Kiss Me Deadly whispers poisonous sweet nothings into your ear until there’s nothing left but rotten paranoia. Corrosive half-truths infect both body and soul, and eventually all the seductive propositions and failed promises avalanche into something nuclear. The film’s brazen protagonist, arrogant and sadistic private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), isn’t immune to the wealth of manipulation on display; he’s actually patient zero for the spreading disease. Mike’s inability to grasp the truth reveals a crippling limited perspective, personifying an extreme form of vicious masculinity that seems destined for a grave.
Running feet famously fill Kiss Me Deadly’s opening frame, an inaugural symbol of panic that never stops being recycled. The visually dissected limbs belong to Christina (Cloris Leachman), a hysterical woman sprinting down a desolate highway dressed only in a trench coat. In the first of many visceral collisions between characters, Mike’s sports car bursts from the darkness and nearly runs Christina over before spinning out of control and stalling on the side of the road. The accident interrupts Nat King Cole’s melancholic “I’d Rather Have the Blues” playing on Mike’s radio, a diabolically accurate foreshadowing he can’t begin to fathom.
After Robert Aldrich brilliantly sets the table with this breakneck sequence, Mike reluctantly offers Christina a ride, fulfilling his manly duty in the “woman in distress” scenario without a hint of charm. During their short and fateful car ride, highlighted by the film’s credits running in reverse, Mike proves he’s a true bull and the world is his china shop, while Christina’s fragility hints at an omniscient menace on the horizon. Mike’s indifference slowly turns to intrigue as Christina becomes more cryptic, and her last words (“Remember me”) mark his subconscious for the remainder of the film. Mike is all instinct, and this opening tease sends his simple mind into a frenzied state.
Of course, Christina’s fear has plenty of credence, and it comes to fruition when another unmarked car jets into the road cutting off Mike’s for the second time. More close-ups of furious feet, including a particularly memorable pair of blue suede shoes, and then only terrible screams. To show he means business, Aldrich cuts from the villain’s calm approach to the car to Christina’s twisting legs, now wreathing in pain from off-screen torture. The graphic match shows how quickly a bad situation can turn worse, a kind of social manifesto for Kiss Me Deadly’s outlook on the atomic age.
Like many other ’50s noirs, Kiss Me Deadly paints a mosaic of male delusion. This approach begins and ends with Mike, who survives the attack and decides to investigate Christina’s fabulous ravings, which are outside his usual wheelhouse of divorce cases and casual blackmail. Despite heckles and warnings from police, gangsters, and ultimately the devil herself, Mike steamrolls through every scene as if he was vying for a starting position on the goon squad. Spare bits of damning information lead Mike down a tangled road of corruption, murder, and scientific malfeasance, and he often punches his way through whatever barriers stand in the way, all fitting for this major-league noir.
As Mike pummels through the narrative, the femmes of Kiss Me Deadly become integral to his fruitless pursuits. Christina’s cropped-hair roommate, Carver (Gaby Rodgers), who oozes female passivity on the outside, seems like Mike’s best chance at redemption. He protects her with reckless abandon no matter what the clues suggest. Then there’s Mike’s girl Friday, Velda (Maxine Cooper), who shoots him sage advice to no avail. Her words come to represent the essential themes of film noir, markers of a genre reveling in its own evil. When Mike’s investigation begins to gather steam, Velda warns him: “First you find a little thread. Little thread leads to you a string. String leads you to a rope. And from the rope, you hang by the neck.” Call it fatale intuition.
Kiss Me Deadly ends in a fireball of allegorical power. But Aldrich isn’t concerned with the narrative ripples of the final incendiary image or its literal consequences, just the raw thematic ingredients spewing into the atmosphere. The glowing Pandora’s box (famously recreated in Pulp Fiction) could signify so many evils threatening our existence, from nuclear stranglehold to ideological manipulation, and the genius of Kiss Me Deadly comes in how it makes each an equally feasible endgame. Yet, no matter what Achilles’ heel fits best, there’s still so much moral ambiguity crashing with those parting ocean waves. Of course, it’s Velda who summarizes this idea best: “They. A wonderful word. And who are they? They are the nameless ones who kill people for the great what’s it. Does it exist? Who cares.”
Criterion's standard-definition transfer provides a crisp presentation of Robert Aldrich and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo's sleek visuals. The upgrade in quality from previous incarnations can really be seen in the opening sequence where Christina is trying to escape her captors. The shadow designs during these moments have a great depth that adds to the building tension. The audio is nicely rendered, especially during the club scene where Mike gets sloshed to a lounge singer's sultry rendition of "I'd Rather Have the Blues." A few moments of dialogue seem like they were recorded in an echo chamber, an issue Criterion probably couldn't help no matter the technology.
The one audio commentary features noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, who do a detailed and thorough job contextualizing Kiss Me Deadly as the quintessential 1950s noir and, more importantly, a "Robert Aldrich" film. There's also a fantastic video essay by filmmaker Alex Cox illuminating the striking differences between Mickey Spillane's book and Aldrich's film, including the contrast in locations and character details setting them apart. Through his first-person prose, Cox utilizes a short-verse noir vernacular to describe the film's sense of modernity and social relevance. An ambitious but flawed documentary on Spillane entitled "Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane" is also included, but the dry talking-head approach gets tiresome fast. It also feels like the filmmakers tried to pack a life's worth of information and experiences into a constricted space, which doesn't leave much room for nuance or complexity.
Writer and cinephile Jim Dawson spends six fascinating minutes talking about the history of Bunker Hill, which plays a crucial role in creating the moody atmosphere of Kiss Me Deadly, not to mention countless other noirs. The short video essay is a miniature companion piece to Thom Andersen's brilliant Los Angeles Plays Itself. While waxing eloquently on the political corruption that led to the area's demise, Dawson encapsulates the cinematic importance of the neighborhood perfectly: "With its creaking flophouses riddled with stairways and serpentine corridors, Bunker Hill had grit, and realism, and shadows, and energy that put every studio back lot to shame." The supplement also juxtaposes locations past and present. Criterion has also included the film's theatrical trailer and a truncated alternate ending, which trims a good 90 seconds off the film and gives the finale an even more cynical tone. Finally, there's an expectedly potent essay by J. Hoberman included in the case booklet.
The term "blond bomb shell" takes on a whole new meaning in Kiss Me Deadly, a savage film noir masterpiece given a hefty and necessary DVD release from the Criterion Collection.