Country: United States
Director: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Wesley Addy, Marian Carr, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman, Strother Martin, Jack Elam
Music: Frank DeVol
Song, ‘Rather Have the Blues’ performed by Nat ‘King’ Cole
Based on characters created by Mickey Spillane
Warning: this review contains adult content.
The other day I looked at The Long Goodbye, starring Elliott Gould as Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe. It stirred up some interesting debate about the character, the book, and film noir itself. Following on, today, I thought I’d look at another iconic noir character, Mike Hammer – in the film, Kiss Me Deadly.
At a cursory glance, Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer may seem like they are cut from the same cloth — but beyond the fact that they are both private investigators they are both very different and this is mainly due to the writing styles of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. Chandler is actually pretty classy and well-written even though it may not have seemed it in it’s day. Time has shown Chandler to be an expert craftsman, and his stories have a sweep and sense of vibrant colour about them. Philip Marlowe’s stomping ground is Los Angeles, and quite often Hollywood. During the course of one of Marlowe’s investigations the neon glow is scrutinised, and all is not quite what it appears on the surface. He is basically a good guy in a corrupt world, but he does his best to plod away and hopefully make a few things right.
Spillane’s Hammer stalks the streets of New York. Stalk is the right word, because Hammer is even more cynical than Marlowe, and rather more violent. Hammer is prepared to take the law into his own hands — exemplified by the fact that Spillane’s first Hammer story was titled I, The Jury. Hammer’s world is far more gritty, dirty and unpleasant.
Spillane too, I believe is a great writer, but he doesn’t capture atmosphere like Chandler. What he captures is pent up emotion, spilling over into rage. But he tells a rattling good yarn and you almost feel as battered and bruised as Hammer, once you finish and put down the book.
From the blurb of Vengeance is Mine (Corgi, 1973 paperback edition):
Mickey Spillane, one of the world’s top mystery story writers, is read in fourteen languages every minute of every day. Since I, The Jury was published in 1947, his books have sold more than 55,000,000 copies throughout the world. People like them.
The Mike Hammer stories aren’t spy stories – although the film version of Kiss Me Deadly and the 1982 version of I, The Jury do cross over into espionage territory. However Spillane had a shot of writing a three book series of spy novels featuring a character called Tiger Mann. Thanks to Jason at Spy Vibe, I have been able to read one of the books, Day of the Guns, and it may come as no surprise to Spillane fans that it reads incredibly similar to a Hammer novel.
From the back of the book:
He’s a lone wolf in a ruthless game. he’s a master spy and a paid killer.
He’s the tough superhero of MICKEY SPILLANE’s biggest, newest hit, DAY OF THE GUNS.
“Mickey Spillane moves from the private eye field into the realm of the international agent. His latest character, Tiger Mann, slugs, shoots and beds in true Spillane style and vies for attention with such established greats as James Bond.”
But I’ll save Tiger Mann for another day.
Kiss Me Deadly is considered a hard-boiled noir classic. Also due to the ending being altered, the film also has carried a wrap for being nihilistic and an overt statement on Cold War paranoia. I’ll let wikipedia explain the alternate ending – and how it effected the way the film was received and perceived:
The original American release of the film shows Hammer and Velda escaping from the burning house at the end, running into the ocean as the words “The End” come over them on the screen. Sometime after its first release, the ending was crudely altered on the film’s original negative, removing over a minute’s worth of shots where Hammer and Velda escape and superimposing the words “The End” over the burning house. This implied that Hammer and Velda perished in the atomic blaze, and was often interpreted to represent the End of the World. In 1997, the original conclusion was restored.
But as usual I am starting arse-about, and describing the ending first. Let’s go back to the beginning. As the film opens, a woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman) is running scared along the road, naked save for a trenchcoat. Desperately she tries to flag down passing motorists but nobody stops for her. Finally she runs out into the middle of the road and into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Luckily for her, the driver skids to a halt. Behind the wheel is Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), who reluctantly gives the terrified woman a lift.
Further up the road a police roadblock has been setup. It appears they are searching for a woman in a trenchcoat who has escaped from a mental asylum. At the roadblock, Hammer passes Christina off as his wife and is allowed to pass.
As Hammer approaches a bus stop, where he has agreed to drop Christina off, so she can continue her journey alone, a car rushes out from the side and runs Hammer off the road. Hammer is rendered unconscious in the bingle. Both Hammer and Christina are taken to a house where Christina is tortured until she dies. Hammer, meanwhile has woken up but is drifting in and out of consciousness – only capturing snippets of images in his mind.
Now that Christine is dead, the hitherto unseen hoods now have no further use for Christine or Hammer, and they place them in Hammer’s car. Then they shunt the car off an embankment as if it had been a car accident. Somehow, Hammer survives.
Hammer wakes in hospital with his faithful secretary, Velda (Maxine Cooper) and detective Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) by his side. (Isn’t it usually Pat Chambers?) Murphy maybe a cop, but he isn’t there to interrogate Hammer – not yet anyway! The two men are old friends. But once Hammer is released from hospital, he is dragged down to police headquarters to be interrogated by some big-shot cops out of Washington. Hammer may not be a rocket scientist, but it doesn’t take much to work out that when you get that kind of attention, something ‘big’ must be going down. And he wants his cut!
Later, Hammer goes to his mechanic to ask about the damage to his car. The mechanic says that it is a right off, and also says some tough guys had come around and were asking questions. Next Hammer goes home, and outside two men are watching his apartment from a car outside. Then Pat Murphy arrives to revoke Hammer’s PI licence and confiscate his gun. It appears that everybody thinks Hammer knows something – but he doesn’t know what? But he is determined to find out.
Of course, a movie like this twists and turns through set piece after set piece, and outlining the plot and all the characters is rather futile. But needless to say Kiss Me Deadly serves up a heady stew of violence and deception, with a tiny smattering of sex (certainly not as much as the poster art would have you believe).
Ralph Meeker’s performance as Mike Hammer is lauded as one of the great tough guy roles. However, I am of the generation that grew up watching Stacey Keach as Hammer on TV. So when I first saw this at a revival theatre in the late 1980s, Meeker seemed quite a brutish Hammer. He is certainly more self-centred (that is, out for number one) than Keach. But over the years, I have warmed to Meeker’s performance, and some of his mannerisms, such as the brutish grin, are now old friends. There’s a great scene were Hammer is being tailed by a hood, and when Hammer confronts him, the hood pulls a shiv. As Hammer whallops the punk, the grin on his face signifies just how much he enjoys dishing out punishment to those who deserve it.
Another familiar face in Kiss Me Deadly is Jack Elam. A rather young Jack Elam! Here he plays a two-bit hood, who is so scrawny that he looks like an oboe in a Hawaiian shirt – rather a long way from the crazy old men, I am used to seeing him play in films like Cannonball Run and Rio Lobo.
Then there is Albert Dekker who plays the villaim of the piece, Doctor Soberlin. It’s not a big role, but the shadow and the menace of Soberlin permeates every scene in the movie. On a different note, but strangely could come from the pages of a Mickey Spillane novel, is the strange and bizarre death of Dekker. It is still debated whether he was the victim of a robbery – allegedly some items were missing from his home – or if his death was the result of autoerotic asphyxiation. The gruesome scene, how Dekker was found, as described on the findadeath website:
Dekker was kneeling nude in the bathtub. A noose was around his neck but not tight enough to have strangled him. A scarf was tied over his eyes and a horse’s bit was in his mouth, fashioned from a rubber ball and metal wire, the bit had chain “reins” that were tightly tied beneath his head. Two leather straps were stretched between the leather belts that girded his neck and chest. A third belt, around his waist, was tied with a rope that stretched to his ankles, where it had been tied in some kind of timber hitch. The end of the rope, which continued up his side, wrapped around his wrist several times and was held in Dekker’s hand. Handcuffs clamped both wrists with a key attached. Written in red lipstick on his right buttock was the word, “whip.” Sunrays had also been drawn around his nipples. “Make me suck,” was written on his throat, and “slave,” and “cocksucker,” on his chest. On his stomach was drawn a vagina. He had apparently been dead for several days.
Well, yes, ahem …little to say on Dekker really. That kind of notoriety overshadows any contribution to cinematic art.
Kiss Me Deadly probably represents the best cinematic rendering of Mike Hammer — although I must confess there are a few Hammer films I haven’t seen – Biff Elliot’s I, The Jury, Robert Bray’s My Gun is Quick, and Rob Estes’ Come Die With Me. But Kiss Me Deadly is a film I return to, again and again! Va Va Voom!