Blockbuster.com says Kiss Me Deadly is "regarded by many critics as the ultimate film noir." I respectfully disagree. There are five or six noir films I can name off the top of my head (The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, you get the picture) that fit this magical "ultimate film noir" criteria way better than this 1955 movie. Don't worry - I assume none of you have seen this, so I'm keeping this one short. Also - and if you've been reading this site for a while, you know I rarely do this - I'm going to give away the ending for you. This is your final warning - on the off chance that you've ever heard of this movie and don't want it ruined for you, turn away now.
Kiss Me Deadly
Director: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman, Albert Dekker
Based on the Mickey Spillane novel of the same name, Kiss Me Deadly was made near the end of what is known as the classical noir period (1940's Stranger on the Third Floor to Orson Welles' Touch of Evil in 1958). This movie treats the conventions of noir differently than any other noir I've seen: the tough protagonist private investigator, Mike Hammer (Meeker), is a sleazy P.I. instead of an honorable one. Hammer is a divorce specialist who makes a living by conning couples into thinking their significant other is cheating on them. While Bogart always seemed to play detectives who weren't afraid to rough people up if the situation called for it, this Mike Hammer character beat the crap out of anyone who stood in his way. Not only that, but he relished in the violence. This dude had no sorrow for what he was doing - I'm guessing Machiavelli was on his bedside table. In one example, a guy tailing him comes at him with a knife, and Hammer gets the better of him in a fistfight. But instead of knocking him out cold or, I don't know, just walking away, Hammer takes one last punch at the dude and sends him flying down a set of 200 concrete stairs. He watches him tumble all the way down with no remorse on his face. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe would be disappointed.
I won't bore you with the details of the plot, since (in typical noir fashion) they are complicated as hell and the story winds in and out so many times I nearly lost track of what was going on. Basically, a woman named Christina escapes from a looney bin and nearly wrecks Hammer's car in the opening scene; he gives her a ride, but is promptly stopped by some thugs, sees Christina die in front of him, and is left for dead after he miraculously survives an explosion in his car. The story follows Hammer as he searches for the truth about Christina. He meets a chick named Lily, who claims to be Christina's roommate and is looking for a mysterious case. Surprise, surprise - she's not who she claims to be. Late in the movie when Mike finds the case in a locker, it is hot to the touch and emits a shrieking sound and light when opened (Mike barely cracks the lid before slamming it shut again).
And now, your Daily Dose of Nitpick. Lily doublecrosses her evil doctor partner in the end, wanting the mysterious contents of the case all for herself. She shoots him and he stands there and delivers a final speech before collapsing to the ground, dead. Mike rushes in, exchanges some banter with Lily, and then she shoots him at point blank range. He falls over, but apparently isn't dead. He has time to rescue Velda, his assistant and part-time love interest, from a closet before he guides her out of the exploding house. Nice continuity, guys - one dude gets shot and dies thirty seconds later, but the other (shot at a closer range, mind you) somehow wills himself out of the building?
But why did the house explode, you ask? Oh yeah, remember that case I mentioned earlier? Lily opens it like an idiot (after countless repeated warnings from the doctor), and is SET ON FREAKING FIRE when she stares into the light emanating from it. The entire room catches fire, eventually engulfing the entire house and causing a massive explosion the 1990's would have been proud to call one of its own. Mike and Velda avoid the Raiders of the Lost Ark treatment and end up safe on the beach outside, standing in the ocean and watching the explosion. End credits.
WTF? Like I said, this was unlike any noir I've ever seen. The contents of the box are a clear metaphor for the atomic bomb - the doctor character made multiple references to opening Pandora's Box, Lot's wife from the Bible...basically bringing up characters or people from history who have made massive mistakes that had fatal consequences. Remember, this was 1955 - Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still very much in America's collective consciousness. But including this box (kind of like an A-bomb version of the Pulp Fiction briefcase) into this story crosses the line from film noir into science fiction. Wikipedia refers to the movie as a sci-fi noir; I've heard that term thrown around for movies like Blade Runner before, but I've never seen it on display in a movie that disguises itself as a classic noir for the first 7/8ths of the movie before veering off so quickly into sci-fi territory.
Basically, this movie is all kinds of F-ed up. I knew it was going to be strange from the opening credits, which scroll up (think Star Wars intro) but backwards. (See example.) But I had no idea it'd be so off-the-wall insane. The threads that link one event to the next are thinner than dental floss, it has a blatant misogynistic slant (all the women are treated pretty horribly throughout), the minority characters are embarrassingly stereotypical (Nick, the mechanic, was the worst of the bunch) and it takes a turn way out into left field with its bizarre ending. This is hands down the darkest movie that I've seen in the genre. Most noirs are fatalistic and/or nihilistic, but this one ends with freaking nuclear annihilation! Would I recommend it? Only for the most loyal noir fans. I count myself as one of those fans (obviously), but I'm only convinced that this was worth seeing because of how batsh*t crazy it got towards the end. Until next time...