Private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is driving the Californian highways late one night when a woman (Cloris Leachman) clad only in a raincoat jumps out in front of the car, nearly forcing him off the road. He is indignant, but senses she is in trouble so allows her into the passenger seat and they head off, but along the way a police roadblock interrupts their journey. Hammer isn't really interested in what's the matter with his hitchhiker, but he covers for her anyway and they continue - until another obstacle appears up ahead: a deadly one.
You get the impression if Hammer hadn't been run off the road for real this time then he would have dropped the mystery woman off in Los Angeles and left it at that, and we would never have found out who was after her and for what reason. He's that kind of looking out for number one guy, but once he is beaten unconscious by parties unknown and his companion is tortured to death (Mike must have been out cold if those screams didn't wake him) and the bad guys send his nifty sports car over a cliff with him in it, well, a person could take umbrage. So essentially he was willing to give up his day job as a private operator of a divorce business to pursue his antagonists.
Make no mistake, Hammer is no angel, as we are told early on when the nature of his work is set out - using his over-loyal secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) to seduce hapless men for money-grubbing wives is one of his tricks - but are those he is now tangling with any better? As he strides purposefully into this netherworld in the hope of riches, the people he uncovers as part of a conspiracy to get hold of the so-called "great whatsit" may derive from all sorts of backgrounds, but none of them are what you'd call respectable as their greed proves their undoing. Anyone decent who Hammer encounters is either crushed by the encroaching circumstances of doom, or is an official part of the law, and not exactly sympathetic.
It should be noted the creator of Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane, went on record as hating this version of his character which was presumably why he went on to star in another big screen version himself, but while director Robert Aldrich did not paint a flattering portrait of what amounted to a cunning thug, Kiss Me Deadly was the far greater film. It was made just the way Aldrich envisioned it (being an independent effort ensured that), so it was strikingly more brutal than many of the thrillers around at the time, nothing too shocking by today's standards but nevertheless surprising to see in a work of this vintage. The hero is more of an anti-hero in the film noir tradition, but any moves towards culture and sophistication belong to the weak and venal as plain stupidity is the most common element in this universe.
Hammer's sophistication begins and ends with his telephone answering machine, but to his credit he does solve a mystery which grows murkier the further he delves, the only problem being he ushers in a massive disaster in the process. It's always interesting to watch an end of the world scenario made so many decades ago when obviously the world did not end because it tells so much about the fears of the time, and in this case it was the danger of atomic energy identified as the main threat to civilisation. Except it's more than that, it's the fact that this unimaginable power is in the hands of fallible people, and Aldrich takes a dim view of humanity which can fashion such great danger then not be able to harness it without placing us all in peril: not for nothing do the classical allusions of Albert Dekker's villain include Pandora's Box. Mostly it's the nightmarish atmosphere of barely contained, chaotic violence you take away from Kiss Me Deadly, which erupts into one of the most brilliantly, horribly bleak finales ever made as not even hope is left this time. Music by Frank De Vol.