Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Robert Aldrich, "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955)

Director Robert Aldrich is famous for having made a number of classics, including The Dirty Dozen (1967), Flight of the Phoenix (1965), What Ever happened to Baby Jane (1962), and The Longest Yard (1974). Born in Rhode Island in 1918, he was the first cousin of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He was known to be rare auteur among filmmakers working in the Hollywood studio system. Despite working in many genres, he was always able to stamp his distinctive mark upon the work. In my opinion there's no better example of this unique facility than Kiss Me Deadly, a late-period film noir starring Ralph Meeker.

While the movie is based upon a story by famous pot-boiler mystery writer Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me Deadly takes the character of private dick Mike Hammer, and adds new hues to his legend. By the time the film was created, the flatfoot detective had been notably portrayed by Biff Elliot in I, the Jury (1953). Later on, actors as diverse as Robert Bray, Stacey Keach, Armand Assante and Spillane himself played the role. Hammer was originally written as a brutally violent, misogynistic, and opportunistic man. While other directors seemed to sand out some of Hammer's rough edges, Aldrich made sure to depict him as Spillane had intended. He's the kind of guy that Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler would have avoided portraying as the "hero".

Meeker seems tailor made for the role. His vaguely thuggish appearance and generally cynical attitude make the events of Kiss Me Deadly seem quite convincing despite the sometimes outlandish plot. While we are used to seeing the flawed protagonist gumshoe in the noir genre, we rarely see anyone quite as unredeemed as this version of Mike Hammer. He basically pimps out a girl that adores him in order to blackmail a series of cheating spouses. He's seemingly willing to sell out any loyalty to advance his own underhanded purposes. Unlike more representative anti-heroes within the genre, Hammer's not even very particularly complex or subtle in his tactics. Throughout the course of the story we see him murder several men without hesitation or reflection. At other times he simply employs violent tactics and threats to get the information he needs. Most notably he has nothing but contempt for law enforcement. Instead of half-heartedly assisting the authorities, he both actively undermines them, and inadvertently mucks up their operations.

Yet at the same time Aldrich's Hammer seems to be a genuine man of the people. It is clear that he extends his social network beyond the conventional parameters of the time. He has associations from multiple minority groups that make us a bit forgiving of his manipulative ways. But through these connections we get an exposure to a fairly wide spectrum of the criminal L.A. underworld. There are crooked boxing promoters, apparently strung-out wenches, garden variety thugs, and wickedly colorful mafioso types. In fact some of the latter group (Paul Stewart and Jack Elam) would look completely at home on an episode of The Sopranos. Even Hammer's cop acquaintance (played by Wesley Addy) looks like he's no stranger to the demimonde.

This entire collection of folks is tied together by the search for an unidentified object of great value. The irony is that so many of the players in this gritty drama experience a range of harsh treatments in the service and pursuit of the unknown. Despite the fact that the most vicious injuries are delivered off screen, we are left with no doubt about the horrific sufferings that are visited upon them. Even without explicit violence, we are left with the impression that Aldrich has pulled no punches in the telling of this story. When we finally discover what everyone has been fighting over, it comes as a complete surprise (which I won't ruin here). Kiss Me Deadly is very much a statement on the contemporary concerns of the period during which the film was made. There is an obvious allegory that becomes clearly drawn by the final scene. And the finale is truly striking.

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