While reading a couple of Mickey Spillane novels for the first time in the last year, I realized that his hard-nosed private detective Mike Hammer is my mind's archetype of the film noir sleuth. Every idea I might have ever entertained or have absorbed via cultural osmosis about the detective fiction genre was actually just Mike Hammer as Spillane wrote him. I read I, The Jury hungry for some classic gumshoe atmosphere, and it not only satisfied that longing, but defined it, with a tone-perfect representation of every glorious cliche of the detective novel, from the liquored up womanizing down to the searingly brutal quips. It was one of my most revelatory reading experiences of any kind.
I did not register or remember, before this viewing, that the film Kiss Me Deadly is from the Spillane/Hammer canon. In my faulty recollections, Hammer was primarily associated with advertisements for a 1980s TV series starring Stacy Keach which I never watched, while Kiss Me Deadly was an unrelated noir notable for the influence of its MacGuffin (a glowing suitcase) on more recent favorites like Repo Man (1984) and Pulp Fiction (1994). I had retained almost nothing from the last time I watched Kiss Me Deadly, probably on a VHS tape during the early 1990s, except for what was then my common reaction to film noir: underwhelmed disappointment.
Kiss Me Deadly stars Ralph Meeker as Hammer, a blunt pitbull of a detective — transplanted here to Los Angeles from the novels' New York setting — who seems to chronically attract desperate women with abrupt lifelines. In this case, it's Christina (Chloris Leachman), running down the middle of a highway, panicked, and only wearing a trenchcoat. Hammer's subsequent obsession with the fate of the mysterious woman leads him down a treacherous path of hoods, mobsters, and, of course, femme fatales, and this time with an atomic-age twist.
Director Robert Aldrich, who would later direct delicious meaty pulp like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1963) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), alternates in Kiss Me Deadly between visceral grittiness — leaning into rough B-movie production standards — and heightened camp, which makes this well-respected classic hit almost all of noir's sweet spots with dead-on accuracy and verve, exactly how Spillane writes it. Just like how in most noir stories there is an object of mystery which is secondary to the dynamics of the destructive intrigue surrounding it, noir as a genre is more about the dressing than the meal, with its fans relishing its menacing shadows and sultry glances and hard-nosed attitude more than any particular (and often disposable) plot. This can still throw me for a loop while watching utter narrative nonsense like The Big Sleep, but Kiss Me Deadly's core story is strong enough that Aldrich's genre indulgences resonate both as shiny noir totems and as solid bricks in his grotty world-building.
A large part of Kiss Me Deadly's consistently pleasing flavor comes from its cast, with Aldrich modulating between big performances — by the likes of Nick Dennis (as a hyperactive Greek car mechanic), Percy Helton, and Maxine Cooper (as Hammer's erstwhile, romantically neglected assistant Velda) — and less showy roles, with an especially impressive appearance from Broadway stalwart Gaby Rogers in one of her only two film roles. With reliable character actors like Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Jack Lambert, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin always lurking about, the only weak link in the cast, unfortunately, is Meeker, who couldn't be less charismatic or imposing as Hammer. As one of pulp literature's greatest characters, Meeker is practically non-existent.
Even with that dull core, however, Aldrich has a lot of fun in Hammer's orbit, with women throwing themselves at the P.I. willy nilly — and there's something of a fun motif at-play of Hammer refusing all meaningful kisses but slurping up any casual lip action on offer — and contrasting this light flirtiness with some surprisingly frank violence for the 1950s. Hammer is an intriguing mix of contradictions, a tough braggart who is all too easy to get the jump on, and a lone wolf who is also a sucker for the worst women. A tough guy who operates on pure instinct, at least half of which is unequivocally terrible. Meeker is far too limited to internalize these complex conflicts.
The other key place where Kiss Me Deadly falters is its ending. While Aldrich builds a fine uneasy mood throughout most of the film, often lingering uncomfortably on sensitive moments, and works smartly around budget limitations while busting at the seams of genre limitations (screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides introduces a quasi-sci-fi element reportedly not present in Spillane's novel), the finale both exposes a cheapness to the entire enterprise and under-examines the climactic implications, right when everything matters the most. Kiss Me Deadly has, arguably, the most sensationally dramatic ending of any noir movie, but where the unfortunate use of a mannequin as a human stand-in threatens to derail what should be a horrifying and exhilarating moment, Aldrich undercuts the enormity of what is happening by limiting its scope. It's a very weird conflict of visions at play, and one suspects that Aldrich, no shrinking violet, may have been willing to go bolder than allowed by the studio, and luckily it's not hard to imagine the superior ending that Kiss Me Deadly deserved and project it over the unworthy version that made it on-screen.