Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, and Paul Stewart
Directed By: Robert Aldrich
Another film from the 1001 You Must See list; another film-noir. Here we get an introduction of another element: the anti-hero. The anti-hero is the protagonist in a story, but he’s not a classic hero by any means. In fact, he goes about business the way many characters we would consider villains do. This is very prevalent in the comic book industry (think The Punisher or Wolverine). They aren’t above roughing people up or even taking lives. Kiss Me Deadly introduces us to a classic anti-hero in the aptly named Mike Hammer (Meeker).
Kiss Me Deadly opens with a woman (Cloris Leachman) sprinting down a dark country road. She’s trying to hitch a ride and throws herself in front Hammer’s speeding car. He picks her up and agrees to take her to a bus station. He finds out she’s escaped the asylum, but Mike’s tough; he doesn’t mind, though he finds it a bit odd that she tells him to “remember me” should they get caught. Unfortunately for them, they do get caught by whoever is chasing Christine. Mike is badly beaten as he hears Christine get tortured to death.
Mike is left alive (a big mistake by the bad guys) and puts his private eye/extortion business on hold while he tries to dig up information on Christine and whatever she might have known. Along the way we meet his secretary/partner/lover Velda (Cooper), Christine’s roommate Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) and the mafia Don-like Carl Evello (Stewart). Mike’s journey is full of twists and turns, one more confusing than the next, and he’s nearly killed multiple times. Ultimately, the search for answers leads him to a box full of radioactive material, a secret villain, and a surprise turn (dun dun dun!).
If you look-up “anti-hero” in the dictionary, you would see a picture of Mike Hammer. He’s a ruthless man who likes his cars fast and women faster. His steady income comes from being a private detective for divorce cases. See, he and Velda find a case. Mike gets information on the woman while Velda does the same on the man. Together, they use this information to blackmail both parties. Nice guy, right? He’s a very violent individual, who would sooner kill someone who’s following him than find out the reasons for it. No, he’s not very likable, but one has to admit how awesomely badass Mike Hammer is…especially after a long day.
Meeker’s Hammer aside, I wasn’t particular impressed with anyone else in the film. Cooper’s Velda is a very attractive woman who’s good at what she does, but I feel something was lacking with the character. Rodger’s is quite wooden as Lily, but we find out the reasons for that toward the end. I did enjoy Stewart as Carl. He was the right kind of sinister with just a hint of weasel about him. Besides, who doesn’t like a guy who has a harem of women for every day of the week? No, literally. The one that “befriends” Mike is named Friday.
The film takes an interesting turn to science fiction with the introduction of the box. Though it seems to come out of nowhere, it makes the movie even more enjoyable and fits with the theme of Mike jumping into something he doesn’t understand. We find out that it’s full of material stolen from Los Alamos Laboratory. We never really see what’s inside, only that it shines extremely bright and we’re told that the box is very hot. This is an obvious take on “Pandora’s Box” for the Atomic Age and it represents the paranoia sweeping across the nation at the time. And when someone foolishly opens this box (in an awesome scene), they can never close it again.
Bottom Line: While not quite the movie Double Indemnity is, Kiss Me Deadly is still very good and deserves to be mentioned among the great movies of the past. Most of the characters leave much to be desired, but Mike Hammer has that covered. Watching him fight (and kiss) through Los Angeles is quite a joy. I admit that the revelation of the villain is underwhelming: the nuclear box and final scene more than make up for it.