Kiss Me Deadly is an 1955 film noir, produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, that stars Ralph Meeker. The screenplay was written by A.I. Bezzerides, based on the Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer mystery novel Kiss Me, Deadly. The film was released by United Artists
Kiss Me Deadly grossed $726,000 in the United States and a total of $226,000 overseas. The film also withstood scrutiny from the Kefauver Commission, which called it a film “designed to ruin young viewers”, leading director Aldrich to protest the Commission’s conclusions.
Kiss Me Deadly marked the film debuts of the actresses Cloris Leachman and Maxine Cooper.
Kiss Me Deadly is often considered a classic of the noir genre. In 1999, Kiss Me Deadly was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, a tough Los Angeles private eye who is almost as brutal as the crooks he chases. Mike and his assistant/secretary/lover, Velda (Maxine Cooper), usually work on “penny-ante divorce cases”.
One evening on a lonely country road, Hammer gives a ride to Christina (Cloris Leachman), an attractive hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat. She has escaped from a mental institution, most probably the nearby Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Thugs waylay them and Hammer awakens in some unknown location where he hears Christina screaming and being tortured to death. The thugs then push Hammer’s car off a cliff with Christina’s body and an unconscious Hammer inside. Hammer next awakens in a hospital with Velda by his bedside. He decides to pursue the case, for vengeance, a sense of guilt (as Christina had asked him to “remember me” if she got killed), and because “she (Christina) must be connected with something big” behind it all.
The twisting plot takes Hammer to the apartment of Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), a sexy, waif-like woman who is posing as Christina’s ex-roommate. Lily tells Hammer she has gone into hiding and asks Hammer to protect her. It turns out that she is after a mysterious box that, she believes, has contents worth a fortune.
“The great whatsit”, as Velda calls it, at the center of Hammer’s quest is a small, mysterious valise that is hot to the touch and contains a dangerous, glowing substance. (It comes to represent the 1950s Cold War fear and paranoia about the atomic bomb that permeated American culture.)
Later, at an isolated beach house, Hammer finds “Lily”, who is revealed to be an imposter named Gabrielle, with her evil boss, Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker). Velda is their hostage, tied up in a bedroom. Soberin and Gabrielle are vying for the contents of the box. Gabrielle shoots Soberin, believing that she can keep the mysterious contents for herself. She also shoots and wounds Hammer, who manages to find Velda. As Gabrielle slyly opens the case, it is ultimately revealed to be stolen radionuclide material, which reaches explosive criticality when the box is fully opened. Horrifying sounds emanate from the nuclear material as Gabrielle and the house burst into flames, just as Hammer and Velda escape.
The original American release of the film shows Hammer and Velda escaping from the burning house at the end, staggering into the ocean as the words “The End” come over them on the screen. Sometime after its first release, the ending was altered on the film’s original negative, removing more than a minute’s worth of shots where Hammer and Velda escape and superimposing the words “The End” over the burning house. This implied that Hammer and Velda perished in the atomic blaze, and was often interpreted to represent the apocalypse. In 1997 the original conclusion was restored, where Velda and Mike survive. The DVD release has the original ending, and offers the truncated ending as an extra.
The film is described as “the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time – at the close of the classic noir period”.
Los Angeles locations
Kiss Me Deadly remains one of the great time capsules of Los Angeles. The Bunker Hill locations were all destroyed when the downtown neighborhood was razed in the late 1960s.
- Hill Crest Hotel, NE corner of Third and Olive Streets, Bunker Hill (Italian opera singer’s home)
- The Donigan ‘Castle’, a Victorian mansion at 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue (where Cloris Leachman’s character lived; it was used for interiors and exteriors).
- Apartment Building, 10401 Wilshire Blvd, NW corner of Wilshire and Beverly Glen (Hammer’s apartment building; still standing)
- Carl Evello’s Mansion, 603 Doheny Road, Beverly Hills, California
- Clay Street, an alley beneath Angels Flight incline railway, on Bunker Hill, where Hammer parks his Corvette and then takes the back steps up to the Hill Crest Hotel, but when we cut to him approaching the hotel’s large porch, he’s on the Third Street steps opposite Angels Flight.
- Club Pigalle, 4800 block of Figueroa Avenue (the black jazz nightclub where Hammer hangs out)
- Hollywood Athletic Club, 6525 W. Sunset Blvd. (where Hammer finds the radioactive box; still standing)
Critical commentary generally views it as a metaphor for the paranoia and nuclear fears of the Cold War era in which it was filmed.
Although a leftist at the time of the Hollywood blacklist, Bezzerides denied any conscious intention for this meaning in his script. About the topic, he said, “I was having fun with it. I wanted to make every scene, every character, interesting.”
Film critic Nick Schager wrote, “Never was Mike Hammer’s name more fitting than in Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich’s blisteringly nihilistic noir in which star Ralph Meeker embodies Mickey Spillane’s legendary P.I. with brute force savagery… The gumshoe’s subsequent investigation into the woman’s death doubles as a lacerating indictment of modern society’s dissolution into physical/moral/spiritual degeneracy – a reversion that ultimately leads to nuclear apocalypse and man’s return to the primordial sea – with the director’s knuckle-sandwich cynicism pummeling the genre’s romantic fatalism into a bloody pulp. ‘Remember me’? Aldrich’s sadistic, fatalistic masterpiece is impossible to forget.”
The film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 97% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 37 reviews.
In 1999, Kiss Me Deadly was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
American Film Institute
Homage is paid to the glowing suitcase MacGuffin in the 1984 cult film Repo Man, the film Ronin, and in Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction. The “shiny blue suitcase” is mentioned with other famous MacGuffins in Guardians of the Galaxy. In the film Southland Tales, Richard Kelly pays homage to the film, showing the main characters watching the beginning on their television and later the opening of the case is shown on screens on board the mega-Zeppelin.
Differences from the novel
The original novel, while providing much of the plot, is about a mafia conspiracy and does not feature espionage and the nuclear suitcase, elements added to the film version by the scriptwriter, A.I. Bezzerides.
It further subverted Spillane’s book by portraying the already tough Hammer as a narcissistic bully, the darkest anti-hero private detective in the film noir genre. He apparently makes most of his living by blackmailing adulterous husbands and wives, and he takes an obvious sadistic pleasure in violence, whether he’s beating up thugs sent to kill him, breaking a contact’s treasured record to get him to talk, or roughing up a coroner who’s slow to part with a piece of information. He also apparently has no compunction about engaging in nefarious acts such as pimping his secretary. Bezzerides wrote of the script: “I wrote it fast because I had contempt for it … I tell you Spillane didn’t like what I did with his book. I ran into him at a restaurant and, boy, he didn’t like me”.
A digitally restored version of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in June 2011 and has the alternative ending as a bonus feature.
- Jump up^ Alain Silver and James Ursini, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, 1995 p 238
- Jump up^ French box office results for Robert Aldrich films at Box Office Story
- Jump up^ Nelson, Valerie J. (2009-04-15). “Maxine Cooper Gomberg dies at 84; actress in the film noir classic ‘Kiss Me Deadly'”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
- Jump up^ Dirks, Tim. “Kiss Me Deadly”. Filmsite.org.
- Jump up^ Prince, Stephen, Visions of Empire: Political Imagery in Contemporary American Film, Praeger/Greenwood, 1992, ISBN 0-275-93662-7.
- Jump up^ Vallance, Tom Archived 2007-10-01 at the Wayback Machine.. The Independent, Obituary, “A. I. Bezzerides. No-nonsense novelist/screenwriter,” January 20, 2007. Last accessed: March 25, 2008.
- Jump up^ Schager, Nick. Slant Magazine, film review, 2006. Last accessed: March 25, 2008.
- Jump up^ Kiss Me Deadly at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: February 22, 2013.
- Jump up^ Bergan, Ronald The Guardian, Obituary, “A.I. Bezzerides: Screenwriter victim of the Hollywood blacklist, he is renowned for three classic American film noirs,” February 6, 2007.
- Jump up^ “Kiss Me Deadly”. The Criterion Collection.
- Parish, James Robert and Michael R. Pitts. The Great Science Fiction Pictures. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1977. ISBN 0-8108-1029-8.
- Strick, Philip. Science Fiction Movies. London: Octopus Books Limited, 1976. ISBN 0-7064-0470-X.
- Warren, Bill. Keep Watching The Skies Vol I: 1950–1957. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1982. ISBN 0-89950-032-3.
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