Kiss Me Deadly
Robert Aldrich 1955
by Steven Scheloske
Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir masterpiece, “Kiss Me Deadly” is one of the most influential films of its genre despite its flaws and shortcomings. It is a B movie, it is sleazy, sexy, seductive and at times silly. On the surface it seems to be a confusing blend of noir and sci-fi, but scratch beneath the obvious and discover the deep, metaphorical film that has inspired so many others, including modern auteurs Quintin Tarantino and David Lynch to Steven Spielberg.
The story revolves around hardened street level private investigator Mike Hammer (played perfectly by Ralph Meeker) who, in the opening scenes, is forced to stop his car in the middle of the night by crazed girl called Christina, wearing nothing but a trench coat. Naturally, he gives her a ride. While in the car Christina she tells Mike, “Whatever happens… remember me.” Within moments, they are side swiped off the road by some well-dressed faceless thugs and Mike passes out to the sounds of Christina being tortured, presumably to death. The thugs then place Christina’s body and the unconscious Mike into the car and push it off a cliff. The next shot sees Mike awaken in a hospital. Believing the murder of Christina is linked to something big, Mike decides to investigate.
I want you to kiss me. Kiss me. The liar’s kiss that says I love you, and means something else.
This all happens in the film’s opening minutes. From there, Mike and his friends become embroiled in a bizarre and murky underworld involving more kidnapping, murders, a mysterious box that contains something that glows (yes Tarantino’s inspiration for “Pulp Fiction”) plus there’s the eerie multi-level, secluded beach house (à la David Lynch’s “Lost Highway”) and the opening of the mysterious box clearly inspired the opening of the Ark in Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.
Ralph Meeker (who is in part the inspirational source Rick Dalton the character played Leonardo Di Caprio in Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) delivers his best performance, embodying the tough guy detective with menace and savagery. As for the other performances, well let’s just say that you are not watching this film solely for its acting chops. Bit part actor Nick Dennis (who plays Mike’s mechanic friend, Nick Va Va Voom) deserves mention for one of the most ridiculously over the top performances of all time. Some of the “stranger” performances in the film were definitely an inspiration for art minimalists of the future.
Critical opinion has been greatly divided. Upon its release in America, the film received mixed reviews. The mysterious box with the glowing substance appeared to many to be a metaphor for the atomic bomb. The United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce (popularly known as the Kefauver Committee) condemned it, making it a film that few critics would want to be seen praising. Remember, this film was released before the decline in the influence of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The French, however (as is often the case) loved the film. And it is European accolades for this film that gave it a long life and masterpiece status.
The genre bending film does plays out like an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone”, but it does so beautifully. The camera work is classic noir, lots of shadows, sharp angles and unusual shots that make you want to see what is happening just outside of the frame. The cinematography in the opening and closing scenes alone are worthy of cinema’s highest accolades. Throughout the film there is a discreet focus on art and even literature, in a way it is telling the audience that this is more than a film – it is a work of art, it has an artistic and/or literal soul.
The films greatest attribute, however, is its ability to take a conventional detective noir and weave through a mind melting nihilistic metaphor involving science, corruption, and the atomic bomb. Right from the opening scene, with those crazy credits that roll backwards, you know you are in for something different. “Kiss Me Deadly” may not be a film for everybody. It has its flaws, but it’s a wild ride that every film enthusiast should see.