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Ah, film noir!
I do love a good noir and this time it was an extra good treat.
“Kiss Me Deadly” is a curious film because I really should not be impressed. Where a movie like “Bob le flambeur” was looking ahead and merely referencing film noir “Kiss Me Deadly” is embracing the format so completely that it feels retro. Stylistic and thematic it could have been from the mid to late forties and not as it happens from 1955.
Why is it then that I completely love this movie?
I actually do not mind looking back as long as you respect the source and do your job well and man, this is certainly the case here. Robert Aldrich of later fame obviously went in to make a real noir and went full throttle. The result is a movie that is as dark as any noir, as hardboiled as they get and as totally confusing as a good noir should be. But first of all this is a movie that kept me superbly interested from start to finish, one of those movie that just fly by in a rush.
Let us start with the darkness. Film noir is by definition dark, but Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is shadier that most noir “heroes”. He is tough, yes, but he is also seriously flawed. At times unpleasant as we notice in the opening when he is outright rude to a women in clear distress, often violent and with a very strong what-is-in-it-for-me attitude bordering on greed. His biggest vice in this story however is that he does not know when to back off. That sort of stubbornness is usually rewarded in movies, but here it is punished hard. It seems to be a point of the movie that Mike is out of his depth big time and that this leads him from disaster to disaster. There is no true happy end in a noir and that is also the case here. Did they just unleash hell in the end sequence? Maybe, but even if it is not that bad it is bad enough. A runaway nuclear reaction is no joke.
It is easy to compare Mike Hammer with Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep”, “Murder My Sweet” or “The Maltese Falcon”. These characters are all made from the same mold as tough detectives staying calm in the murky waters of the underworld. None of them have a clear picture of where things are heading, but they all possess a toughness that carries them through. The main difference is that Ralph Meekers Mike Hammer lack the charm and elegance of Bogie or Dick Powell. Mike is a lot more bad boy and less likable. It is only when his friends have to pay for his actions he steps into character and becomes the hero. Until then he is just an opportunist. He has a partner, Velda (Maxine Cooper), who is clearly in love with him and jumps when he says jump, but Mike is quite blasé about here and seems to exploit her willingness to get her to do all sorts of unsavory jobs. The same can be said about his mechanic friend Nick va-va-voom (Nick Dennis).
The case Mike gets involved in is completely confusing. We do not get it and so we are in the same situation as Mike. Names are dropped here and there and that is all he and we have to go with. We do not even know what the case is about except that people are disappearing. Why, is a big open question. There is a mysterious voice belonging to a pair of shoes but we never really learn who it is. Or maybe we do and I missed it. That is actually a good enough excuse to watch the movie again. Does it belong to Dr. Soberin, the man Mike’s trail eventually leads him to, or is it in fact Police lieutenant Pat Murphy whose voice is remarkably similar and who is quite insisting about getting Mike off the case?
In any case the trial lead to a mafia like gangster, complete with henchman, another lady in distress, contacts scared mindless from intimidation and several attempts at Mike’s life. This is a classic example of the road there being more important than the target. Every step of the way Mike gets hints that maybe this rests better with the police, but yield very little information on how these people are involved or what this is all really about. Mike has an idea that it is big and that Christina, the girl he picked up in the beginning wanted to give him something, but he is as surprised as we are when he find out what it is. In a way he does not find out what it is, only that whatever it is, it is bad bad bad.
It is this dangerous labyrinth that is so magnetic. Where does it lead? What the hell is going on here? And that is meant in the best way possible. Mike is dying from curiosity and so are we.
That bring us to the main attraction, at least for me. This movie is so damn watchable. I loved it and I could not let go of it. Noir galore. In 1955 film noir is almost a thing of the past but it is at this point the genre is perfected. Yes, “Kiss Me Deadly” is retro, but it is also a top notch example of a well proven concept and if you want something new then you get the hardboiled detective biting over more than he can manage. That is a new angle.