Kiss Me Deadly (1955) - Robert Aldrich
Does it get any better than this? That's the question a few critics have posed when discussing Robert Aldrich's incredible Kiss Me Deadly, made in the twilight of film noir, the dawn of widescreen, and in the peak of Cold War hysteria. A film noir without any movie stars, with a director few had heard of, and a budget that would make a Sam Fuller film comparable. Like any great film noir this one didn't get any recognition upon it's original release, at least here in the states. Few noirs did, the one major exception would be Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, nominated for 7 Oscars in 1944. Kiss Me Deadly by comparison received zero Oscar nominations but remained a cult favorite for decades quietly becoming part of the popular culture without many people ever actually seeing the film.
Mike Hammer here is played by Ralph Meeker an actor who remains a small footnote in film but had a rather remarkable career on stage. He took over the role of Stanley Kowalski once Brando left the show, and was the original lead in Picnic, but was passed over in favor of William Holden when it came time to make the film. Aside from Kiss Me Deadly, Meeker is probably most recognizable as one of the condemned privates in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. As Mike Hammer, I will boldly declare him the greatest of all film noir anti-heroes. The character is not likable in any way. He's a two bit thug, a bedroom dick, a user, and too dumb to even know what he's even trying to figure out. What makes him spectacular is his violence. He asks once nicely, even willing to shell out a few dollars, but if you keep your mouth shut, he'll just slap the @**% out of you until you start talking. He's a man who wastes no time and eventually has enough brains to figure out what he needs to know.
Robert Aldrich handles the action superbly. 1950's cinema began to develop a few characteristics and Aldrich's brand of directing seemed to be perfectly suited to Don Seigel who directed Invasion of the Body Snatchers a year later in much the same vein. Aldrich cants his angles and makes an entire film out of what we can't see. Action takes place off screen, and for almost the entire film we don't see who's behind all the action. A lot has been made about the infamous glowing box and what's in it. Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker) doesn't make things any easier for us or Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) who keeps asking what's in it. All Soberin can do is constantly remind us of fables of curious characters, when he finally says he'll tell her all he says is it's Medusa's head in the box and if you look you'll be turned to ash and brimstone instead of stone. He is deliberately vague about it and it angers us as viewers about as much as Lily/Gabrielle. We do however know more than Lily does at that time thanks to the few random words we were told when Hammer gave up the key. It is something atomic, not sure exactly what, but people are more than willing to kill for it and in the estimate of both Hammer and Lily that makes it incredibly valuable. Neither person has any idea what they'll do with it once they get their hands on it, but if everybody wants it, so do they.
Hammer's motivation comes almost more from a disparity in his own line of work. He wants something big not so much to maintain his dignity, but because he's tired of the dirty double life he is constantly leading. If this is a big score he can relax from the two-bit cases that he and his assistant/girlfriend Velda (Maxine Cooper). As he goes on he gets more and more violent because more and more people are becoming casualties. What he isn't aware of is that he's leading both the good and bad guys right to the package they're looking for, even if he doesn't yet know what the hell he's trying to find. His friends and allies might be crass and Hammer doesn't show a tremendous amount of emotion for any of them, just rage at whoever is behind it. As the film progresses though we do get more of a feeling that he may genuinely care about Velda but is hiding it behind a mask of macho indifference. Hammer is of a new generation of men who are unable to express any emotions aside from rage and violence. It makes him dangerous, but also makes him effective in finding out information.
Can't say enough about this, possibly the greatest of all film noirs.
Grade A +