Kiss Me Deadly

Dir: Robert Aldrich, 1955. Starring: Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman. Film Noir.
Kiss Me Deadly

In the world of noir a good mystery is so much more about the journey than the destination. I couldn’t really explain to you what was happening through every scene of Mulholland Dr. or who did what in The Big Sleep but those films are such superb examples of atmosphere as a blueprint for understanding the director’s vision that nothing is lost by not understanding every last scene or plot twist contained within. A first rate noir is more than the sum of its double crosses and knifed backs. In fact without that brilliantly unnerving atmosphere it’s just another run-of-the-mill whodunit. Noir is atmosphere certainly more than it could be called a kind of plot which is why films as conceptually different as Sweet Smell of Success and The Killing are both considered to be part of the noir canon. Kiss Me Deadly is director Robert Aldrich’s adrenaline charged mystery set in a mid-'50s Los Angeles of sun-seared nuclear paranoia. It's a detective story but it’s also about an era of America defined by its paranoia over the possibility of impending nuclear holocaust.

Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) is a hot shot Private Investigator who makes his living snooping around and catching people with their pants down. He’s the one that the jilted wives of L.A. go to when they want proof that their husbands are cheating. It’s a dirty way to make a living or so he is constantly told but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s out for his own gain. He likes cocktails, race cars, women, and his unbelievably cool apartment. If he had a code of ethics it probably boils down to “the ends justify the means.” A woman on the run winds up in Mike’s car one night and before too long he is embroiled in a mystery that ensnares gangsters, the FBI, a murderous blonde, and pretty soon the fate of the entire world. Everyone is after what Hammer’s girlfriend terms, “the great whatsit.” When it’s found it takes the fatalism of noir to a whole new realm.

You might lose track of the zigzag plot of Kiss Me Deadly or I did anyway. Everyone is hiding something and Mike Hammer’s search gets more and more complicated the deeper he gets into the mystery of “the great whatsit.” Ultimately, though, the real essence of noir comes to the forefront of the film and the last five minutes are probably the most electrifyingly insane in all of 1950s cinema. You could even call the film a deconstruction of noir wherein the “great whatsit” is fully revealed to mean nothing and everything.This is pulp cinema for the Atomic Age.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jul 7, 2011 5:04pm
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