Criterion Cuts: “Kiss Me Deadly”

Welcome to Criterion Cuts, where I take a look at the massive library of everyone’s favorite foreign, obscure, and arthouse home video label The Criterion Collection. Usually I do these entirely off of what’s available on Hulu Plus, but I figured today I’d dip into my own Blu-Ray collection for a look at one of my lesser known favorites.

As always, I do take requests and thrive on the feedback I get from everyone. I’ve already got a few that I need to check out, but if you have any favorite Criterion releases you’d like to see here, let me know and I’ll do what I can to put them in the hopper. And if I get you to check out a movie or think of it in a different light, let me know. It’s nice to know I’m reaching my intended audience.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

We crash into a cold open in Kiss Me Deadly, a barefoot woman running down an open road. She nearly gets run down by our hero, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), a private eye who is far more concerned for his car and on getting where he’s going than this woman in distress. He picks her up anyway, against his better judgment. She says her name’s Christina and that she’s on the run from an asylum where she had been put against her will. She’s obviously frightened and possibly naked under her long trenchcoat, a blatantly sexualized victim for 1955. The opening credits play in reverse on a long shot of the two of them in the car, driving down the road, her heavy breathing as she composes herself playing like a gross exaggeration of noir titillation.

Shortly thereafter, they stop at a gas station where she writes a letter, sealing it and handing it to Hammer. Nearly as soon as she does that, they’re run off the road by whoever was looking for her. Hammer barely has time to try to act heroic before he’s knocked out. He briefly wakes up in a room, disoriented, to the screams of the woman he picked up being tortured. We see her kicking feet dangling off a table on the edge of the screen as Hammer gets a good look at the shoes of the man in charge. For a good portion of the film, that’s all we’ll know of the shadowy mastermind behind … whatever this is.

Kiss Me Deadly‘s aggressive intro is all swagger and bombast, pummeling viewers with images that still read as raw and violent even today. But in 1955, coming in under the reign of the Hays Code, it’s a violent shot to an unsuspecting audience. It is, in theory, an adaptation of the Mickey Spillane novel of the same name, starring his famous private eye Mike Hammer. But by 1955 the world was changing, deep into Cold War paranoia. As such, director Robert Aldrich took the formula of noir films and turned it on its ear, with terrifying results.

Pulling us kicking and screaming into the realm of uncomfortable violence in crime fiction.

Mike Hammer isn’t a hero so much as he is a thug. He wakes up after having his car pushed off the cliff with him and the girl in it, seemingly as worried about his car as he is the girl. He tells his assistant/girlfriend Velda that he’s going to investigate more out of a sense of possible reward (and straight up vengeance for inconveniencing him) than any sense of moral obligation. All he has to go on is the envelope Christina gave him, a blank piece of paper aside from the words ‘Remember me.’

Mike begins his exploration of the underside of Los Angeles, a place of casual violence and easy corruption. He sweet talks his way into Christina’s apartment by siding with the landlord in an argument with his wife, bluntly telling him to tell her to shut up. Inside, he finds a clue in a book of poetry by her bedside, a bookmarked piece that begins with ‘Remember me,’ obviously meaning nothing to the police. Hammer isn’t the poetry type, though, and he takes it as evidence without bothering to understand the bleak, apocalyptic poem.

He ends up at the home of Christina’s ex-roommate Lily Carver, short-haired and waif-like and ambiguously coded as a lesbian by the film. She pulls a gun on him when he enters, obviously afraid for her life. She explains that Christina had been afraid before she had been taken, and that men had come and questioned her after Christina’s death. Mike promises to look out for her should things get more dangerous before leaving.

He comes home to find a new car and a telephone call offering this as a peace offering should he forget he ever saw Christina and keep to himself. Mike takes the car to his mechanic friend, who manages to pull two separate bombs out of the car. Mike takes the car and heads off to find the men who would be so bold as to try to kill Mike Hammer, tearing through Los Angeles in a path of violence as bad as that of the men he’s pursuing.

Hammer is an avenger of the McCarthy era, a man who does what it takes to get the job done. It seems every person he encounters is a soft intellectual type, the typical classist American war between the brutish simple everyman who believes in justice and violence and the probably-gay-probably-communist intellectuals of the era. He scares information from a failed opera singer by barging into his apartment and breaking his most prized records. He gets information from a doctor by slamming his fingers in a desk drawer. It is the brutality of a man who not only does it because it works, but because that’s the way he prefers. As the doctor screams and coughs up the information, Hammer grins at the man and his pain.

Mike Hammer: hero for thugs, champion of machismo brutishness

What’s interesting isn’t that the character is so exaggerated, but that it came at a time when such heroes did exist and weren’t made into characatures. At its heart, Kiss Me Deadly is an angry indictment of the noir hero archetype at a time when such men were bullying the country into a time of fearmongering and ideological oppression. Mickey Spillane was reportedly disgusted at the film’s stance upon its release, only coming around to it decades later. But at the time, Kiss Me Deadly would have easily passed as un-American in its politics buried beneath the tightly wound noir.

The most scathing truth of Hammer’s ineptitude comes at the end of the film, where at the end of his long road of violence and crime and mystery he discovers that Christine had a package she took that the mysterious man wants to get a hold of. Tracking it down to a locker in an out of the way health club, Hammer opens the package only to discover it contains bright light and heat, burning his arm the moment he opens it. This mysterious package becomes the image of the final act of the film, a MacGuffin so important that its image would be reappropriated decades later in films like Repo Man and Pulp Fiction.

Here, Hammer takes the box hoping to use it as leverage or for some sort of compensation only to have it taken from him by Lily Carver who reveals herself to be the femme fatale, the moll to the mysterious man behind all of Hammer’s considerable troubles. When the police find out, the detective in charge berates him for being stupid and self-serving. His answer to what’s in the box is as condemning as it is enigmatic.

Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. ‘Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity.”

Mike finally makes his way to the final confrontation, but arrives only to find that Lily has shot the man pulling the strings when he told her never to open the box in the middle of his lecturing her about Pandora and her terrible mythological mistake. As Hammer watches, she flings open the box only to be bathed in the horrible glow of whatever disaster is inside, screaming as she suddenly bursts into flames before us, the house she’s in starting to go up like kindling as whatever inside rises to a wild, inhuman howl.

The film ends with Hammer and Velda standing outside of the burning house in the surf of the ocean as the light from the box pours out of every remaining window and the house starts to explode and collapse. They cling to each other, two helpless people ankle deep in the ocean like a hard boiled Adam and Eve standing before the wrath of a nuclear god that Mike let happen through all his posturing, through all the motions of tough guys and deadly femme fatales and so much pointless violence.

The mysterious box opened with cataclysmic results.

What we’re left with is a weird amalgam of noir and sci-fi, a genre bender that implicates the audience in the same irresponsibility of its hero, of indulging in the simple good/evil binary of a world that doesn’t exist anymore, a world that was blown away by the discover of tools that could easily undo all of humanity, not just the criminals and the rough and tumble characters of hard boiled fiction. The world has entered into a much more ambiguous place, Kiss Me Deadly argues, a place where the old modes of thinking can bring about Armageddon out of sheer ignorance.

It’s all the more incredible that all of this is wrapped up in such a great example of the genre, a noir film that stands up there with the best of them. It’s the only way to package the message, to place it in a stellar example of the genre it goes out of its way to condemn. In that, at least, McCarthy was right. This new way of thinking was and is subversive. Subversive in the way that all the best art is.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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