Kiss Me Deadly
Review by Bryan Schingle

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 Spillane.

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 himself.

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 himself.

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 lead character.

But hey, it's fun.

KISS ME DEADLY....Buy this DVD.....Buy this video
(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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