It seems scarcely credible that Kiss Me Deadly is over 60 years old. It still carries a punch with its brilliant camerawork and editing and its story about a brutish man in pursuit of what turns about to be a disturbing pre-echo of a contemporary scare, referred to in the film as “the great whatsit”.
Mickey Spillane, author of the original novel, died in 2005. His obituaries faithfully recorded his enormous popularity in the 1950s with millions of paperbacks sold and the establishment of the aptly named Mike Hammer as a certain kind of American hero. Misogynistic and fascistic, Hammer is a private eye who blunders his way to a ‘solution’ of each case with excessive violence – about as far from Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe as you can get. Spillane had a strange relationship with Hollywood, appearing both as himself and as Hammer in a couple of films and also seeing his stories and his hero taken on by an unlikely group of filmmakers.
Victor Saville was a well-known British director who began making films in the 1920s, was successful in the UK in the 1930s and went to Hollywood in the 1940s as a producer-director for MGM. In 1953 Saville formed Parklane Pictures and bought the rights to four Mickey Spillane novels, simply on the basis of their popularity. He directed two of the films himself (The Long Wait, 1954 and My Gun is Quick, 1957) and produced the other two (I, the Jury 1951 and Kiss Me Deadly). The films made very good profits and Saville next identified Ian Fleming novels as similarly lucrative properties, but was too early into the market and couldn’t make an appropriate deal with United Artists.
Kiss Me Deadly was less commercially successful than the other Parklane films, but it has gained a high critical reputation as one of the two great ‘late period’ films noirs (sharing the honour with Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1957)) and credited as a major influence on the directors of La nouvelle vague in France at the end of the 1950s.
Robert Aldrich (1918-83)
Parklane hired producer-director Robert Aldrich to make Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich was from a wealthy Eastern family of bankers, but he turned out to be one of the most radical filmmakers in post-war Hollywood. University-educated, he got a job at RKO through a relative’s influence and learned his trade as an assistant to directors such as Jean Renoir, William Wellman, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, Lewis Milestone, Charles Chaplin and Joseph Losey. He made several programmes for television in 1952-3 and directed four features before 1955, including two Westerns for the Burt Lancaster-Harold Hecht company, Apache and Vera Cruz (both 1954). These early films helped introduce a new kind of ‘tough’ and more ‘realistic’ Western with a focus on the Apache and American incursions into Mexico. Aldrich and Lancaster returned to similar territory with Ulzana’s Raid (1972) an unsettling film with clear references to Vietnam. Aldrich was a radical who enjoyed turning Hollywood expectations upside down. He must have been intrigued with the possibility of Hammer as hero/anti-hero on a quest in a world with no clear moral order. Ralph Meeker turned out to be perfect casting for Hammer and Aldrich went on to become the leading ‘tough guy’ action director of the next thirty years.
The script with its witty one liners and ironic references to high culture is by A. I. Bezzerides, writer on pictures for Bogart, Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum and another leftist to dismay Spillane. The wonderful cinematography is by Ernest Laszlo, a regular with Aldrich and later Stanley Kramer, who had previously lensed the film noir D.O.A. (1950) and Jo Losey’s remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1951). With art director William Glasgow, also an Aldrich regular, he created the first ‘modern’ noir.
Was this the film that also introduced the phrase ‘va-va-voom’ from an unfortunate who went va-va-boom ? It certainly inspired ‘Repo Man’ from Alex Cox, seen again fairly recently at Home in Manchester, with an introduction which shared the fascinating nugget that Cox was most recently employed as a firefighter in Oakland, California. A sad end to an iconoclast.
I can’t verify the line of dialogue but I wouldn’t be surprised. I actually wrote the notes in the piece several years ago but I do remember thinking how ‘modern’ the narrative still felt.