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Kiss Me Deadly (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1955)

If film noir is plagued by a relentlessly pessimistic worldview, with gun-packing women slinking about in bathrobes and corruption festering in every seedy boarding house and creaky funicular railway Bunker Hill has to offer, then it makes sense that the “protagonist” of such a genre would be as unsavory as the rest of his environment. Mike Hammer (played by the appropriately wooden Ralph Meeker) is the vain sleazepot at the center of Robert Aldrich’s brilliantly bizarre apocalyptic noir Kiss Me Deadly, a man willing to pimp out his secretary for his small-time “bedroom dick” business, and more tantalized by a potentially lucrative mystery – “the search for the Great Whatsit” as a character smarter than he puts it – than troubled by the alarming body count that mystery is tallying.

Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer is no Humphrey Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe, or even Raymond Chandler’s less sympathetic Phillip Marlowe. With a face lacking charisma, the frame of a slightly paunchy ex-jock and hair slicked off his forehead like a matinee idol-cum-used car salesman, Mike Hammer is neither likable, nor special, nor particularly interesting – he’s the perfect hack to carelessly expedite the end of the world.

The film opens on Christina (Cloris Leachman in her first screen role), a panting, nearly hysterical asylum escapee wearing only a trench coat, who positions herself in the middle of a dark highway and forces a swiftly approaching Hammer in his precious Jaguar to screech to a halt. Minutes later, after Christina has climbed into the passenger seat and verbally dragged Mike through the wringer – taking shrewd jabs at everything from his ego to his belly – the duo are captured by a gang of ominous toughs, whose leader speaks in mystical, quasi-literary mumbo jumbo and wears shiny patent-leather Oxfords. Christina is tortured, and then she and Mike are sent over a cliff in the Jag. She dies, he does not. This begins the wacky, delectably unsettling labyrinthine plot of Kiss Me Deadly, a storyline that somewhat nonsensically spans a plethora of weird urban and suburban episodes, peopled by outlandishly corrupt babes and geezers, and moves steadily toward a Pandora’s Box climax that howls maniacally with nuclear paranoia.

A.I. Bezzerides’ elegant yet tart screenplay is a thrillingly subversive adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s macho detective novel Kiss Me, Deadly, as it weaves an otherworldly dimension of Cold War anxiety, class critique and a sort of proto-feminist ass-whoopin’ into its delightfully strange fabric. (Reportedly Spillane had a restaurant run-in with Bezzerides after the release of the film, and the pulp author was none too happy about the leftist send-up of the movie he insisted be billed as “Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly”.) Indeed, it is the film’s supporting cast of women and blue-collar immigrants that adds bite, sass and brains to Hammer’s ham-fisted journey about Los Angeles as he attempts to unearth the reason for Christina’s murder.

Among these supporting characters is Mike’s “secretary” and sometimes-girlfriend Velda (Maxine Cooper, mixing wit and waistline into a breathy, memorable performance) who wines, dines and possibly has sex with an offscreen slew of suspicious men to dig up clues about the killing, while Mike neglects to thank her or generally acknowledge her presence. Nick Dennis plays Mike’s Greek auto mechanic, whose beady eyes twinkle with a lethal attraction to nice cars, and whose growling eruptions of “Va-va voom!” and “Ka-pow!”  foreshadow the film’s explosive finale. And Lily Carver, played by the inimitable Gaby Rodgers, is Christina’s mousy roommate (or is she?), a pint-size pixie whose wobbly voice and boyish haircut betray a cunning, ruthless mind. “Kiss me, Mike,” Lily says with alarming softness as she is poised to unleash fiery destruction, “The liar’s kiss that says ‘I love you’ but means something else. You’re good at giving such kisses.”

But what of this fiery destruction? Mike is searching for a pot of gold at the bottom of Christina’s murder mystery, but instead finds a leather-bound box, which, with a lift of the lid, screams like a hellish siren, an ultra-violet glow emanating from within its seemingly fathomless depths. “Now listen, Mike. I’m going to pronounce a few words… Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity,” says a detective to him later, caustically upbraiding the bedroom dick for his deluded aspirations of solving a real caper. With this utterance, charged with the dread of nuclear obliteration, Mike Hammer understands the gravity of his search for the Great Whatsit. In the final moments of Kiss Me Deadly, as Lily Carver lustily opens the wicked box and sends herself and a Malibu beach house up in an explosion of flames, Mike and Velda stumble down to the beach in an attempt to escape. As they hold each other in the waves and flinch with terror at the diabolical disaster before them, two words appear on screen, two words so familiar in the movies but suddenly filled with new meaning: THE END.

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