Fade in on a pair of legs running down a dark, desolate highway. They belong to a woman wearing naught but raincoat, trying desperately to flag down a passing automobile. The film’s soundtrack kicks in almost immediately with sharp bursts of horns, signifying excitement and danger. Finally, the woman gets brash and stands in the middle of the road as a white convertible approaches. The car swerves to miss her and ends up in a bush off the shoulder. The man inside is less than pleased about being forced off the road, but almost immediately, and, it seems, against his better judgment, he tells the woman to get in the car. As they drive down the almost pitch-black highway, the credits begin to roll, inverted and coming from the top of the screen, accompanied by the sounds of Nat King Cole on the radio and the woman panting/sobbing in the passenger seat.
This begins Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film, Kiss Me Deadly, an unconventional Film Noir even by Film Noir’s already boundary-pushing standards. The film was independently funded and the opening crawl tells us that Aldrich not only directed the film but produced it, a ceremonial title meaning he had complete creative control, and it shows. Kiss Me Deadly, is a master class in direction and camera techniques. For being such a small film, one can find its influence in much higher-profile outings like David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and even Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Touch of Evil. Aldrich’s film, however, is not a pastiche of Noir tropes, at this point in time, it’s cutting edge. Stark shadows, tracking shots, and low-angles are all considered used here to great cinematic effect. Filmed on a budget of $410,000 over a period of less than a month, Kiss Me Deadly, is a down-and-dirty movie befitting the characters it depicts.
Back in the car after the credits have subsided, we learn tiny bits about the girl and why she’s running. A police checkpoint is asking if anyone has seen a woman in a raincoat who escaped from a mental hospital earlier. The man in the car says he hasn’t seen anyone and his “wife” had been sleeping, which leads to the police waving them on. Only four minutes into the movie, we know exactly what kind of man we’re dealing with, though we still don’t know his name or who he is. He’s a tough guy all right, but with a soft spot and eagerness to help damsels in distress. This is emblematic of almost all Noir heroes, especially in the hard-boiled detective sub-genre. In fact, as is always the case, it’s this weakness that will ultimately lead to his downfall.
The man finds out the girl’s name is Christina, named after the poet Christina Rosetti, and she tells him that if they get to the bus station, he can forget her, but if they don’t, she says, “Remember Me.” These two words hold the key to all that follows. Her warning is strangely prophetic as they are again forced off the road and three men, only seen from the knees down, capture them while Christina screams. A fade shows Christina’s legs dangling and kicking as she screams. The man in the car is in and out of consciousness, but can eventually make out that Christina has been killed, tortured too hard. They are put back in the man’s car and pushed off a cliff to a fiery end. But, of course, the man doesn’t die. Someone’s got to solve this perplexing predicament. After he wakes up from his coma, he is questioned by the Feds and it is here for the first time that we truly know who he is, not through his own words, but from the agents themselves. He’s Mike Hammer, private detective, usually in the employ of jealous spouses looking to catch each other in the act. For cheating men, Hammer makes his secretary-girlfriend Velda spends some time with them, and for cheating women, Hammer himself does the dirty work. Hammer won’t talk to the FBI, and they have nothing for contempt for this “bedroom dick,” so they send him away. His friend at the police station, Lt. Pat Murphy, wants some answers too, but Mike is again unforthcoming; obviously he’s going to figure this one out on his own. Murphy has his P.I. license revoked and his gun taken away in hopes of stopping him, but even that doesn’t stop him.
From this, we know Mike Hammer as the typical pulp-Noir hero, someone who is immensely gifted at solving crimes, but has for one reason or another taken to doing sleazy, simple work. Pulp heroes had their own moral code, not unlike the heroes from Hollywood Westerns, the difference being they usually have no qualms about doing rather unseemly things to get to the truth. They’re knights, but their shining armor is grimy; they’re cowboys, but their white hats are soiled. Hammer in particular is a murky sort of protagonist. Created by paperback novelist Mickey Spillane in 1947, Mike Hammer is perhaps the pulpiest of all the hard-boiled detectives. While Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe are gruff and cynical, Mike Hammer is often brutally violent, misogynistic, and filled with a genuine rage that Hammett and Chandler’s heroes never possessed. In this film, Hammer is portrayed by Ralph Meeker who plays him with the right mixture of menace and sympathy. On a dime, Meeker can switch from smiling to snarling and it definitely adds to the characterization. Hammer gets his answers whether he asks nicely or smacks somebody around a little for it.
There’s a wonderful scene in the middle of the film where Hammer is walking down the sidewalk and a shady man begins to follow him. Mike keeps veering off to casually get a better look at this man, buying a bag of popcorn and checking his hair in a mirror, all the while keeping one eye on this character. Finally, the man pulls a switchblade and Hammer spins around and pelts him in the eye with the popcorn. In a flash, Hammer has the man’s arm pinned behind his back and orders him to drop the knife and when the man complies, the P.I. hurls a few strong punches at his face, eventually grabbing the unknown assailant by the lapels and slamming the back of his head against the side of a brick building a number of times. When this doesn’t stop the man, Hammer tosses him down an incredibly long, stone staircase. He never once asks who this man is or why he’s trying to kill him, but instead seems gleefully uninterested in answers and revels in beating the tar out of him. In a movie where the lead character is never seen holding a gun, he proves himself an extremely dangerous sort of fellow, the quintessential hard-man.
As Hammer’s investigation leads him through the twisty underbelly of Christina’s past, he learns that everyone is after a mysterious object, referred to several times as “The Great Whatsit.” Hitchcock coined the term “MacGuffin” to describe the mechanical element that drives the plot forward. It’s not particularly important what the MacGuffin is or if the audience fully understands it, it needs to merely exist for the characters to have something to seek. In Film Noir, the MacGuffin tends to be a piece of stolen merchandise or a missing person, something to look for while the main character is encountering the world of night. The story, after all, is about the protagonist’s journey rather than the artifact itself. Kiss Me Deadly takes this idea a step further and makes The Great Whatsit something no one understands and are only given a vague idea of where it came from, but when it appears, it immediately signifies danger. Aldrich does a wonderful job of depicting it and, without giving too much away, creates the precursor to films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Pulp Fiction. The finale, while perfectly set up in the story, seems like it comes right out of a science fiction film rather than a crime thriller and this is what makes Kiss Me Deadly so important and cutting-edge.
When all is said and done, the star of Kiss Me Deadly is Robert Aldrich. His camera is always where it needs to be, yet it always seems like a surprise. Few directors in the late-Noir period were able to do interesting things with the format and in that regard this film ranks with Kubrick’s The Killing made the following year. The sheer strangeness of Kiss Me Deadly is one reason the film is not better known, though it should be. Many times, Aldrich bucks convention to create further intrigue, like introducing villains by their shoes and only later on matching those shoes with a face. He also depicts much of the violence off camera accompanied by blood-curdling screams and we’re only left to wonder exactly what Mike Hammer did to a bad guy. In every aspect, Kiss Me Deadly delivers innovation where lesser films would have stuck to the norm. This is an example of the crime film transcending mere sensationalism and moving to true art.