Kiss Me Deadly
I am, quite possibly, one
of the biggest Mike Hammer
fans in the country. Who knows, maybe even the world. I have
read all of the books several times through. My copy of The
Big Kill is starting to fall apart. On a good day, I can
quote entire paragraphs from My Gun is Quick by memory.
So it's no wonder that I have been upset with most of the movies
and TV renditions of Mike Hammer to date. But in 1955, a now
revered film-noir classic was released, based off of Spillane's
novel Kiss Me, Deadly. It starred Ralph Meeker as the
vengeful private eye, and was skillfully directed by Robert Aldrich
(The Dirty Dozen).This spectacular film, while virtually
ignored when originally released, is film-noir at it's finest,
conveying the dark, unsettling feeling packed in each book by
Film noir, who those not in the know, is a classic
style of movie, dark, seedy and pessimistic to the point of melodrama.
Other films to dominate this genre include The Maltese Falcon
and Out of the Past. This is the way mysteries were meant
to be filmed. This is the atmosphere the greatest fictional
private eyes worked in.
So, what did I find wrong with the other films
and TV versions? Simple, really. They just didn't capture the
true essence of Mike Hammer. When Stacey Keach played Hammer
in a few made-for-TV movies and a TV series, he had the perfect
voice, but television is just far too censored to really get
Hammer's attitude and actions. In the mid-fifties, Darrin McGavin
portrayed Hammer on TV for three years, but this show doesn't
air anymore, and is hard to track down.
In 1982, Armand Assante took a swing at the role
in I, the Jury, approaching the character from a more
melancholy attitude. But in the novels, we see Mike on the verge
of insanity, rarely double-thinking his actions. While this
film is about as good as an '80s action movie gets, it deserved
a different title and character. It's not Hammer.
Other actors have tried to step up to the role
in the past, but if they had a decent film, they were a lousy
Mike Hammer. Or, if their Mike Hammer was any good, the movie
was usually ignored. Or sometimes, both aspects just plain
sucked. In an earlier version of I, the Jury (1953),
Biff Elliot was an adequate Hammer but the movie was hated by
critics and movie goers alike. Robert Bray took his turn in
My Gun is Quick (1957), with both his performance and
movie was ignored. Even the man himself, Mickey Spillane, took
a shot at playing his most famous creation in The Girl Hunters
(1963), and while he supposedly does a good acting job, the
movie was cartoonish to say the least.
Fortunately, Kiss Me Deadly shows Mikey
at his brutal, unstoppable best. Although set in sun-drenched
Los Angeles instead of the shadowy streets and dark alleys of
New York, this all seems to take the back-seat once the action
gets started. From relentlessly sadistic fist-fights to smacking
people when they don't give the "right" answer, Ralph
Meeker portrayal is dead on, pulling no punches, showing the
raw fury and violence that fills the character.
The screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides is right on the
money, as well. It opens with Hammer reluctantly picking up a
lady hitch-hiker, and discovering that she escaped from the local
asylum. Soon, Hammer is run off the road and knocked unconscious
by unseen thugs and goons. When he comes to, his car is being
rolled down a hill with him inside it, the dead hitch-hiker right
next to him. Bailing out of the car, he has enough strength
to get back up to the road, where help arrives.
The next morning, Hammer's warned not to muck around
with the investigation by the feds, and has his gun license revoked.
But he doesn't give a damn, and starts looking for the killers
Along the twisting trail of murder, violence and
the Mafia, Hammer punches, kicks and shoves his way into and
back out of trouble. He bucks the odds, bucks the system, and
discovers that a hidden container of weapons-grade uranium is
what everyone has been dying to get their hands on. But he still
has to find out who is behind the weapon's smuggling. The film
ends with a classic twist, one Spillane could have envisioned
This is where Bezzerides' script leaves Spillane's
novel far behind, carving its own path for Hammer. The screenwriter
uses the fears of 1955, and places them straight into the movie.
Changing Spillane's original vision of crooks and cops chasing
two million dollars to a frantic, scrambling search for a nuclear
weapon is straight out of a Cold War nightmare, making this film
all the more relevant and timely. Spillane's ideas work fantastically
for the time period of the book, and the film's new twist works
equally well for tsubsequent decades.
But for me, what makes this film a true winner
over the other adaptations is the way Hammer is portrayed. Meeker
may well have been a Spillane fan himself, as his violent take
on Hammer comes straight from the novels. He even gives a sadistic
sneer as he slams a man's hand in a desk drawer, a dark grin
that Hammer brags about in the books.
There are a few other incongruities for Spillane
purists, however, besides the change in settings. The biggest,
for me, is that Hammer is seen driving a sports car, where in
the books, he always calls his vehicle a "heap", making
one imagine a beaten-up, old sedan. This slight turn makes him
look a lot more successful in business then he ever was under
Spillane's pen, and diminished much of his underdog appeal.
The film also seems particularly dated at times,
especially when the characters start to run into the fatal box
of uranium. Whenever it's opened, it begins mysteriously glowing,
and emitting strange, growling noises. Hammer gets a mere burned
wrist from being too close to the box, not potentially fatal
radiation poisoning -- a quaintly amusing show of another era's
naivete. Back then, the audience feared the bomb, while the one
guy in the theater with a degree in physics was probably laughing
at the lack of research.
So, there are two choices that one can make upon realizing these details are as fictional as the story; you can either let it ruin the movie for you, or recognize it as a sign of the times, and go with it. At time where the biggest threat was nuclear war, a threat which held the country in panic for years, this film captures the spirit with incredible zeal.
Overlooked upon it's original release, Kiss
Me, Deadly still packs quite a visceral punch today, and
is now rightly regarded as a classic, and one of director Aldrich's
best films. This is how Spillane's great private dick-as-avenger
was meant to be; the embodiment of unrefined, never-ending fury
combined with just enough brains and balls to crack the case.
Showing Mike Hammer as something of an anti-hero and filmed
in pure noir style, how can you go wrong?
Yeah, maybe you should feel a little guilty that
you're enjoying watching the biggest bastard in film and books
beating people who don't deserve it. Maybe you should feel a
little guilty that you just loved seeing a film with such a depraved
But hey, it's fun.
KISS ME DEADLY....Buy
(1955, Parklane Productions)
Based on the novel by Mickey Spillane
Screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Produced by Robert Aldrich
Starring Ralph Meeker as MIKE HAMMER
and Maxine Cooper as Velda
Also starring Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Cloris Leachman, Gaby
Rodgers, Jack Elam, Strother Martin, Jack Lambert
Review submitted by Bryan
Schingle, May 2004.
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