The Criterion edition of KISS ME DEADLY has a nifty commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini, who’ve written about film noir, that does a great job of driving home the point that the filmmakers really hated the source novel’s attittudes about life, politics and crime. In a case similar to that of CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (Tom Clancey bitched about the movie makers softening his work, making the villains less politically-charged), Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides (the second the subject of one of the extras) took the book’s plot and left the themes and point of view behind. So what began as a commies-suck/America-first two-fisted tale of a detective the dames can’t keep their hands off becomes a criticism of misogynistic crime stories. Unlike such a movie would be like today, though, the message is there if you want to hear it, and if you just want to follow the crime story, you can do that, too.
Ralph Meeker is so good as Mike Hammer that even Mickey Spillane eventually came around to admitting he’d done the best job. Bezzerides altered the McGuffin from the book’s bags of drugs to a Nuclear Whatzit that pushes this over into sci-fi territory in the last twenty minutes. The ending is a case of the film community’s quest for ‘the director’s vision’ ending up biting them in the collective ass–for years, the ending was thought to be a nuclear apocalypse that kills everyone (and probably wipes out the west coast), but the ‘lost’ ending shows that it’s just one house that blows up. All that talk about the nuke holocaust that arises from a little film noir was just wrong. But Ursini and Silver do a good rescue job of it and say the characters probably ended up dying of radiation poisoning.
Robert Aldrich’s direction and Ernest Laszlo’s photography create one of the hardest-edged of films noir. Laszlo uses odd angles to show Hammer overwhelmed as often as he’s in command. The movie takes place in a hard-edged night world of maze-like staircases viewed from above and things half-seen, like Cloris Leachman’s legs as she’s being tortured to death, that suggest more than they show, keeping the horrors alive in the viewer’s mind. When we actually see the violence, it’s brutal enough to suggest worse things–a battered thug is tossed down a long flight of stairs, an uncooperative doctor has his hand slammed in a drawer (an effect marred by poor use of dubbing).
KISS ME DEADLY is one of the great crime films, as important in its use of brutality and an unlikable main character as THE MALTESE FALCON was in its own way. If anything, it’s underrated.