“Kiss Me Deadly” – Film Noir Apocalypse, Then and Now

Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion)

Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir apocalypse Kiss Me Deadly is unlike any other noir ever made. From the opening scene, where Cloris Leachman (naked under a trenchcoat) runs barefoot down a coastal highway flagging down cars, to the Pandora’s Box scream of destruction unleashed in the finale, it pushes the conventions past the breaking point.

Ostensibly based on Mickey Spillane’s hugely successful pulp novel, Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides turned the story inside, transforming it into a white-hot blast of tawdry pulp and film noir cynicism for the atomic age. Aldrich had just come off of Vera Cruz, a mercenary western that looks forward to the cynical opportunism of the spaghetti westerns, and that tone carries over to Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer is turned into a blithely amoral opportunist, a corrupt private detective who specializes in divorce cases (a “bedroom dick,” in the parlance) and stumbles into a conspiracy that he thinks he can parlay into a payoff, and Ralph Meeker plays him with a perpetual sneer of a smile and an arrogance that is rarely justified. This is a guy who pimps out it secretary/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) between smooches and makes a play for almost every beauty who crosses his path.

Kiss Me Deadly delivers a pulp punch while it savagely satirizes the entire hardboiled mythos with its bare-knuckle brutality, flights of purple prose dialogue and the sheer he-man chauvinism of its dogged hero of scar tissue and street smarts, who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to it in Pulp Fiction (and, before that, so did Alex Cox in Repo Man). Mickey Spillane hated the film. I love it. Va-va-voom! Pow!

Criterion gives the film, previously available on an indifferent DVD from MGM, the special edition treatment on the beautifully remastered DVD and Blu-ray releases.

It features detailed, in-depth commentary by film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, a video tribute by director Alex Cox, excerpts from documentaries on screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides and author Mickey Spillane, a video tour of the film’s locations then and now, the altered ending that was seen for years before the 1998 restoration and a booklet with a new essay by J. Hoberman and an archival article written by Robert Aldrich for the New York Herald-Tribune, defending the film during the controversy over its violence. (You can read J. Hoberman’s essay from the booklet at Criterion Current here.)

And if that’s not enough reason, the inspired art direction, recalling not just a lurid “True Detective” cover but the entire pulp magazine through the pages of the booklet, is icing on the radioactive cake.