(director: Robert Aldrich; screenwriters: from the book Kiss Me Deadly by Mickey Spillane/A.I. Bezzerides; cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo; editor: Michael Luciano; music: Frank De Vol; cast: Ralph Meeker (Mike Hammer), Maxine Cooper (Velda), Wesley Addy (Lt. Pat Murphy), Cloris Leachman (Christina Bailey,), Paul Stewart (Carl Evello), Albert Dekker (Dr. Soberin), Jack Elam (Charlie Max), Jack Lambert (Sugar Smallhouse), Nick Dennis (Nick), Gaby Rodgers (Lily Carver), Juano Hernandez (Eddie Yeager), Marian Carr (Friday), Percy Helton (Morgue Dr. Kennedy), Mort Marshall (Ray Diker), Fortunio Bonanova (Carmen Trivago), Silvio Minciotti (Old Mover); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Aldrich; United Artists; 1955)

“Best exemplifies a curious cross between “art” and pulp fiction.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Robert Aldrich (“World For Ransom”/”The Big Knife”) helms a darkly cynical apocalyptic science-fiction film noir loosely adapted from Mickey Spillane’s novel Kiss Me Deadly. It’s a top-notch, hard-hitting low-budget B-film noir that zeroes in on America’s Cold War paranoia over nuclear secrets and disgust with the organized underworld element. The Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) private eye characterization depicts him as an almost unlikable brute, sleazeball and Big Slob, who manages to somewhat better his poor first impression if he’s viewed solely as an honest meddler in affairs he’s too dumb to understand. The unethical private eye earns his livelihood by framing couples in compromising positions, using his sexy secretary, Velda (Maxine Cooper), to seduce those he sets up for a double-cross.

The film best exemplifies a curious cross between “art” and pulp fiction. It was adapted from a screenplay by A. I. Bezzerides. Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo’s masterfully films at odd angles and using strange compositions to wholly capture the gritty nighttime flavors of the film noir conventions.

On a dark country highway at night on his way back to Los Angeles Mike Hammer in his snazzy convertible is flagged down by a frightened barefoot woman clad in a trenchcoat with nothing underneath, who tells him her name is Christina (Cloris Leachman) and she was named after the romantic poetess Christina Rossetti. It turns out she’s considered a loony who escaped from the “laughing house,” as that announcement comes over the car radio. She evades Hammer’s questions about what she’s running away from. But this doesn’t stop him from saying she’s his wife when stopped at a police roadblock, as he promises to get her to a bus stop. While stopping at a gas station a few miles away after going off road, she tells him if they reach the bus stop “forget you ever saw me.” Christina then says that should she die to “Remember Me,” which is a line from her favorite poet’s sonnet titled Remember. Back on the road, Hammer’s car is run off the road and he’s left semiconscious as his car is pushed over a cliff. Christina is taken alive by the thugs and tortured off camera, as we only see her legs dangling from a bed while her piercing screams become unforgettable blood-curdling sounds until she finally succumbs.

Hammer is next seen in the hospital, where his friend Lt. Pat Murphy informs him the FBI wants to grill him. Despite being warned by the authorities to stay clear of this incident, Hammer thinks Christina has something valuable that both the cops and underworld want. Not able to resist trying to find out why there’s such a big fuss over such an ordinary gal’s death and impressed by the way she needled him, Hammer takes Velda off the divorce cases and goes after something he thinks is real big. His investigation leads to a mystery revolving around the death of a scientist named Raymondo by gangster Carl Evello, carried out by his henchmen Sugar Smallhouse and Charlie Max. When the gangsters can’t scare Hammer off the case they plant two bombs in a sports car they give him as a bribe, which the wily private eye detects and dismantles one torpedo attached to the starter and has his mechanic remove the other. Meanwhile Hammer locates Christina’s frightened roommate Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers), and moves her into his pad for protection. The gangsters show they mean business, as they crush to death Hammer’s auto mechanic friend Nick by stepping down on an hydraulic jack with Nick under a car. They also kidnap Hammer and take him to their luxurious beach house, where the traitorous Dr. Soberin gives him a Sodium Pentothal injection. Hammer is eventually able to overpower Evello and the other thugs through brute strength. From Velda’s investigative meeting with Soberin, Hammer will learn about something Velda called the “great whatsit”, a Pandora’s box hiding a nuclear explosive. From the morgue doctor, Hammer will learn Christina had a key on her that fits a locker in an athletic club. There Hammer discovers the box, but leaves it when he sees it contains some dangerous material. When the police question Hammer, they tell him he got into things way over his head–that the box contains atomic material linked to the Manhattan project. Returning to the locker, Hammer finds it empty and uses his noodle to track down Soberin in his Malibu beach house. He learns that the doctor recovered the box but finds the doctor dead and the greedy Lily, an impostor who took the name after the real Lily was murdered, holding a gun. She shoots Hammer and opens the box, despite being warned not to by the doctor, as the radioactive material sets both her and the house on fire. Hammer is able to stagger through the house and escape with the captured Velda, as they reach the surf as the house burns down.

Though not accepted at first upon its release by the public or American reviewers (only the French reviewers immediately recognized its greatness), it has since been acclaimed as one of the great film noirs. It has so many memorable moments from the Caruso recording that has Carmen Trivago sing an opera (meant as a recognition to high-culture) to the primitive boxing match broadcast in the background at the same time Evello and Sugar Smallhouse depart this world. Despite its usual film noir storyline it ups the ante by including the mythic quest for the “great whatsit.” That becomes symbolic for the 1950s and the country’s fear over nuclear destruction, as the Red Scare fueled the country’s paranoid attitude. Kiss Me Deadly picks up on those irrational fears, as it’s directed with an uncompromising spirit and truth by Aldrich. It’s a fierce film that is still deadly, some 50 years after its theater release, in its keen characterizations of even the minor roles and its observations on what makes mankind tick (the film’s loony is the only one who reads poetry, while the “everyman” Hammer is stuck on reading the sports section in the paper).

REVIEWED ON 12/26/2004 GRADE: A +