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Hammer to Fall: Kiss Me Deadly on Blu-ray

  Probably the only writer in history to have been fired out of a cannon, Mickey Spillane was most associated with his creation Mike Hammer, who first appeared in paperback form for 1946's I, The Jury. The book was an instant hit, selling millions, and until 1952's Kiss Me Deadly his private eye yarns were basically his licence to print money: readers around the globe could not get enough of his two-fisted thrillers. Yes, Hammer had predecessors, most obviously Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, but even those trendsetters were eclipsed by the unpretentious to a fault Spillane's pulp fiction.

However, so packed with violence and sex were the Hammer books that no film studio wished to snap up the rights to them, in their first cycle before the scribe took a sabbatical to turn to his new love, the religion of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Come 1955, he was still making a comfortable living off the royalties, but one producer/director thought he could bring the 'tec to the screen in a way that would be faithful enough as to satisfy the legions of fans, and that man was Robert Aldrich. His previous film had been Vera Cruz, an enormous success that can claim to be the instigator of countless Spaghetti Westerns, and filled with confidence, he made Kiss Me Deadly.

There were changes from the text, of course, which made Spillane a lifelong enemy of the film, sort of like how Stephen King has serious problems with Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The source was not shy about its target; Spillane usually made his villains Communists as was fashionable in American pop culture (it was either that or space aliens, one supposed), yet for this novel his antagonists were the Mafia. He made no bones about how much he despised that criminal organisation, either, littering the chapters with insults flung in the Cosa Nostra's direction as if daring them to take him on - you could believe he'd make a decent go of it, too.

Spillane had worked to beat mobsters as an undercover F.B.I. agent before he had turned his hand to writing full time, so he could back up his big mouth with some equally big aggression, and the narcotics ring he had busted went onto to inspire Kiss Me Deadly. It had one of his typically attention-grabbing openings which Aldrich was happy to recreate, as Chloris Leachman (in her debut) runs out in front of Hammer's sports car on an isolated road outside Los Angeles and forces him to pick her up. She is wearing nothing but an overcoat, and manages to tell him to "Remember me!" before the gangsters attack, torturing her to death and leaving Hammer for dead.

Big mistake. It should be noted Spillane set his book in New York, but Aldrich, essentially making an independent movie so doing it resolutely his way, set it on the opposite coast and with plenty of location shooting crafted one of the most city-specific films of the fifties, so much so that the Big Apple references in the book don't seem quite correct anymore. Indeed, so vivid is the picture that its reputation as one of the craziest, most over the top film noirs has almost overshadowed it, no mean feat considering how much the paperback sold, though these days the pageturner landscape has superseded Spillane, despite his template continuing to be applied.

But no matter what Spillane thought, Aldrich and his screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides knew what they were doing. Though Spillane made his villains often to the left of centre, he eschewed politics and said he was simply writing what would sell, yet Aldrich was an avowed liberal, so that while his output was probably the toughest minded and most forceful of any successful Hollywood director, he did so in the service of a philosophy that was constantly questioning and attacking the status quo as far as the right regarded it, a brave stance in the nineteen-fifties when he could have lost his career over such opinions, and it was the violence of his concepts that likely saved him.

He was criticised, sure, but conservatives could respond to Aldrich's no-nonsense, unsentimental approach and love of tales of adventure and uncompromising, single-minded characters as much as liberals: even his films featuring female-oriented stories were like this. Perhaps the biggest change for Kiss Me Deadly was to hold the subject of nuclear weapons to scathing scrutiny, as after watching this you were as in little doubt they could spark an apocalypse as you would be after the explosive denouement of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - you could trace that film's satirical attitude back to this.

The plot was almost impossible to follow, whether you had read Spillane's original or not, but what was clear that a group of very bad people were after "the great whatsit" and would stop at nothing to get it, with Hammer determined to avenge the dead woman he met on that lonely highway but not really grasping the enormity of what he is getting into until it was too late. Many critics, liking the film or not, pointed out Ralph Meeker as Hammer (his best role) is a straight-faced parody of Spillane's character, a thug who blunders into dangerous situations with a sadistic streak to ensure his macho personality wins out every time, but then he meets his match.

On the other hand, given the bad guys were aesthetes who thought themselves sophisticated enough to play with countless lives with no harm to themselves, it could be that Hammer is their reckoning, and Aldrich was punishing them for their hubris, the same arrogance that brought about a weapon that can destroy the entire human race in the first place. That contradiction grew increasingly electrifying as the plot progresses, leading to one of the greatest, bleakest, angriest and downright nastiest climaxes in Hollywood cinema. Spillane had concluded his book with a hell of an ending, obviously deciding enough was enough for Hammer (though the sleuth did eventually return), yet if anything Aldrich bested it.

Read the book and you may wonder if, for instance, he was spoofing Spillane's love of the telephone by giving Hammer a new-fangled answering machine in his apartment he is addicted to using, or sending up the womanising by landing his secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) with the same fate as her boss and making the femme fatale Gabrielle (Gaby Rogers) partly kittenish, mostly unnervingly creepy, but more than that you would take away the impression, a chilling one, that humanity was in no way capable of handling the vast power it was able to unleash. For that reason, Kiss Me Deadly has not aged in the same way as its contemporaries, as if anything its fears have not only not gone away, but been amplified. Sure, you can take pleasure in a terrific cast of faces recognisable to vintage movie buffs - Jack Elam, Percy Helton, Strother Martin, Albert Dekker et al - but there's plenty here that is so dead set on throwing you into staying awake till three o'clock in the morning worrying about the world that there are few film experiences quite like it.

[Criterion release Kiss Me Deadly on Blu-ray with the following features:

New high-definition restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Audio commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini
New video tribute from director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Walker) - this is like having Moviedrome back!
Excerpts from The Long Haul of A. I. Bezzerides, a 2005 documentary on the Kiss Me Deadly screenwriter
Excerpts from Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane, a 1998 documentary on the author whose book inspired the film
A look at the film's locations
Altered ending
Theatrical trailer
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic J. Hoberman and a 1955 reprint by director Robert Aldrich.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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