Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.
This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of a rough private investigator who’s more unethical than the scum he tracks down, the mystery woman he picks up on the side of the road, and the explosive ending that had to have inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Plus, it’s a perfect film to check out during Noir-vember.
Twelve years before directing the iconic Dirty Dozen, director Robert Aldrich was soaking in the muck and mire of noir. He was creating another icon – tackling a popular literary private eye with the adaptive care of a rabid porcupine breast-feeding a baby balloon. The two results were 1) a very irritated novelist in Mickey Spillane and 2) a damned fine film.
Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a young, beautiful hitch-hiker (the film debut of Cloris Leachman) on an unlit highway. She begins to shower him in the vague, possibly insane ramblings of her story, but they’re accosted by a gang of men and are soon careening fatally off a cliff. Hammer survives the ordeal and chooses to take on the case because he smells something big, and something big almost always comes with a pay day attached. His partner/lover/assistant/subject of his abuse Velda (Maxine Cooper) agrees to help him solve the case, but more people will die before the credits have a chance to run.
Harry Knowles included a viewing of Kiss Me Deadly (and the subsequent question of what part was the favorite) on his application for this year’s Dirty Dozen-themed Butt-Numb-a-Thon (the 24 hour film festival that challenges the mind and the gluteal muscles). Up until that application, I had only heard the whispers and rumors of what a phenomenal and surprising noir entry it was. Two weeks ago, I dove in head first and fell in love with the tried and true conventions and the hard left turns into the unconventional.
The first thing to know is that this isn’t the Mike Hammer you or your mother might know. He has rarely been more crude, callous and sleazy as in this film. Screenwriter A.I. “Buzz” Bezzerides’s treatment of the character was to remove any sheen he had that made him likable and replace it with a thick coat of caveman blood.
There’s no easy answer as to why the character works so well despite being a certifiable asshole. Maybe Meeker’s natural charm shone through, or maybe it’s the carnal response to a strong figure that takes what they want and commands fear instead of respect. Either way, it’s a great film to watch now during the current new fascination with the anti-hero. If they ever remade it, Robert Downey Jr would have to commit himself to being more cruel than he’s ever been on screen.
Even though they are physically and emotionally abused, it’s really the women that melt the screen. In one of her early scenes, Velda calmly tornadoes out of Hammer’s apartment by telling him to, “keep away from the windows…someone might blow you a kiss.” How perfect is that? They take the brunt of male aggression (it’s insinuated heavily that Hammer pimps out Velda sexually for information), it’s clear that the women are smarter than the men. Or, at least, they’re quicker with the comebacks and more compelling. The first time Hammer meets a gangster’s nymphomaniac moll, she kisses him deep and hard, then exclaims, “You don’t taste like anyone I know.” Genius. Just pure genius.
Beyond all the typical one-liners and Hammer’s incessant stealing of everyone’s cigarettes, this particular noir heads into unknown territory as our anti-hero searches for a box that everyone is killing to get their mitts on. What’s in the box? A shining example of atomic era paranoia. It’s the one thing that the entire planet was afraid of at the time the film was made, and when curiosity gets the better of an enterprising thief, it blows up in her face. Where the film leads – it’s crystal skull clear that it influenced the dramatic ending of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In fact, this film shares a fundamental quality with Raiders. Both take a genre-specific hero with strict genre rules, and place them inside a story that’s much, much larger than anything they would normally be in. Instead of a noir detective, Indiana Jones is a one-liner spitting, snake-hating adventurer. The artifact (like Hammer’s mystery box (another direct similarity)) turns out to be something of epic import. Something much more dangerously significant than a gold cross or old dusty book that belongs in a museum. Hammer and Jones are two high concept characters following the rules of their genre until they’re faced with saving the entire world instead of their small section of it.
There’s murder, violence, verbal coitus, tough words, alcoholism, the first on-screen answering machine, a hero that’s worse than the villains, and a political subtext that works even today. In a nutshell, Kiss Me Deadly is not just a great example of the genre. It’s a great example of film.
Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies
Take a shot of cheap whiskey and celebrate Noir-vember