A panting woman hurtles down a highway, wearing only a trenchcoat. A man in a speeding sports car careens toward her: a near collision. Unexpectedly, he picks her up – then cut to credits, in reverse scroll. Thus we are flung into the labyrinth of Robert Aldrich’s unforgettable Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Often considered to be at the end of the classic-period film noir cycle, Kiss Me Deadly begins to twist noir conventions to suit the new concerns and fears of the 1950s, with Aldrich presenting a caustic, despairing image of America and its future.

The film takes its name and characters from a Mickey Spillane thriller novel featuring the hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer (played here by Ralph Meeker), but drastically alters its setting and major plot points. The woman whom Hammer encounters on the highway in the opening sequence is Christina (Cloris Leachman), who has escaped from a sanatorium. She asks Hammer to help her to go as a far as bus stop, but they are intercepted by mysterious men who torture and kill Christina and attempt to kill Hammer. After a stay in the hospital and a visit to the Feds, Hammer is led on a quest through the underbelly of Los Angeles to find the men who killed her.

Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides had no interest in Spillane’s tough-guy theatrics; instead, their aim was to expose Hammer’s cruel, fascistic tendencies. As played by Meeker, he is almost a parody of ’50s macho masculinity, only interested in women for sex. His most passionate feelings are reserved for his excitable Greek mechanic, Nick (Nick Dennis). He takes pleasure in inflicting pain on and exerting dominance over older, weaker men, and thinks nothing of hurting women. The film’s nastiness shocks even today. The dilemma for the filmmakers is that the audience has to stick with Hammer as he navigates the plot despite his negative tendencies. Noir historian Alain Silver calls Hammer an “anti-Galahad”, a knight without virtue – his search for the mysterious box like a quest for the Holy Grail.1

Hammer is not without charm, however. Meeker does an excellent job of balancing charisma and vulnerability with the character’s negative aspects. Although he is cruel in many scenes, we also see him feel real emotion for the people aligned with him who are hurt. And we begin to feel more sympathy towards Hammer as his powerlessness is revealed in the face of a deepening conspiracy.

Bezzerides was committed to portraying a multicultural Los Angeles as a contrast to the WASP American establishment. He and Aldrich meant for the smirking, supercilious government officials who question Hammer to function as a critique of the Red Scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s scapegoating and overreach. In contrast to this, Hammer frequents a black jazz club and pals around with Nick. His lack of prejudice also adds a bit to his likeability. A hapless Italian opera singer, an African-American boxing trainer and the unspecified European villains round out the film’s evocative demimonde. The filmmakers create a more realistic portrait of a modern American city than was the norm for Hollywood at the time; Kiss Me Deadly perfectly captures xenophobic America during the Cold War, at the height of nuclear paranoia.

The racial divide in the film is mirrored by further contrasts between high and low, and old and new culture. On the one hand, Hammer – whose profession is the decidedly modern one of a private eye who specialises in divorce – is surrounded by popular culture: jazz, fast cars, boxing. His apartment is a marvel of mid-century modern design, and even features a rare (for the time) telephone answering machine. By contrast, Christina leaves Hammer a cryptic clue by quoting Victorian poet Christina Rossetti. The houses of Hammer’s antagonists are decorated with old masters’ paintings, and classical music can be heard. The detective’s inability to appreciate this art, or to assign it any value, diminishes him in our view. His destruction of an Enrico Caruso record is one of the cruellest acts the film. More importantly, his lack of awareness slows his investigation.

Packed with all of these ideas, enlivened by a dynamic cinematic style and fuelled by real outrage at the state of Aldrich’s society, Kiss Me Deadly is often considered to be the director’s greatest work. The critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, who would become the filmmakers of the French New Wave, hailed the film in their Christmas issue of 1955. Claude Chabrol thought it was the thriller of the future; François Truffaut gave Aldrich a lengthy interview, lavishing praise on the film; and Jacques Rivette saw in the film a new realism rendered from the destruction of the morality that he saw all around him (though it should be noted that, while Aldrich was proud of the film, he consistently denied intending these more abstract readings of it).

Seen today, Kiss Me Deadly is surprisingly alive. Aldrich’s directness and his flair for shocking violence and perverse behavior still have the ability to surprise. Now that Chabrol’s “future” is here and we are in a new moment of a racially, culturally and politically riven United States, the film has a new resonance. Its unrelenting portrayal of an America obsessed with the trivial, and at the same time unpitying and lacking in any decency, seems frighteningly familiar. The popular American cinema has rarely produced a more apocalyptic vision – nor one that is simultaneously so much fun. All the more credit to Aldrich.

• • •

Kiss Me Deadly (1955 USA 106 mins)

Prod Co: Parklane Pictures Prod: Robert Aldrich Dir: Robert Aldrich Scr: A.I. Bezzerides Phot: Ernest Laszlo Ed: Michael Luciano Art Dir: William Glasgow Mus: Frank De Vol

Cast: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rodgers, Maxine Cooper, Nick Dennis, Paul Stewart, Wesley Addy, Jack Elam, Jack Lambert

Endnotes:

  1. Alain Silver, “Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style” in Alain Silver & James Ursini, Film Noir Reader (New York: Limelight Editions, 1996), p. 232.