“Kiss me, Mike.“
Film noir comes apart at the seams, stripped to its basics and exploded from the middle in Robert Aldrich’s apocalyptic masterpiece, screening this February at Sheffield’s Showroom. Kiss Me Deadly was released in 1955, 11 years after the accepted start of what we now call film noir, and towards the end of the initial cycle of films that trafficked in post-war moral ambiguity, lone wolves, dangerous dames and those expressionistic shadows. We open on a dark highway outside of Los Angeles, a woman screams in the road and a convertible, driven by private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), only stops to avoid a collision. The credits roll backwards and the woman is soon dead, tortured to death, while Hammer is packed up in his car and sent plummeting off a cliff to an intended death.
The PI survives though, as blunt and resilient as the tool for which he’s named. The police come calling, they want information, but Hammer won’t talk. He senses a score. So begins his quest for his “great whatsit” as a Cold War-adjacent scenario sees Bogart’s Maltese Falcon updated for the nuclear age. Hammer cannons around Los Angeles, not so much a smooth talker as a leering brute. He’s articulate enough, but mean and too dumb to know what’s good for him. Women are nothing but vehicles for information, men are to be brutalised into giving up clues, while the smartest player in the game takes tranquilisers to drop out.
Aldrich takes us to the long gone slopes of Bunker Hill, to seedy boarding houses and high class residences. He disorients us with dutch angles and small details which throw us off kilter — Hammer’s answering machine feels positively futuristic here. The director strips Noir to its basics and pushes it towards oblivion. The plotting, characters and bleak nihilism stay, but we are denied the world-weary poetry and courtly honour that usually helps the medicine go down. Ostensibly based upon Mickey Spillane’s novel, Aldrich pushes the noir hero breaking point and serves him up as a wide-eyed, bumbling agent of doom.