Criterion Project #15: KISS ME DEADLY (1955)

Author’s note: First off, apologies are in order. This post is coming a week late due to some unforeseen bad luck that reared its ugly head at one of the worst times of my life. In short, I was scheduled for back surgery last week after waiting seven painful months for the insurance company to approve it, but the surgery got canceled at the last second because of an inept anesthesiologist who didn’t know how to handle the situation. Needless to say, I dealt with an extreme bout of depression, anger, and hopelessness in the week that followed that still lingers at this very moment (I thank my lucky stars I didn’t have to watch Eraserhead THIS week. That may have sucked me into another realm of consciousness). In the days since I’ve felt completely drained of any cohesive thoughts and haven’t been excited to watch any movie, let alone a Criterion caliber film that requires engagement and mental comprehension. At the moment, trying to express intelligent thoughts and analysis feels akin to climbing Mt. Everest without a map. Or like floating in space and unable to find the ground beneath me. Nevertheless, I’m going to get this project back on track and push through some of the misery and hopefully come out feeling better on the other side. I sincerely apologize for missing last week’s post and I plan to continue this project unabated. Thank you for understanding.

Kiss Me Deadly

Spine # 568

Year: 1955

Director: Robert Aldrich

November is for noir and I was thrilled when I saw this film come up next on my list for this project. Based on the novel by Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me Deadly is a first-time watch for me and only the second Robert Aldrich film I’ve ever seen (the other being The Dirty Dozen). I’ll start off my assessment of the film with perhaps my biggest takeaway – this movie is horny.

Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is a private investigator who runs schemes on married couples, playing both parties against each other to reap double the reward. His assistant/maybe-girlfriend, Velda (Maxine Cooper), seduces the husbands at Mike’s behest to drum up business and then he goes to work on the unsuspecting wife. Velda despises the work but loves Mike so deeply she goes along with his machinations.

Seduction and exhilaration have long been been touchstones of film noir – fast cars and faster women. When he’s not scheming against unwitting couples, Mike gets his kicks in fancy foreign sports cars alongside his good buddy and auto-mechanic, Nick (Nick Dennis), whose literal catchphrase in the film is “Va-va-VOOM!” Pedal to the metal. This macho mentality gave me a similar vibe as that of Douglas Sirk’s equally dangerous and speed-obsessed, The Tarnished Angels (1957). Men who fear little and are willing to risk it all to feel that sensation in any way possible. I guess, as they say, nothing worth doing is easy.

And while easy may apply to many of the characters is this lascivious film, the plot is anything but. It has it all – car bombs, a mysterious key, sleazy henchmen, coded dialogue, Cold War paranoia, a glowing MacGuffin box, truth serum, a secluded beach house, and of course – as no film noir would be complete without one or two – a femme fatale.

You could argue this film has no less than a half dozen femme fatales. We are introduced to one of them right away and the films begins as many noirs do – with a mystery and a murder.

A manic woman we will come to know as Christina (Cloris Leachman in her very first role) runs frantically down a highway road at night wearing only a trench coat. She appears terrified of something. Suddenly our anti-hero, Mike, appears out the darkness in his fancy Jaguar and nearly crashes the car when she throws herself in front of him, desperate for help. Despite his gruff demeanor Mike offers her a ride. They exchange some cryptic banter which, if you know noirs, will be pertinent to the mystery ahead.

Before Mike can drop Christina off to safety at the bus station the bad guys get their hands on both of them, knocking Mike unconscious and torturing Christina to death. For good measure they put the two bodies in Mike’s car and send it over a cliff, somehow only leaving Mike hospitalized for weeks. The tragedy is ruled an accident by the police but Mike knows better. Who did this? What was the girl running from? What did she mean when she said _____?

Welcome to the rabbit hole.

In true noir fashion, Mike spends the majority of the film looking for answers while being constantly reminded that he’s in over his head. How much arrogance and stubbornness does it take for someone to ignore every obvious warning sign of a deadly situation? This question is commonly answered at the very end of a film noir, where our protagonist has lost everything with the exception of their life (sometimes). The irony being they are more often than not responsible for the loss of friends and loved ones as a direct result of their actions. And Mike is no different.

**Spoilers**

Mike’s closest friend is Nick. He employs Nick to check on some leads for him and in return Mike promises to gift him a fancy sports car. Nick’s co-worker warns him about it but he can’t refuse the idea of owning a beautiful va-va-VOOM! Following this, Nick is slain at the hands of the unknown assailant who brutally drops a car on him in his auto garage. A scene dipped in irony.

Throughout the film Mike is given chances to step away or cooperate with the police, who are also trying to solve Mike’s mystery. But a noir protagonist, especially a gumshoe, isn’t prone to ask for help. Mike smirks in the face of the detectives trying to extract the information from him. He doesn’t answer the questions – he asks them. Even if he asks the wrong question to the wrong person and his friend ends up dead.

This same bull-headedness is on display with his assistant and sometimes love interest, Velda. Her goals are evident – she loves Mike and wants to get out of the schemes and settle down with him. But an arrogant man is a user. The sadness that accompanies this type of arrangement is two-fold. Mike’s coldness breaks Velda’s heart time and time again as he uses her like a prostitute for exploitive gain. She loves him dearly and worries about him, a feeling that isn’t reciprocated by Mike until it’s possibly too late. Perhaps his coldness will break his heart as well.

I think it’s safe to say the film offers a bleak perspective of a tumultuous time following the atrocities and political fall-out from WWII. The film is largely lawless. People are killed off in brutal ways but the police don’t seem interested in solving a murder as much as finding a mysterious item of value.

That isn’t to say it’s entirely heartless. Film noir isn’t known for sentiment but there is some snuck in between the darkness and shadows here, which gives its conclusion an air of hope not commonly found in noir. Characters become more than cardboard cutouts with clichΓ© dialogue and motivations. Mike Hammer isn’t a likable guy, but he’s oddly compelling and exhibits a few characters traits one might consider endearing. His friendship with Nick and “relationship” with Velda are real connections that you care about in this film, even when Mike pretends HE doesn’t care.

Add all of that together and you’ve got a taut mystery with plenty of thrills, a dangerous attitude, and a heavy dose of noir fun. In the end this was a splendid first watch and one I’ll be coming back to in “Noirvember” for years to come. Highly recommend.

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