KISS ME DEADLY A-
USA (104 mi) 1955 d: Robert Aldrich
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
A low down and dirty apocalyptic film noir, filmed during the end of the noir era, set in the atomic age of the 50’s, where screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, whose novel Long Haul was used for Raoul Walsh’s THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940), while also co-writing Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952) and William Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT (1954), alters the focus of the original Mickey Spillane novel, a book he despised, where instead of a mafia drug conspiracy, he adds a new twist of international weapons smugglers who are actually trafficking nuclear weapons. Conceived out of trashy pulp material, it’s a low-budget B-movie with few emotional attachments that cynically exploits America’s Cold War fear and a 1950’s rising paranoia about the atom bomb, a time when people were urged to build bomb shelters in their back yards. This film opens with a barefoot woman running down the road at night in a state of panic, flagging down a car wearing only a trenchcoat, which nearly causes a crash, but the driver is none other than Los Angeles private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), whose concern isn’t about the lady in distress, Cloris Leachman in her first feature role as Christina, but the potential damage to his always spotless and buffed convertible Jaguar sports car. Driving her back into Los Angeles, she cryptically mentions that people are after her, having her institutionalized, and should they not make it back into LA, somehow sensing her death is imminent, she mysteriously urges him to “Remember me.” Hammer’s car is immediately run off the side of the road where he and the girl are left barely conscious. They kidnap the girl while Hammer and his car are dropped off a cliff, but he somehow manages to survive. The girl is not so fortunate, as we hear the distressing sounds of her terrifying screams (and see only her dangling feet) while she is being tortured with a pair of pliers in a place that shall not be named, a prolonged sequence taking place offscreen until she is finally silenced. This scream typifies the atmospheric mood of horror, but also the degree of sadistic exhibitionism on display.
The film was not reviewed by the New York Times when it came out, calling it too revolting and utter trash, and it was banned in Great Britain, where the prevalent use of violence is way over the top, made worse by the lead character’s sadistic enjoyment of inflicting pain, where he’s forever slapping people in the face to get information out of them. Only one guy avoids the inevitable by quickly taking a mouthful of sleeping pills, tipped off by the sounds that Hammer was quickly approaching, so when he got punched and slapped around, it made no difference, as he couldn’t talk because he was completely passed out already. Transplanted from New York to LA, Hammer’s apartment is spacious and modern, with a tape recording answering device built right into the wall, where strange literary and/or artistic references run throughout the film. His Girl Friday secretary (Maxine Cooper) has modern ideas about sharing work with pleasure, where Hammer actually pimps out her services, specializing in adulterous divorce cases, his sleazy methods repeated to his face by a police investigator, where he often sleeps with the wife while his secretary Velda seduces the husband, then they extort each one to keep this information from coming out in the court proceedings, where Hammer is forced to admit sarcastically, “All right, you've got me convinced. I'm a real stinker.” But after a warning from both thugs and cops, Hammer doesn’t scare off this case so easily, thinking the panicked girl must have had something valuable that both the police and the criminal underworld want. His destroyed car is quickly replaced with another one just as snazzy, but he’s smart enough to find the bomb attached to the ignition, while another explosive device is later found by his over-revved mechanic Nick, Nick Dennis from John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues (1961), a guy who speaks free form the way he envisions sports cars running, “Va-va-voom!” When Nick gets snuffed out, Hammer has reason to feel the blues, where a lingering theme throughout is Nat King Cole’s version of “I’d Rather Have the Blues” KISS ME DEADLY - "I'd Rather Have the Blues" - YouTube (2:54), heard first over a car radio as the opening credits roll backwards, and a second time by a black nightclub singer, Mady Comfort.
Aldrich wreaks havoc with Hammer’s avenging angel character, already one of the darkest anti-heroes in the film noir genre, turning him into an existential narcissist whose livelihood is exploiting (or blackmailing) others to benefit his own plush lifestyle, where his exaggerated sense of masculinity and individualism, so fascinated with women and fast cars, also having the perfect Hollywood bachelor pad, is in stark contrast to the conservative conformity of the times. Much of the film is set in the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles, beautifully shot by Ernst Laszlo in contrasting Black and White, accentuating darkness and shadow throughout, shading the moral line. While the movie is laced with brutality and corruption, filled with bizarre characters, no one is a more intriguing character than Christina’s frightened roommate, Gaby Rogers as Lily Carver, a television actress appearing in only one other feature film, Joseph Strick’s THE BIG BREAK (1953), eventually marrying the very successful American pop songwriter Jerry Leiber of Leiber and Stoller, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Compared to other femme fatales, Carver is initially the most vulnerable character onscreen, appearing sweet and soft and in need of protection from Hammer, fearful and perhaps a bit touched in the head, as if her facilities may not all be there. But by the end, she’s a changed or transformed woman where her body has literally been inhabited (or killed) by somebody else, becoming someone who is perhaps the most devious character in the entire film, where the personality fissure and apocalyptic finale may remind some viewers of David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY (1997). Aldrich delights in confusing compositions, odd or oblique camera angles, views down staircases, creating a bleakly disorienting atmosphere of hopelessness and despair, where some nearly always faceless criminal underworld characters involved in international espionage have got their hands on what amounts to THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), where “the bundle,” or “the box” in this case, may be a miniature H-bomb in a suitcase at an oceanfront beach house. In what is one of the bleakest endings ever, Aldrich may be going to every expressionistic extreme to remind viewers of what’s at stake, where much like Hitchcock in The Birds (1963), he may be targeting the complacency of the populace, as the director uses a somewhat surreal and apocalyptic wake up call to strike back at foolish humans who continue to believe they are exempt from life’s tragedies.