Director: Robert Aldrich
Writer: A. I. Bezzerides
Cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo
Stars: Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rodgers
Studio/Running Time: Criterion, 104 min.
Completely at random, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) nearly runs over a girl wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. While she’s soon caught by the police, Hammer’s intrigued by her tale and begins investigating her past. The very act of pursuing this sets a whole gang of mobsters, FBI agents and seemingly everyone else in the world against Hammer, all the while the girl’s identity and what secrets she was hiding become if anything less clear. That’s the world of Kiss Me Deadly, in which everyone, including Hammer, is a liar only looking out for themselves, yet the stakes are much higher than mere personal gain.
Few movies have ever been so perfectly of-their-time as Kiss Me Deadly. Anticipating the paranoid worlds of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo a decade before they began publishing, it’s a perfect distillation of Cold War fear and dread molded into typical noir trappings. Of course, the search for a MacGuffin is nothing new to the genre, but here it’s given social context that transforms it from a plot device into an all-consuming philosophy. When given a new car, Hammer knows that it’s rigged to blow up in two different ways not because of any evidence but simply because that’s how the universe now works. “They” are always after him, and the “great whatsit” he finally arrives at is every bit as apocalyptic as he thought it would be.
Emphasizing this is the intense stylization by director Robert Aldrich. Noirs are always known for their canted frames and chiaroscuro lighting, but here these stylistic elements are more than just conventions, they’re thematic commentary on the story. There’s always someone hiding in the shadows, and the odd angles characterize an essential inability to understand why things are happening. Disorientation, from the film’s trademark backwards title sequence to point of view shots that seem to come from no one, are Kiss Me Deadly’s norm.
Kiss Me Deadly was one of the last of the great true noir movies before Touch of Evil effectively destroyed the genre, but after Kiss Me Deadly there wasn’t much further for them to go. The noir had found its perfect topic in nuclear paranoia and had also become self-conscious, such that Kiss Me Deadly delivers its promised genre thrills while simultaneously acting as criticism of the direction hardboiled detective movies and books (particularly those by Mickey Spillane) had taken. There are certainly more accomplished movies in the genre, both the slicker Hollywood prestige noirs from a decade earlier and the artistically mesmerizing pictures Orson Welles was producing, but Kiss Me Deadly is the picture that took the style as far as it could go without jumping into self-parody. In the years since its release, Kiss Me Deadly has been copied so many times that many of its boldest elements are familiar, but they’ve done little to dull its overall impact.