and he would have saved Nick if he could have — and he’s probably even sorry he broke that 78 of Trivago’s. (“Beautiful record” he says as he leaves.) But we can tell within minutes of Christina getting in Hammer’s car, that Alrdrich and Bezzerides don‘t like him. And neither do we, if we have an ounce of sentiment.

Why did the French love Aldrich? (It was a mystery to Spillane.) Aldrich is a great filmmaker partly because he has lots of guts and he has this absolutely compelling story-telling ability, and he gets among the punchiest visuals of any director. When he made Kiss Me Deadly, he was a young man on a hot streak: 1954’s Apache and Vera Cruz had been big hits. (Check out Vera Cruz, just out on MGM Blu-ray; it still plays strong.) Aldrich’s other 1955 film, The Big Knife, would win the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

In Kiss Me Deadly, the 36-year-old Aldrich, sensing his new power (and force) seems to be giving the movie everything he’s got: daring it all, and maybe counting on Spillane’s and Hammer’s popularity to pull him through any rough spots. They didn’t at first. But like all directors who make a classic movie that isn’t initially appreciated or understood, Aldrich won in the long haul.

Hard-boiled. High style. That’s noir. And Kiss Me Deadly is quintessential noir — though “quintessential“ is a word Spillane probably would have hated, just as he disliked the punctuation the “Kiss Me” publisher gave his title. The Mick wanted his book to be called “Kiss Me, Deadly” (you can catch the subtler inflection), but the publisher messed it up. The book has been corrected, apparently, but the movie will probably be Kiss Me Deadly forever. And it will forever be what Spillane also didn’t want, a left wing art film, admired all over the world by the kind of people who love movies and disliked his books.

What a world! One pictures Spillane looking at Aldrich and Bezzerides in the hell or heaven (or the Bunker Hill) where they all now reside, and saying, angrily:“ How could you do this to me? How could you guys screw up my book and pull a switcheroo like that?” And one can imagine Aldrich — or Bezzerides — looking right back at him and answering: “It was easy.”

Extras: Commentary by film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini; Video tribute by Alex Cox; Excerpts from 2005 documentary The Long haul of A. I. Bezzerides, with Bezzerides interviews; New version of Max Allan Collins’ 1998 documentary Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, with lengthy Spillane interview; Video pieces on Bunker Hill and other locations; Original theatrical ending (the Criterion print has the restored original ending, as intended by Aldrich); trailer: booklet with essays by Aldrich and j. hoberman. 

Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic. Kiss Me Deadly”

  1. Irv Slifkin says:

    does anyone know where one can get the full length version of The Long haul of A. I. Bezzerides?


awesome stuff. OK I would like to contribute as well by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to modify. check it out at All custom premade files, many of them totally free to get. Also, check out Dow on: Wilmington on DVDs: How to Train Your Dragon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Darjeeling Limited, The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, The Hangover, The Human Centipede and more ...

cool post. OK I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to customize. check it out at All custom templates, many of them dirt cheap or free to get. Also, check out Downlo on: Wilmington on Movies: I'm Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae

awesome post. Now I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some beautiful and easy to modify. take a look at All custom premade files, many of them free to get. Also, check out DownloadSoho.c on: MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up

Carrie Mulligan on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby

isa50 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Gladiator; Hell's Half Acre; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Rory on: Wilmington on Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Andrew Coyle on: Wilmington On Movies: Paterson

tamzap on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Magnificent Seven, Date Night, Little Women, Chicago and more …

rdecker5 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Ivan's Childhood

Ray Pride on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon