Tuesday, July 5, 2011
L.A. "bedroom dick," Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a blonde in a trenchcoat named Christina (Cloris Leachman) that he finds running barefoot down a lonely road in the middle of the night. Shortly thereafter, his car is run off into a ditch, and he and his hitchhiker are abducted. The girl is tortured to death by unseen assailants, and both her body and the unconscious Hammer are put in his car and pushed off a cliff. Hammer survives and soon finds himself embroiled in a search to find a mysterious and valuable box - "the great whatsit" - a prize which he hopes will pay off big. Unfortunately, the slick P.I. is in over his head, playing a game far bigger than he can imagine.
Director Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides made no secret of their dislike of Spillane's novel and the character of Mike Hammer, who they perceived as a stupid thug. So their story portrays Hammer exactly that way, and ignores the various virtues of the literary version. In the film, Hammer is a sleazy operator who uses his secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) to entrap married men in sexual honey traps, enabling him to go to their wives with incriminating - and profitable - photos. Despite Christina being murdered while in his company, he doesn't pursue the case out of any noble effort to find justice for the girl; he just smells an opportunity to make a score. Like his literary counterpart, this Hammer is often violent, but unlike the Hammer of the books, he's portrayed as a cowardly sadist who only beats up on those weaker than himself.
The Mike Hammer of Spillane's novels is an occasionally brutal, rough-edged hero, while this film's version is almost the very definition of an antihero. The movie's Hammer is deftly summed up in one line: "What's in it for me?"
Despite this deliberate misrepresentation of the character and the filmmakers' choice to almost completely discard the novel's plot, KISS ME DEADLY does portray the dark, twisted, Fifties noir universe of Spillane's novels better than any other film or TV adaptation of his work. Aldrich's direction is appropriately slick and stylized, and the cinematography of Ernest Lazlo perfectly captures the shadows and stark contrasts that visually represent the story's noir milieu.
The Criterion Blu-ray edition features a gorgeous, 1080p HD, 1.66:1 widescreen transfer that has undergone extensive digital restoration, removing virtually all evidence of print damage, dirt or wear. Contrast and detail are extraordinary, and far better than any previous home video release. I've owned this movie on VHS, laserdisc and DVD, and it has never looked this good before. Audio is in its original mono, but has been cleaned up, eliminating all pops and background hiss.
Supplemental features include an audio commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursani, an odd video tribute to KISS ME DEADLY by REPO MAN director Alex Cox, excerpts from a 2005 documentary on screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, a featurette on the locations used in the film, the alternate ending, and a slightly shortened version of the Max Allan Collins documentary, MIKE HAMMER'S MICKEY SPILLANE (originally part of the author/filmmaker's SHADES OF NOIR anthology film) covering the life and career of the legendary author. Finally, there's a 22-page booklet with extensive liner notes and articles about the film.
Ultimately, Aldrich & Bezzerides' KISS ME DEADLY tries to be an indictment of Spillane's work that also attempts to blatantly exploit the author's fame and popularity. The result is an "anti-Spillane" flick that somehow manages to depict his particular worldview better than any other. If you own any of the earlier editions of KISS ME DEADLY, the new Criterion version - though a bit pricey - is likely to be the definitive edition for the foreseeable future. It looks and sounds amazing, and is well worth trading up to. If you've never seen the film, and have any interest in 50s film noir, it is essential viewing.
BUY: Kiss Me Deadly: The Criterion Collection [Blu-ray]
BUY: Kiss Me Deadly: The Criterion Collection