The 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly is the kind of film that makes a person want to become a film scholar if not a film geek. Even bad films have scenes you talk about after they finish. Nearly 60 years later KMD still has them talking afterwards.
First and foremost Kiss Me Deadly is a Mike Hammer film, adapted from the 6th Hammer novel by Mickey Spillane. Spillane was a WWII hero who came home and got a job writing for comic books. Soon his crime novels were best sellers and eventually international sensations. The influence of Spillane on culture and the detective genre are engrained to say the least. Spillane is responsible for the hardest boiled private dick in modern fiction. Perhaps not ironically Spillane was one of the first commercial spokespersons for Miller Lite beer in the mid-70s so in a sense he’s also responsible for the backwards evolution of American taste in recreational spirits.
Director Robert Aldrich, while not a common name nowadays, was one the edgier directors of the ‘50s. Consider some of his other ‘50s films like Attack, a WWII drama where the private frags his sergeant, or the absurdist Hollywood satire of The Big Knife. The MFAH will in fact be showing another Aldrich film in November, the 1954 western Vera Cruz with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. Aldrich brought a sense of exotic adventure and sadism that made KMD the most successful Mike Hammer film to date.
Hammer also popped up as a television character in the late-50s with Darren McGavin. One particular ep (directed by William Witney) had Hammer caring for a parrot and in the entire ep McGavin walks around with the parrot on his shoulder, all the while slapping people around. In the ‘80s actors like Armand Assante and Stacey Keach played Hammer. But perhaps the most ironic portrayal was in a 1963 film starring Spillane as Hammer, The Girl Hunters. How many writers can say they starred as their most popular creation?
Ralph Meeker stars as Hammer. Meeker, a great actor but again not a household name like Brando or Lancaster, also has memorable roles in Run of the Arrow (d. Sam Fuller, 1957), Paths of Glory (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1957) and the little seen but equally brilliant Something Wild (d. Jack Garfein). Meeker is going to slay you with his brutality. Also note appearances by Strother Martin, Albert Decker, Paul Steward, Jack Elam, Cloris Leachman, Nat King Cole, at least two femme fatales plus Hammer’s secretary Velda played by Maxine Cooper. Just on a side note look up all the actresses who’ve played Velda.
Kiss Me Deadly has style despite its seedy elements. KMD may have one of the best ‘50s images of consumer iconography. On Hammer’s wall is a reel-to-reel answering machine. These devices actually existed in that era, and the make is Code-A-Phone. It’s like The Player, the early ‘90s Altman film where Tim Robbins drives around in a luxury Range Rover complete with a fax machine. We haven’t gotten around to the themes of death by the atomic age that most accurately defines the spine of KMD. Suffice it to say that the imagery of the “glowing device in the briefcase that emits growls when opened” entered common conscious and even showed up as affectionate nods in films like Repo Man and Pulp Fiction.
More than its atomic imagery, Kiss Me Deadly set a new standard for integrating locations with the action. Many of the scenes were shot on actual locations around Bunker Hill. Bunker Hill and the Third St. tunnel, and endless flights of stairs. This entire area today doesn’t exist except for the Angels Flight, which is a railcar on a steep incline.
And now Kiss Me Deadly.