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“Kiss Me Deadly”

This is my second favorite noir movie of all time; and since my favorite, “Out of the Past,” which I wrote about recently, is also my favorite movie of all time, I consider that “Kiss Me Deadly” is also a great movie irrespective of genre. It was released in 1955, which was at the end of the “noir cycle.”

I read a fine book about film noir, “Somewhere in the Night,” which delved into the ethos and themes of that film genre. The two movies which the author wrote most about, were those two. He said that for those who had not seen many noirs, and then saw “Out of the Past,” which came out in 1947, it would be a shock to then see “Kiss Me Deadly,” as they seemed so far apart in presentation and effect, and the world they portrayed.

“Kiss Me Deadly” is based on a book by Mickey Spillane, whose crime novels I have never read, but who was considered a pulp novelist with public appeal. His detective was Mike Hammer, whose name connotes his readiness to use his fists, and his approach and appeal to the women who populated Spillane’s novels. The Mike Hammer of “Kiss Me Deadly” has those aspects, but he is drawn much more interestingly by the brilliant screenwriter and novelist A.I. Bezzerides, and the director Robert Aldrich, who teamed to make a movie which is as strangely poetic as it is fast-paced and intense.

The movie is in a word, haunting. It portrays Los Angeles, and by extension, the rest of urban America in the 1950’s, as a place which suffers from a sickness; a sense of dread suffusing it, though never verbally articulated. It is certainly not a preachy or self-indulgent film. It is full of action, and it is a byzantine mystery. But the effect is more unsettling than virtually every noir film ever made.

Bezzerides wrote a brilliant script which infuses literary and mythological allusions into the dialogue, with an effect which takes the movie to a different level. The film starts with the credits rolling downside-up. Hammer, played by Ralph Meeker, in an absolutely superb acting performance, is driving down the coast road. Then Cloris Leachman is shown running up the road. You hear her panting as she is running, apparently with nothing but a trenchcoat covering her, and there is a reason for that. She cannot get Hammer to stop, so she suddenly plants herself in front of his car. He jerks the wheel, and drives it off the road. He is upset at her, but decides to give her a ride. And she tells a bit of her story. And she tells him that if something happens to her, “Remember me.”

That phrase is central to the mystery, and it is just so haunting and thrilling in the way that it is. It is a poetic allusion; and though occasionally they are present in noir films, one almost never hears one which is in some sense the key to the story. Later, Hammer has occasion to read the poem from where it is derived, and it is one of the great poems in the English language, and so powerful here.

As he drives Cloris, whose name in the film is Christine, we hear the theme song playing, “I’d Rather Have the Blues Than What I’ve Got.” What a downbeat song, chilling in the context of the film. Never has there been a theme song so absolutely evocative of the mood and plot of a movie.

When one realizes that this is not the average detective noir film, is a little later, when a character is being tortured to get information; all this takes place off-camera, except for the screams. And then the screams stop. One of the voices, who sounds like a tough guy henchman, says, “She’s passed out. I’ll bring her to.” And another voice, this with well-educated and deliberate elocution, as if he were reading a funeral speech, says, “If you revive her, you know what that would be? Resurrection, that’s what it would be. You know what resurrection means? It means, raise the dead. Just who do you think you are, that you think you can raise the dead?”

There were so many conventional movie lines that he could have spoken in that context, but that is what he said; and you know then that this movie is far from typical, taking you into a different realm. Much later, we hear this character say, “You have been misnamed, Gabrielle, you should have been called Pandora. She had a curiosity about a box and opened it and let loose all the evil in the world.”…”The head of the Medusa”…”Listen to me as if I were Cerberus, barking with all his heads at the gates of Hell.” Each of the allusions is appropriate, and it is a work of writing genius to have them combine with the more typical noir dialogue.

The acting is excellent, with so many unforgettable characters played by rather unknown actors. Ralph Meeker was a very underrated actor, who came very close to getting the lead in “Picnic,” which went to William Holden. Everything I have seen him in, I have been impressed by, from “Jeopardy” with Barbara Stanwyck, to “The Naked Spur,” with James Stewart and Robert Ryan.

He plays Hammer as a person who does shade the law a bit, and who as Christine says, likes to have his nice things, like his fancy sports car. But he also does some decent things for no selfish reason, and most of the people he knows in the city. have regard for him. Somehow, virtually everyone who writes about the movie, or like the theatre employee who introduced the film a bit when it was shown a couple of years ago at a nearby theatre, describes him as an unsympathetic person. But while he is far from ideal, he is decent enough, and does usually try to do the right thing, and that is how I think he was written here.

There are so many other actors who deserve praise. Maxine Cooper as his secretary and more, Velda Wickman. The wonderful character actor Paul Stewart, as a suave and rich criminal. Juano Hernandez as a friendly but somewhat crooked boxing manager. Jack Elam and Jack Lambert as tough guys. Curvaceous Marian Carr in a notable scene. Percy Helton doing his usual role very well. Wesley Addy, with excellent affect and delivery as police lieutenant Pat Murphy. Nick Dennis as Nick (“Va Va Voom! Pretty Pow!”), lines of foreshadowing. And then Albert Dekker, whom we see later on.

And it is also memorable to hear the legendary track announcer Joe Hernandez summarizing a just completed horse race on the radio; and the great Sam Balter, my parents’ favorite football and basketball announcer, who covered UCLA sports for many years, announcing a boxing match which is actually an analogue to what is then going on in the movie.

And Gaby Rodgers, in one of the most unforgettable, albeit somewhat brief, performances I have ever seen. Some think she is terrible; others, including me, think she is brilliant. You would have to see the movie to envision it. I cannot recall anyone, even in the unsettling world of noir movies, play this kind of role as indelibly as she does. I just looked her up, and saw that she married Jerry Leiber, of Leiber and Stoller. Watch the movie, and see what you think of her. You won’t forget her.

“Kiss Me Deadly” is one of those magical creations where a fine director, and a screenwriter of literate dialogue, sometimes hard-edged, sometimes remarkably poetic, came together, chose some talented actors, well known, or almost unknown, and created a masterpiece, which in some sense crystallized the ethos of its era. 1950’s Los Angeles, as envisioned by Mickey Spillane, and turned into something more hauntingly and lastingly resonant, by A.I. Bezzerides and Robert Aldrich. “Remember Me.”

One Response

  1. Remember by Christina Rossetti

    Remember me when I am gone away,
    Gone far away into the silent land;
    When you can no more hold me by the hand,
    Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
    Remember me when no more day by day
    You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
    Only remember me; you understand
    It will be late to counsel then or pray.
    Yet if you should forget me for a while
    And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
    For if the darkness and corruption leave
    A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
    Better by far you should forget and smile
    Than that you should remember and be sad.

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