Eric Renderking Fisk | July 2008
Since I mentioned "Kiss Me, Deadly" in my review of "Laura," a few people (including DL Ferguson) asked me to write a review of this film too. Give your audience what they want, I always say.
As I wrote earlier, there are two films that bookend the Film Noir period; "The Maltese Falcon" that began this era and "Kiss Me, Deadly" brought it to a close. The two films mirror each other and both reflect the thoughts, dreams, and fears that were common to those living at the time these films were made. Both "The Maltese Falcon" and "Kiss Me, Deadly" feature incredible casts, flawed heroes (or even Anti-Heroes) who are over their heads, conflicts with people on both sides of the law who are trying to use them for their own ends. Both movies feature female assistants who love the hero beyond any reasonable boundaries, and at least a femme-fatale looking to bring our hero down by enticing him with a sensual version of judo - using his strength and desire against him.
"Kiss Me Deadly," though - perfectly captures the sense of helplessness and despair that comes with living in a chaotic world where forces beyond your conception seem poised to destroy your life and those around you. And no matter how good the hero is, he can't stop the inevitable.
Kiss Me Deadly begins with our hero Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) driving his convertible along the California Coast. As with any film noir - Hammer runs into trouble when he least expects it, but for him, it's literal as his car almost hits Christina Bailey played by Cloris Leachman. Christina was running away from someone while wearing nothing more than a trench coat with no shoes. The woman is obviously desperate for help and maybe she's a little crazy - she tells Hammer about her troubles, about how someone was trying to extract a secret from her and took her clothes to keep her captive. Mike makes the assumption that the woman is nuts but like any good-hearted-joe, he'll help her out and bring her to the nearest bus station...
... As the movie progresses at a break-neck speed, Christina turns up dead and Mike is the prime suspect. As he tries to solve the case and clear his name, he discovers that she was caught up in something huge with implications that involve every living thing on Earth. This isn't revealed to him during a single monolog, but rather over time - the closer he gets to the object in question - a leather bound briefcase holding a metal box containing an object of unimaginable horror - the more he learns....
And during his search for this object, we learn more about Mike Hammer. He's the type of man most of us wish we could be, completely free and unrestrained as he's not afraid to punch another man in the mouth or just steal a kiss from the nearest woman that's handy. He's the archetype for Hugh Hefner's "Playboy," someone who wears the right clothes, has the latest gadgets (like a reel-to-reel answering machine for his phone in the 1950's!) and is self-absorbed in his work and his play.
Mike Hammer really isn't a nice guy in "Kiss Me, Deadly," he's trying to do the right thing but for the wrong reasons, and was politically incorrect long before the term "Political Correctness" was even coined. You can imagine a bunch of limp-wristed effeminate men telling the adolescents in their care that Mike Hammer is not what anyone wants to be, but you know that this is the type of man they secretly idolize and wish they could be more like. Mike Hammer is liberated from most of the societies' norms to a point of being anti-social. You would want Mike Hammer to like you simply because he's not someone you would want to be enemies with.
Personally - I can't help but admire and dislike him at the same time. If this incarnation of "Mike Hammer" had a fedora, he would have been perfect.
Once the mysterious briefcase box is eventually in Mike Hammer's possession, even for a short time, he's burned by the light emanating from inside after opening the box just a crack. When police Lt. Pat Murphy (played by Wesley Addy) sees Hammer with the burn and knows Hammer's made an attempt to look inside - we get one of the last pieces of the puzzle of the case's contents via this piece of dialogue...
"...Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I'm going to pronounce a few words. They're harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. 'Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity.'..."
Mike's attitude is almost impartial. Despite knowing the danger, he follows the last bit of clues after digging and finds his way to where he had been held earlier in the film. The breadcrumbs to a beach-side cottage where one of the movie's antagonists Dr. Soberin is holding Hammer's own assistant, Velda.
What's really inside ("atomic isotope that was stolen from the top-secret Los Alamos New Mexico Nuclear Test Site" - Tom Dirk's tribute site to this film.) is revealed when Soberin explains to his own female assistant, Lily...
Dr. Soberin: You have been misnamed, Gabrielle. You should have been called Pandora. She had a curiosity about a box and opened it and let loose all the evil in the world.
Lily: Never mind about the evil. What's in it?
Dr. Soberin: Did you ever hear of Lot's wife? Well, she was told not to look back. But she disobeyed and she was changed into a pillar of salt... The head of the Medusa. That's what's in the box. And whoever looks on her will be changed, not into stone, but into brimstone and ashes. Well, of course, you wouldn't believe me. You'd have to see for yourself, wouldn't you?
Lily shoots her boss, who then warns her with these dying words:
Listen to me, as if I were Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of Hell, I will tell you where to take it. But don't, don't open the box.
But, what fun is that? Lily obviously opens the box... and hell is literally unleashed. "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" fans will feel cheated since it's pretty clear that wasn't the first time someone burst into flames after opening a box that should have remained closed! [There's also the iconic 'whispering' that comes from the box... the madding sound that's the audio equivalent to ants crawling all over your body.]
Depending on what version you watch, Mike and Velda run out of the house to escape the inferno and watch in horror as the atomic holocaust consumes the beach house, those in the side and all of the contents... We are left with the question about what happens next - does the chain-reaction continue and incinerate Mike Hammer and Velda, and then the rest of the world? In the version, I've seen time and again, the Words "The End" flash across the screen as it's clear that this is literally "The End" for the whole world and spell certain doom for all mankind....
This is one of the few films that's terrific, but what it's theme is more important than the actual plot.
In the end of "The Maltese Falcon," Humphrey Bogart Sam Spade does the right thing and sends Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy up the river for killing his partner and her other crimes she committed while trying to reclaim "the dingus." On the way to the station with the police, she first rides the elevator down to the first floor of Sam's building, and Spade follows her down by taking the stairs - that symbolizes both of their decants into hell.
In the end of "Kiss Me Deadly," it seems that Mike and Velda are consumed by hell unleashed on Earth literally thanks to the foolish who have no concept of what they have and the scientists who refined this "atomic isotope" and made this final doomsday device. Granted, Hammer and Velda show up in other novels by Mickey Spillane, but for the sake of this movie, that's a moot point, (the novel as nothing to do with Atomic Energy) and it's pretty clear that these two either die or come very close.
"Kiss Me, Deadly" is the ultimate Film Noir film. Just as The Maltese Falcon is obviously about a treasure from the past, The treasure everyone seeks or is hiding in "Kiss Me, Deadly" is about the new modern atomic era or an object that's beyond the comprehension of those who have acquired the leather bound metal box that contains it. The object in the suitcase could serve as a metaphor for the fears and danger of the new atomic age and the entire film could serve as a metaphor for what could (and will) happen if science surpasses society's wisdom.
The whole movie is also the most metaphorical film about the 1950's - it's the perfect snapshot of that decade and everything that concerned people living in the Western World - communist spies working to get a hold of America's Atomic Secrets, Atomic power unleashed by the foolish, or the unknowing naive people who accidently get involved in the intrigue associated with it. It's also one of the first movies that touch on the subject of an American Government incapable of keeping secrets under wraps - "Kiss Me, Deadly" was once marked as "subversive" when it was first released.
"Kiss Me, Deadly" isn't a 'feel good' movie, watching this will make you depressed and ask yourself what's the point of living and building a life since everything can easily be undone and ruined by the actions and inactions of those a few degrees of separation from you. Complete strangers who you don't know and they don't know you hold your future in their hands and it isn't much you can do about it besides live in the moment and try not to worry. Seeing the darkness of the world in an artistic fashion is one of the "joys" of Film Noir.
Even though this is just a movie, you can't "unsee" a movie like "Kiss Me, Deadly" and you can't remove the movie's implications from your mind. Once touched by it, you'll be forever poisoned by it. But there's something entertaining about seeing how bad humanity can go, go to those depths with a motion picture of this kind and then when the movie's done you can get grab a breath of fresh air as if you had just dove deep into a pool of dark, cold water in the middle of a hot summer night. It's almost a relief to say 'gee, I'm glad life really isn't that dark,' and put your fedora and coat back and leave the theater to go back home, or shut the TV off before going off to bed.
But, you can't help but wonder... what's really going on at Los Alamos these days? And what ever became of those lost hard-drives that were misplaced years ago?
"Kiss Me, Deadly" might be more relevant now than it was when it was made, or that the thoughts and concerns that echo in this movie are still with us here today. There are still fears and concerns about what will happen when rogue countries and groups acquire atomic weapons of mass destruction... this was a perfect film to end the Film Noir era and a perfect film to chew over long after your last viewing.