Kiss Me Deadly - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1955

Director: Robert Aldrich

Production: Parklane Pictures; black and white; running time: 98 minutes, censored version 96 minutes; original length: 8,893 feet. Released April 1955.

Producer: Robert Aldrich; screenplay: A. I. Bezzerides, from the novel by Mickey Spillane; photography: Ernest Laszlo; editor: Mike Luciani; art director: William Glasgow; music: Frank Devol.

Cast: Ralph Meeker ( Mike Hammer ); Albert Dekker ( Dr. Soberin ); Paul Stewart ( Carl Eyello ); Juano Hernandez ( Eddie Eager ); Wesley Addy ( Pat ); Marian Carr ( Friday ); Maxine Cooper ( Velda ); Cloris Leachman ( Christina ); Nick Dennis ( Nick ).



Micha, Rene, Robert Aldrich , Brussels, 1957.

Higham, Charles, The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak , New York, 1969.

Combs, Richard, editor, Robert Aldrich , London, 1978.

Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, Robert Aldrich: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1979.

Salizzato, Claver, Robert Aldrich , Florence, 1983.

Piton, Jean-Pierre, Robert Aldrich , Paris, 1985.

Arnold, Edwin T., and Eugene L. Miller, The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich , Knoxville, Tennessee, 1986.

Maheo, Michel, Robert Aldrich , Paris, 1987.

Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films , New York, 1995.

Bogdanovich, Peter, Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Robert Aldrich, George Cukor, Allan Dwan, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Chuck Jones, Fritz Lang, Joseph H. Lewis, Sidney Lumet, Leo McCarey, Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Josef von Sternberg, Frank Tashlin, Edgar G. Ulmer, Raoul Walsh , New York, 1997.


Rivette, Jacques, "On Revolution," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 54, 1955.

Hollywood Reporter , 20 April 1955.

Variety (New York), 20 April 1955.

Monthly Film Bulletin (London), August 1955.

Fenin, George, interview with Aldrich, in Film Culture (New York), July/August 1955.

Truffaut, François, interview with Aldrich, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1956.

Jarvie, Ian, "Hysteria and Authoritarianism in the Films of Robert Aldrich," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1961.

Cameron, Ian, and Mark Shivas, "Interview and Filmography," in Movie (London), April 1963.

Motion , no. 3, 1962.

Chabrol, Claude, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1964-January 1965. Bertolucci, Bernardo, "Dialogue," in Action (Los Angeles), March-April 1974.

Ringel, Harry, interview with Aldrich, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1974.

Silver, Alain, "Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1975.

Legrand, Gérard, "Robert Aldrich et l'incompletude du nihilism," in Positif (Paris), June 1976.

Sauvage, Pierre, "Aldrich Interview," in Movie (London), Winter 1976–77.

"Dialogue on Film: Robert Aldrich," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1978.

Combs, Richard, in Listener (London), 14 March 1985.

Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1985.

Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 8, no. 3–4, 1986.

Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Spring 1988.

Telotte, J. P., "The Big Clock of Film Noir," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), no. 2, 1990.

Wood, R., "Creativity and Evaluation," in Cineaction (Toronto), Summer-Fall 1990.

Telotte, J. P., "The Fantastic Realism of Film Noir: Kiss Me Deadly ," in Wide Angle (Baltimore), no. 1, 1992.

Kiss Me Deadly
Kiss Me Deadly

Osteen, M., "The Big Secret: Film Noir and Nuclear Fear," in Journal of Popular Film , vol. 22, no. 2, 1994.

Hill, Rodney F., "Rememberance, Communication, and Kiss Me Deadly ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 22, no. 2, April 1995.

Kohn, Olivier, and others, "Hommage à Robert Aldrich," in Positif (Paris), no. 415, September 1995.

"What's New with the Great Whatzit?" in Video Watchdog (Cincinnati), no. 40, 1997.

Lucas, Tim, " Kiss Me Deadly ," in Video Watchdog (Cincinnati), no. 42, 1997.

Riordan, P.M., "Atomic Blonde," in Filmfax (Evanston), no. 63/64, October/January 1997/1998.

Thomson, David, "Deadlily," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 33, no. 6, November-December 1997.

* * *

The end of a particular stylistic period, in film as in the other arts, is often marked by a few masterpieces whose dizzying complexity seems to carry the style as far as it can be taken. Just as the end of the Romantic symphony is marked by Mahler's last few works in that form, and the end of Hollywood silent cinema is marked by films like Sunrise and Street Angel , so at the end of the film noir period come the two ultimate examples of the form, Touch of Evil and Kiss Me Deadly. Kiss Me Deadly is also in many ways, the ultimate film of 1950s America, with its themes of speed, money, power, sex, and the atomic bomb intertwined in a tale of a detective who becomes an extortionist in an attempt to turn a chance discovery into personal gain.

The film's night-for-night opening sets the tone: A woman dressed only in a coat appears out of the darkness on a lonely highway. She forces a car driven by Mike Hammer to stop, and as they drive one is aware of the loud drone of the engine and of the disorienting darkness, in which the disembodied lights of distant cars and the white lines of the road are virtually our only co-ordinates. What is established here is worked out in detail during the whole remainder of the film, in a soundtrack which uses a variety of noises of violent intensity and intrusiveness, and in imagery which uses light/dark contrasts utterly to undermine stability.

Hammer, happening on a plot involving the theft and attempted sale of fissionable material, does not know these specifics until the film's end. He guesses only that he has lucked on to "something big," and that "a piece of something big has got to be something big." He follows his thread through a befuddling labyrinth of bizarre characters, common in Spillane's detective fiction, which finds its visual equivalent in the film in a panoply of foreground objects, bizarre shifts of camera perspective, and highly disjunctive editing. The camera follows Hammer down a dark street; suddenly a brightly lit newsstand comes into the foreground, utterly transforming the space. We see a beachfront fight from eye-level, and then cut to an extreme high angle. In many compositions, oblique camera angles combine with cluttered foregrounds to produce oddly asymmetrical spaces. The effect of these devices is to place the viewer in a world utterly different from that of Ford, or Walsh or Hawks. In their films, paradigms of the classical Hollywood style, the consistency of the relationship between earth and sky, or between the bodies and body-movements of the characters, serves as a kind of fixed basis against which all deviations of movement, behavior, and image may be judged. In Kiss Me Deadly , on the other hand, we are plunged from the opening images into a world utterly without ground, without stability, without predictability, in which the only constant is the ability of the image to suddenly transform itself into another, very different one. Space, and the objects that fill it, are presented as physically malleable; there are no absolutes. The noir themes of violence, paranoia, and despair, and the visual motifs that accompany them, are here carried to a visionary extreme that becomes a total world-view. This is a realm in which there can be firm basis for moral judgements, and if the film ultimately renders a negative judgment on Hammer's self-serving quest, it does so more because of the actual ugly consequences than because of any fundamental belief.

In a universe without belief, one lives for, and celebrates, the senses. Aldrich, and A. I. Bezzerides in his brilliant script, present the ethos of 1950s America quite brilliantly. Nick, Hammer's Greek auto mechanic, uses the phrase "Va-va-voom—pow!" to express his attraction to Hammer's fast cars and his interest in picking up "a couple of Greek girls"—and yet, in that phrase, the film's whole plot finds epigrammatic expression. Fascinated with speed and sex, the men who pursue both often wind up endangered, injured, or dead; Nick's "pow" is not only the thrill of moving at maximum speed, and the thrill of orgasm, but also a forecast of the explosion that ends the film, itself only a hyperbolization of the film's earlier small explosions. The script's mythological and biblical references contrast a modern world without values and a heroic past whose heroism is now rendered, in the fragments of fables we hear, as empty actions almost devoid of meaning.

In one of the film's many small brilliant touches, a boxing promoter sees Hammer and tries to get him to bet on his latest fighter. Hammer suggests that the promoter will ultimately have the fighter throw his big fight, as he had in fact done in the past, because there's more gambling money to be made that way. The promoter replies, "not this one." Later, near the film's end, Hammer, drugged with "truth serum," is tied to a bed and interrogated; he soon manages to outwit and murder his captors. During this section, we hear the sound of the big fight on the radio; at the end, the fighter who had been winning suddenly loses, presumably "throwing" it. This is more than simply another of the venal betrayals that dot the film; it is an example of the way that the film's quest, for speed, sex, and power, must, since it is a quest without moral basis, ultimately turn back on itself, annihilating all the seekers.

—Fred Camper

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