“First you find a little thread. A little thread leads you to a string, and the string leads you to a rope… And from the rope — you hang by the neck.”
After narrowly escaping death, private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) investigates the mysterious murder of a hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman), hoping he will stumble onto big money.
Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s 1952 detective novel remains “one of the most dazzling works of the fifties”. Director Robert Aldrich makes effective use of “wild camera angles and abrupt, jarring editing to symbolize a world out of orbit”: from the film’s opening sequence — in which breathless Cloris Leachman literally throws herself in front of Hammer’s car to get him to stop — we recognize that everyone in this universe is out for himself; indeed, Hammer pursues the mystery of Leachman’s death out of greed rather than a sense of decency, and readily prostitutes his adoring girlfriend (well played by Maxine Cooper) to earn a buck. Although none of the characters in Kiss Me Deadly are particularly appealing, we remain glued to our seats in anticipation of discovering what’s contained in the mysterious box Hammer (and top-level crooks) are after; the final scenes — which reveal the answer to this mystery — remain perhaps the most taut denouement of any detective thriller in cinematic history.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer
- Cloris Leachman in her first (albeit far too brief) film role
- Gaby Rodgers as Leachman’s manipulative roommate
- Maxine Cooper as Hammer’s loyal girlfriend
- The highly memorable opening sequence
- Hammer’s reel-to-reel answering machine — probably the first shown on-screen
- Effectively brutal and realistic violence, without explicit gore
- Good use of diverse Los Angeles locales
- Ernest Laszlo’s noirish cinematography
- Creative opening titles, rolling backwards across the screen like painted words on asphalt
- The truly frightening ending sequence
Yes. Aldrich’s once-controversial noir classic — which, as Peary notes, was “a major influence on the French New Wave” — holds a special place in film history. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)