Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

“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.”

Kiss Me Deadly Poster

Synopsis:
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.

Genres:

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
    KMD Meeker
  • Cloris Leachman in her first (albeit far too brief) film role
    KMD Leachman
  • Gaby Rodgers as Leachman’s manipulative roommate
    KMD Rodgers
  • Maxine Cooper as Hammer’s loyal girlfriend
    KMD Carr
  • The highly memorable opening sequence
    KMD Opening
  • Hammer’s reel-to-reel answering machine — probably the first shown on-screen
    KMD Answering Machine
  • Effectively brutal and realistic violence, without explicit gore
    KMD Violence
  • Good use of diverse Los Angeles locales
    KMD Los Angeles
  • Ernest Laszlo’s noirish cinematography
    KMD Cinematography
  • Creative opening titles, rolling backwards across the screen like painted words on asphalt
    KMD Titles
  • The truly frightening ending sequence
    KMD Ending

Must See?
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).

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Kiss Me Deadly (1955)”

  1. Yes, one terrific must!

    This one is nearly flawless, helped immensely by the fact that we – and protagonist Hammer – know just about nothing of what’s going on for most of the picture. Tension is taut from the get-go. Along the thrill-ride way – thanks not only to director Aldrich but DP Ernest Laszlo and screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides – clues of this “riddle without an answer” are a series of vignettes, each of which are little character-study jewels. (Did John Huston kick himself for not getting this gig?) While watching, one wonders: what’s in this for Hammer?; this isn’t his line – until we realize that Leachman was “connected with something big” and, as Cooper points out, “the cut of something big could be something big.” Hammer’s love/hate relationship with sleaze fascinates.

    There’s a whole lot of vintage B-movie talk here –
    a fave:
    “They said to keep that in mind – and they’d make it worth my while.”
    “…Alright, how much did they give you? I’ll top that.”
    “You can’t top this: they said they’d let me breathe.”

    There’s an added mind-fuck you won’t see coming – always a plus.

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