Sunday, 3 July 2011

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) - Robert Aldrich

It's noir, but not as we know it. Mickey Spillane's mega selling novel is given a complete overhaul by A.I. Bezzerides (the scribe behind Sirocco & Thieves Highway), to become a bonkers cross between the pulp noir of prime Sam Fuller, and a particularly bizarre Twilight Zone episode. Right from the off it's obvious that things aren't going to be straightforward. For a start there are those opening credits that roll up the screen instead of down.

The film opens with Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picking up Christina (Cloris Leachman), a female hitch hiker on the run from the police. As it turns out she's seen or heard something she shouldn't have, and has a bunch of local heavies on her tail too, who quickly nab our pair and in a memorably nasty scene, torture Christina to death. Then they bundle our ill fated couple back into Hammer's car and roll them off a cliff. It's this that sets the plot in motion, as Hammer tries to figure out just what the heck is going on, who killed Christina and more importantly why?

Luckily Hammer is a private detective, so he knows how to grub around the seedier side of L.A. for info. Meeker is a fantastic Hammer, playing him in a deliciously nasty way, flying off the handle and dishing out backhanders as soon as anyone crosses him. He's one of cinema's great anti heroes, just look at the half smile that appears after he slings one guy down a set of steps, or the way he slams a mortician's fingers in a desk drawer. It's vicious powerful stuff, and must have been shocking at the time. I can imagine '55's other great bundle of anger Jim Stark loving Kiss Me Deadly at the cinema, maybe even seeing some of himself in Hammer.

The film rattles along at a healthy pace and keeps the viewer in the dark about what is going on, we only find things out as Hammer does. The dialogue is rugged hard boiled stuff, as are most of the characters. Aldrich makes great use of L.A.'s fleapit underbelly, shooting plenty of the exteriors in daytime. That's not to say that there isn't an abundance of long dark shadows, rest easy there's plenty of that, it's just not your typical back lot shoot. I love that shot where Hammer drives under this strange elevated tramway. Weirdsville. By the time the ending rolls up you'll have forgotten just how Hammer ended up in a beach house with an atomic mcguffin. That doesn't matter though since this is one of those 'it's not so much the story, as the journey' type affairs. A Maltese Falcon for the atomic age if you want.

Kiss Me Deadly has had a huge impact on cinema, you can see shards of Meeker's Hammer in Connery's Bond for instance, then there are the far more obvious references in Pulp Fiction (the contents of that case) and of course Repo Man which not only aped the Pandora's Box schtick but also half inched the reverse credits. The style of Kiss Me Deadly seems to have influenced greater directors too, it's there in Seijun Suzuki's & Jean-Pierre Melville's gangster flicks for example. What higher praise could one ask for than that, eh?

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