I recently saw Kiss Me Deadly on Criterion and contemplated purchasing it, sight unseen because I love anything Criterion. Unfortunately I didn’t have the money for it and decided to just watch it via TCM. While I’m a big film noir fan I was left a little cold by Robert Aldrich’s take on Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. The film pretty much plays on every convention in the film noir playbook to the point that it feels like a caricature. Maybe I lost something in having never read Spillane’s Hammer character before (I know, I know!), but I just didn’t see this as anything special…certainly not better than works like The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity.
Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is a private detective who, while driving one night, sees a woman (Cloris Leachman) in nothing but a trench coat begging for help. He picks her up but is quickly stopped by thugs who kill the woman and leave Hammer for dead. When Hammer comes to, he goes on a mission to figure out who wanted the beautiful woman dead and who is trying to kill him as well.
I’m a fan of classic mysteries, film noirs and the like, so Kiss Me Deadly opens the playbook and takes every point in it. There’s the tough-as-nails detective trying to solve a mystery that’s filled with beautiful women, femme fatales, and a thrilling conclusion that has far grander implications. Mike Hammer is the quintessential detective and Meeker plays him gruff, highly sexual, and more than willing to kill a man instead of holding him for questioning. Women throw themselves at Mike constantly and you can tell he’s a character willing to throw a punch on man or woman. Meeker isn’t the typical leading man figure but he plays Hammer as intimidating and sufficiently threatening.
My lack of enthusiasm for this film lies in just how many film noirs I’ve seen. The Spillane novels pretty much cemented the tropes of film noir so I spent a lot of time giggling at how cliche the whole movie felt. There are moments of bizarre dialogue that felt ripped out of a cheap pulp novel like Mike’s Girl Friday Velda (Maxine Cooper) telling Mike not to lean out of a window, “someone might blow you a kiss.” What? It just reeked of cliché that I rolled my eyes. The climax of the story was pretty ridiculous as well involving a briefcase and some type of nuclear device. Having seen the effects of nuclear power in our time it’s laughable to see a nuclear device go off and just destroy a house….that’s not right.
I know Kiss Me Deadly is a classic but if you’re well-versed in film noir it might seem trite and a little boring. I think I’d enjoy the novels more.