by Norm Nielsen
Velda to Mike Hammer: “‘They,’ a wonderful word. And who are ‘they’? ‘They’ are the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit.”
The noir conspiracy central to Kiss Me Deadly is ‘they’ want to get ahold of the great whatsit. ‘They’ are underworld criminals, Communists, and government agents. The film’s great whatsit is fissionable nuclear material, the possession of which has apocalyptic consequences. These are the shadowy unknowns detective Mike Hammer chases in 1955’s penultimate film noir, Kiss Me Deadly.
The genius of Kiss Me Deadly and what sets it apart from other film noir classics is that left-leaning screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (Thieves Highway, On Dangerous Ground) and producer/director Robert Aldrich (Vera Cruz, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Dirty Dozen) transformed Mickey Spillane’s 1952 Mike Hammer detective novel of the same title into an existential antinuclear parable with mythical and biblical allusions. Mickey Spillane’s pulp fiction detective novels were hugely popular in the early 1950s. Spillane’s Mike Hammer was a new sort of hero at that time – a vigilante enforcer who was detective, judge, jury, and executioner all in one. Hammer’s antagonists were gangsters and Communists. Notching it up considerably, Bezzerides and Aldrich portrayed Kiss Me Deadly‘s Mike Hammer as a thuggish, misogynistic, hyper-macho, “what’s in it for me?” proto-fascist bedroom detective who doesn’t realize until way too late that he is irrevocably deep in stinking hubris do-do. Bezzerides and Aldrich thus slyly used the film as a medium to metaphorically critique America’s moral decline exemplified by Mickey Spillane novels, Hugh Heffner’s (then new) Playboy Magazine, and amoral Cold War politics.
The film’s plot has readily recognizable, albeit amped up, film noir elements: omnipresent corruption, sleazy thugs, a femme fatale, sexy women on the make, rundown and upscale Los Angeles locations, a sexually suggestive song performed live in a night club, shadows on the wall. Kiss Me Deadly‘s Mike Hammer specializes in divorce cases in which he and his secretary/assistant/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) use sex to entrap their clients’ spouses and perhaps blackmail them. Unlike Sam Spade or Philip Marlow, Hammer has no moral center and is himself a homme fatale – he crashes single mindedly through the case leaving a trail of collateral damage, human and cultural, behind him. The film opens with a visually stunning sequence (Ernest Laszlo was the cinematographer) with Christina Bailey (Cloris Leechman in her first film role), barefoot and naked save for a trench coat, running along a very dark southern California highway desperately trying to flag down a ride. Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker), driving his open-top Jaguar XK120 sports car, narrowly misses Christina, stops, and gives her a ride. Christina is afraid for her life because of a secret she alludes to but does not divulge to Hammer. A short while later faceless men capture the pair, knock Hammer unconscious, torture Christina to death, and destroy Hammer’s Jaguar XK120.
After being interrogated and warned to back off by contemptible, hard-edged government agents, Hammer senses that discovering Christina’s secret might be the biggest case of his career. The rest of the film is Hammer’s quest to find out Christina’s secret – the great whatsit. Being a “what’s in it for me?” kind of guy, Hammer does not let anything get in his way to find that secret; not sex, not violence, not social norms, not due process of law. Hammer terrorizes or physically harms anyone holding back information leading him to the great whatsit. On his quest Hammer sullies high-culture references such as nineteenth century poet Christina Rossetti, opera star Enrico Caruso, art galleries, and classical music. Hammer eventually finds the great whatsit but too late realizes that he is way out of his depth – Greek myth and Old Testament depth as it turns out.
Bezzerides and Aldrich aimed at big targets when they made Kiss Me Deadly. America in the mid-1950s was hardly the unambiguously moral “good old days” right wing conservatives romanticize. It was a place of grade school children hiding under school desks during air raid drills, career ending anti-Communist witch hunts, anti-intellectualism, nuclear paranoia, hyper-masculinity, misogyny, sexual repression, and amoral Cold War global politics. And it was a time of film censorship unimaginable today. Part of the genius of Kiss Me Deadly is how it played at the edges of Production Code limits on sex and violence in movies. Aldrich being the film’s producer greatly protected Kiss Me Deadly from outside interference, particularly studio executives, during realization and final production. In November 1954 Aldrich submitted a screenplay to the Production Code Administration (precursor to today’s MPAA ratings system); the screenplay was approved with the warning to be careful in the depiction of brutality and sex. The PCA gave the film its seal of approval prior to the film’s release in May 1955. However, the Catholic National Legion of Decency took violent exception to Kiss Me Deadly just before its release date and requested that over thirty changes, cuts and deletions be made. Aldrich made minor cuts, ensuring a Legion of Decency B rating (condemned in part) with the proviso: “This film tends to glorify taking the law into one’s own hand. Moreover, it contains excessive brutality and suggestiveness in costume, dialogue and situations.”
The PCA, Legion of Decency, film critics, and the general public obviously did not get that Kiss Me Deadly was a critique of America’s vulgar underbelly. Instead, they saw the film as a nihilistic, brutal, anti-romantic detective story with strong sexual overtones. The initial release of Kiss Me Deadly was problematic and not commercially successful. Television stations refused to run publicity ads; later many stations refused to show the film. Movie theaters, particularly in the South, refused to show it. Taken for trash, the New York Times never reviewed it. It was banned in Britain. During U.S. Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency in June 1955 Kiss Me Deadly’s ads were displayed. Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver pointing to a poster for “Mickey Spillane’s Latest H-Bomb!” stated:
“These producers have told us that in all of the pictures, horror and crime and sex pictures, there is some moral they are trying to prove. I just wonder if you get the moral in this advertising up here. There is a “Kiss Me Deadly. White-Hot Thrills! Blood-Red Kisses!” That is all it says about it. What is moral?”
In France, however, Cahiers du cinéma critics Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut praised Kiss Me Deadly. Chabrol called it “the thriller of tomorrow” and stated that Robert Aldrich was “the first director of the atomic age.” Between 1955 and the mid-1990s Kiss Me Deadly slowly gained critical reputation as a great film noir classic, but ironically that praise was heaped upon a version of the film with an altered ending in which Hammer and Velda die a fiery death. Robert Aldrich’s original ending had the two escaping to the Pacific Ocean as the great whatsit goes critical. In 1997 the original ending of Kiss Me Deadly was restored from Aldrich’s print that had been stored at the UCLA Film Archives for decades. The story behind the altered ending is fascinating. Apparently someone at United Artists, the film’s distributor, ordered the altered ending to placate a self-imposed film censor, a minister, who had unofficially locked Kiss Me Deadly out of most the U.S. southern market. In the altered ending, Hammer and Velda got divine comeuppance suitable to Bible Belt sensibility.
In 1999, the Library of Congress selected Kiss Me Deadly for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Contemporary films such as Pulp Fiction, Repo Man, Ronin, Southland Tales, and Guardians of the Galaxy pay homage to Kiss me Deadly’s great whatsit. Critics usually cite Kiss Me Deadly in the top tier of noir films along with The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, and Touch of Evil. Though unlike those noir classics, Kiss Me Deadly has a social message far beyond crime doesn’t pay, corruption is everywhere, and sex can get you killed. It is a darkly transgressive morality tale with mythical and biblical overtones – “the thriller of tomorrow” for the 1950s.
Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Project member and volunteer.