Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels have long been one of my favorite Guilty Pleasures. Spillane’s books were the literary equivalent of knocking back shots of Jack Daniels with no chaser. The misanthropic Mike Hammer’s Sex & Violence filled adventures are rapid paced, testosterone fueled trips through a definitely un-PC world where men are men, women are sex objects, and blood and bullets flow freely through a dark, corrupt post-war world. Spillane turned the conventional detective yarn on its ear and, though critics hated his simplistic writing, the public ate up his books by the millions.
The film version of Spillane’s KISS ME DEADLY turns film noir on its ear from its opening shot of Christine Bailey (a young Cloris Leachman) running down a lonely highway, almost getting run over by Mike Hammer. The PI picks her up and the opening credits roll backwards to the strains of Nat King Cole crooning “Rather Have The Blues”. This beginning set-up lets us know we’re not about to see a routine mystery yarn, but something wildly unique courtesy of a promising young producer/director named Robert Aldrich .
The script by A.I. Bezzerides is as convoluted as a Spillane novel, though he changed much of the original book, much to Spillane’s displeasure. I’ll try to capsulize the goings-on without writing a novel myself: Mike Hammer picks up hitchhiker Christine Bailey, whom he discovers has escaped from an insane asylum. “Get me to that bus stop and forget you ever saw me”, she says. “If we don’t, remember me”. They don’t, as Hammer’s car is cut off, the pair are kidnapped, Christine’s murdered, and Hammer wakes up in a hospital bed surrounded by his girl Friday Velda and police pal Lt. Pat Murphy.
When he’s released, Hammer’s grilled by members of the Interstate Crime Commission, some bigwigs from Washington looking for clues. They know all about him: he’s a third-rate shamus who specializes in divorce cases, “a bedroom dick” who uses Velda for tawdry set-ups. Pat warns Hammer to forget the whole thing and revokes his PI and gun licenses so Hammer won’t go taking the law into his own hands.. fat chance of that! When Mike Hammer finds a thread, he pulls at it until he finds a string, and with the big boys from D.C. interested in this thread, he knows bigger things are at the end of the string.
That string leads Hammer to murder, kidnapping, torture, and brutality as he bulls his way forward, searching for “The Great Whatsit”. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, Sam Spade’s Maltese Falcon, Kane’s Rosebud, the device that the plot revolves around. Velda describes it perfectly: “Does it exist? Who cares! Everyone, everywhere is involved in a fruitless search for what?” In KISS ME DEADLY, it’s a mysterious suitcase, hot to the touch, containing radioactive nuclear material everyone’s after, with “deadly” consequences.
But it’s not the what that matters, it’s how Hammer gets there. The violence in this movie comes swift and savage, and is surprising for a 1955 release. The scene where Hammer’s followed by a thug, who he takes out, is shocking in its brutality. Aldrich pulls no punches, with one ferocious scene after another. The film was cited by the Kefauver Commission for corrupting the morals of America’s youth, prompting Aldrich to launch a letter-writing campaign in favor of free speech for independent filmmakers. Bravo, Mr. Aldrich!
Ralph Meeker plays Hammer as the ultimate anti-hero, a penny-ante goon bulldozing his way through the mean streets of LA. Meeker rose to fame in the original Broadway production of William Inge’s PICNIC, and soon landed in Hollywood. Never a major star, he nonetheless added a macho presence to tough films like BIG HOUSE USA, Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY, SOMETHING WILD, Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE DAY’S MASSACRE, and THE DETECTIVE. He also worked again with Aldrich in a small role as the Army shrink in THE DIRTY DOZEN . Besides the excellent TV version played by Stacy Keach, Meeker is my favorite of all the screen Hammer, and that includes author Spillane, who played his own character in 1963’s THE GIRL HUNTERS.
The movie features the film debuts of both Leachman and Maxine Cooper, who makes a sexy Velda. The other main female character here is Gaby Rodgers as the mysterious Lily Carter, who’s not what she seems. Gaby only made one other film before this, an indie called THE BIG BREAK, and did some TV appearances, but never appeared on the big screen again. It’s too bad, because she’s a standout as Lily, and would’ve added greatly to some films of the era. In real life, Gaby was married to songwriter Jerry Leiber , who penned rock’n’roll classics like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” with partner Mike Stoller. As of this writing, Miss Rodgers is still with us at age 88.
Tough guy actors abound in KISS ME DEADLY, including Albert Dekker as the sadistic Dr. Soberin, Paul Stewart as mobster Carl Evello, and a pair of Jacks- Jack Elam and Jack Lambert as Evello’s hoods. Other Familiar Faces are Wesley Addy, Fortunio Bonanova , Nick Dennis, Juano Hernandez, Paul Richards, Percy Helton , Leigh Snowden, and Strother Martin in a small role as a witness to murder. Frank DeVol’s music score hits all the right notes, and DP Ernest Laszlo’s photography keeps things dark and moody.
The only quibbles I have with KISS ME DEADLY are strictly as a Hammer purist. Moving the action from Hammer’s New York City base to Los Angeles seems sacrilegious, and having him use Velda for his sordid set-ups with suckers makes Hammer look like a douchebag. But I suppose I’ll have to grant Aldrich and Bezzerides their artistic license here, because for the purpose of this film it all works. KISS ME DEADLY is like a cinematic punch in the face, and the best Mike Hammer adaptation ever, despite my quibbles. I just wish I’d have kept all my Mickey Spillane paperbacks, because viewing this film and writing this post makes me want to dive back into the Sex & Violence-filled world of Mike Hammer once again!