Mike Hammer – in cinematic terms he never managed to sit at the main table and rub shoulders with the big hitters Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Mickey Spillane’s hard-boiled Private Eye wasn’t cut out to make the leap to the silver screen and vie for the public’s affections against the cerebral Chandlerian wisecrackers, with the knowing glance and razor sharp mind that Bogart so adeptly typified. If Spade was a cut above the war veteran street tough gumshoe then William Powell’s portrayal of Hammett’s ex-detective Nick Charles was in another universe entirely. Hammer was not cultured, he was like all suited men of the era, capable of scrubbing up nicely in fine tailoring, but Spillane’s writing had little whiff of the debonair or high life. It is telling that for many the Stacey Keach television series of the eighties remains one of the most reminiscent depictions of the character, however the most shocking outing for the PI on the screen was his sophomore outing from United Artists – Kiss Me Deadly.
1955 could hardly be considered the perfect era for noir, pulp fiction was still popular but the changing landscape of cinema, politics and society seemed almost destined to push the characters that inhabited that often predictable world of gumshoes and dames, fallen heroes and femme fatales into the shadows of a brighter Technicolor future. However for Robert Aldrich it proved not only the right time in his career, it was after all only his fourth film and he was coming fresh off the success of Vera Cruz, but also the changing landscape, coupled with a rushed script, actually served to work to his advantage.
The set up is pure noir, a dark road at night, an unnamed woman in a fit of blind panic runs into the oncoming traffic, desperate to flag down a ride, to seek help. A speeding sports car catches her in its headlights, Mike Hammer wrenches the wheel to one side and slides off the road, the woman rushes to what she sees as a lifeline, but Hammer has other ideas. He looks on the damsel in distress not as a person in need, the classic bait in any PI tale, but instead growls “you almost wrecked my car…..well!?” and views her with a sideways look of disdain, an obstacle in his way, a hindrance he hadn’t planned encountering. No pleasantries, no “what were you doing” or “are you alright”, he clenches his teeth and tries to restart the car before she makes up the ground between them. You see Aldrich’s Hammer isn’t that of the books, he is every dark, mean and moody thought Spillane ever put on the page, tripled and enshrouded in an overwhelming aura of nihilism.
“I should have thrown you off that cliff back there….I might still do it”
Adding to the sense that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill detective for hire tale is the somewhat inspired casting of a young Ralph Meeker for the title role. Limited in ability but picture perfect to depict a narcissistic, well toned wannabe dandy, more interested in the little fineries in life than the plight of those around him. His quiffed hair is a mile away from the Brylcreemed barnet of Biff Elliot in United Artists’ previous Hammer production I, The Jury two years prior. Meeker never made the grade as a proper leading man, though he was blessed to have appeared in a few classics along the road of his career, most notably Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Aldrich’s Dirty Dozen. Though like Costner’s Elliot Ness, the woodenness of the performance in places plays into the essence of the character. Who better to depict a two dimensional character but a two dimensional actor? To be clear, to call this incarnation of Hammer less than well rounded is not a slur on the characterisation but a happy deviation from the many all too emotionally complicated PIs, with their hero complexes shallowly veiled behind faux cynicism. They’d feign self centred apathy towards the troubles of others with a “dame, I don’t care” and a puff of their cigarette but ultimately you knew they’d become ensnared by a pretty face and the instinct to do the right thing. They were cops without the badges, men of justice in sharper suits and able to drink on duty, the differences were so often only skin deep. Meeker’s Hammer has little beneath that surface veneer of disdain for the pleasantries of social norms and graces. His sneer isn’t a falsitude, another disguise necessary to get to the end of a case, it’s real and with him for life. Meeker doesn’t need to hint at a secondary motive behind his character’s action, which made him fit the role like a glove, when he’s tough he isn’t playing tough, and when he’s using his knuckles he’s either mean or confused – in terms of emotions conveyed, this Mike Hammer’s facial range would make for a short game of Guess Who?
“Yesterday I was looking for a thread, today it’s a piece of string”
AI Bezzerides’ contempt for the narrative, and thus his rushed job, work to cut to the quick of Hammer and lay in place the foundations for all that follows. No sooner has he picked up the hitchhiker with a deathwish, Christina, than she has seen through his shallow façade, cheerfully looking to tear into his own self perception as if her words are knives cutting to the very quick of his being, saying “you’re one of those self indulgent males who thinks only about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself”, but this is not news to Mike – in true anti-hero style he is perfectly aware of who he is, his shortcomings are his own and have been honed by his own will for a reason. Bezzerides never attempted to layer this element with the classic cliché of a lonely figure, angry on the outside but secretly screaming for love, keeping the world at arms length because of a fear over what would happen if he let someone in, seeing the real him. No, no meta-layers here, he is what he is and that’s the way he likes it – the coiffured hair, the impeccable suits, the cars and the life, he is king in his own little world and abides by his own rules. Marlowe may rely on his wit to follow leads, Hammer offers money then his knuckles, in one scene proceeding to slam a greedy coroner’s fingers in a draw, grinning sadistically at the pain he’s causing. He may not set out to use violence, but Bezzerides’ haste in writing the script makes it a quick plan B, skipping sleuthing, tailing and picking bits of torn up paper from bins, and thus diverting the whole characterisation from the established genre norms, contorting him into a genuine anti-hero.
Thankfully hard luck befalls our protagonist, as a simple trip to drop the annoying girl at a bus stop would not be much of a story. Their car is ambushed, the girl taken and Mike finally placed in the car with the corpse of his one-time passenger and pushed over a cliff. He survives, but like any good detective he has the scent of a mystery and his bloodhound senses won’t let him leave it be, whether it nearly killed him or not. His doting secretary Velda is there by his side when he awakens in his hospital bed, and another glorious departure from standard PI lore is soon upon us. His relationship with his secretary/assistant who cares for him, either romantically or otherwise, is twisted further and further as the narrative progresses. We learn that their partnership hinges solely on Hammer, once again he makes the terms, and he uses Velda as a honey trap to ensnare rich husbands suspected of philandering and henceforth utilises the information to make his money. Like Christina, she can see the puddle-deep thoughts of Mike’s true motivations in life, knowing he isn’t after justice as the Hammer, as written by Spillane was, he merely wants to chase what he thinks will be something big; people don’t get killed in fake accidents for no reason, and if someone is willing to go to such lengths then there’s likely money to be made. When asked to step aside and allow the police to handle the investigation his reply is short and simple, “what’s in it for me?”
“You want to avenge the death of your dear friend. How touching. How sweet. How nicely it justifies your quest for the great whatsit.”
The era may not be the golden noir period, and it may not fit everyone’s idea of a PI story to see a gangster in a lacoste polo shirt rather than wearing spats, but the cinematography is up there with the best the genre ever had to offer. It is easy to see why so many were influenced by Ernest Laszlo’s work, as it marries up with the narrative wonderfully, from skewed shots of discombobulation to simple conversations given a unique framing twist, it remains a great example of invention and innovation, with shadows and light cutting across the screen as if prison bars of darkness holding the tension within.
The true beauty of the shift in era is the MacGuffin itself, Spade and co chased after jewel encrusted birds and wartime intelligence, Hammer goes after a similarly elusive prize which remains a mystery to all until the final reel, but when it is revealed it throws the entire story into a realm of sci-fi and apocalyptic magnitude that is far beyond mere petty gangsters chasing a payday. It is here that the film has become defined, perhaps unjustly so, by generations of film fans. The atomic message doesn’t permeate the entirety of the film like Gojira or become used as a pivot for a morality tale like The Damned, but yet it has seen to it that Kiss Me Deadly has become identified as a metaphor for post war nuclear paranoia. Bezzerides may not wish to take full credit for much of this, but the script seems to make the point about Pandora’s box and playing God enough times for it to appear structurally sound in orchestration. An early exchange between an unseen boss figure and his underling about what it means to resurrect a person starts this thread, “and just who do you think you are that you can raise the dead?”, and it only further unravels and interweaves with the simpler noir elements from there. Once again Velda gets one of the greatest lines, a mini speech aimed at Mike but seemingly permeating out of the screen and aimed perhaps at the burgeoning fear that drove a nuclear arms race and McCarthyism (Bezzerides was a lefty) – “they, what a wonderful word, who are they? They are the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search, for what?”
There are simple genre staples; sodium pentothal, tying the hero to the bed, unfathomably forward women, it’s just that the innovation always steers us away from safe ground no matter what the cliché. When Hammer is tailed he doesn’t just disarm his assailant, once the knife is gone from the creeping gangster’s hand Mike bashes his head in against a wall and proceeds to give him a tumble down a flight of steps even Father Karras would wince at. It is easy to see why the film has become somewhat identified solely as an apocalyptic vision, even if you dismiss the butchered ending whereby Hammer and Velda perish, the key themes of discovery and pushing beyond boundaries of knowledge are constantly underpinned simply because everything, every line of dialogue, takes on greater significance once you have witnessed the ending. As the box opens, and the sound of wind rushing and faint whispers swirl it is impossible not to see the correlation with the similar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. What starts out as a basic damsel in distress story forges itself in the furnace of atomic fear into a Promethean allegory, be it a girl taking a key, a gumshoe trying to horn in on a payday that was never his, a hood planning a resurrection, a collector trying to keep the wonders of the universe in a box or a femme fatale who just can’t leave the lid closed. Some secrets are best left undiscovered. Curiosity killed the cat, and it damn near killed Mike Hammer too.
“You didn’t know? Do you think you’d have done any different if you had known?”
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