*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 15 – Kiss Me Deadly


15: KISS ME DEADLY: 1955. Director: Robert Aldrich. US.
Espionage/film noir thriller, with Cold War science fiction undertone. Ralph Meeker. Gaby Rodgers. Maxine Cooper. Cloris Leachman. Wesley Addy. Albert Dekker.
Very loosely based on the 1952 novel of the same name by Mickey Spillane. Robert Aldrich (1918-1983, filmography 1954 to 1974) was both director and producer, through Parklane Productions, although the distributor was United Artists. This gave him – and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (1908-2007) – greater control over the script, which might otherwise have been censored out of existence. Although both novel and movie start off much the same – with the girl Christina (naked under her trench-coat, played in the movie by new-comer Cloris Leachman, 1926-2021, who was actually several months pregnant at the time) running along the desolate, night-time highway – Bezzerides quickly “transformed the novel into an apocalyptic atomic-age paranoia film”, discarding Spillane’s mafia gangsters for a wacky assortment of spies and weirdos (“interesting characters” he called them) all seeking the ‘great whatsit’, a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of highly unstable nuclear material. Critics later described it as a “blistering nihilistic noir”, of “brute force savagery”, which “made no effort to follow the book’s convoluted plot”.
Time Out said it was “directed with baroque ferocity, superbly shot by Ernest Laszlo. In film noir terms, it’s a masterpiece of sorts”, while Meeker’s “dumb-ox honesty” gave the character “new resonance as an example of mankind’s mulish habit of meddling with the unknown regardless of the consequences.” Bezzerides himself said, “I wrote it fast because I had contempt for it. I tell you Spillane didn’t like what I did with his book. I ran into him at a restaurant and, boy, he didn’t like me.” While that may be so, it is perhaps one of those rare examples of the movie actually being better than the original source book – it certainly seemed more imaginative, moving from what starts out as routine (if rather nasty) film noir towards a totally unpredictable, cataclysmic science fiction finale. Love it or hate it, this has to be one of the most memorable of later American film noir, but for me, at least, because again – being shot on location around the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles, rather like To Catch a Thief – it gives us a delightful glimpse – a time capsule, almost – of a cityscape that has since mostly vanished. From the 1860s on this area had initially been developed with upmarket mansions, but, with the aftermath of the Second World War, cheap housing units had taken over, and with the construction of the nearby freeway, it became overcrowded and riven with crime – a much favoured place to be depicted in contemporary Hollywood film noir. However, already by 1955 the Los Angeles city planners were contemplating massive slum clearance and redevelopment, mostly undertaken by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). Fast-forward to the 1980s, and the hill itself was flattened, and some of the city’s tallest commercial skyscrapers were built there. Wikipedia lists the various film locations, including that of the famous Angel’s Flight tramway, at 3rd and Hill Streets. Many had already been demolished by the late-1960s. They are: Hill Crest Hotel, 3rd and Olive Streets – ‘Donigan Castle’, Bunker Hill Avenue – ‘Carl Evello’s mansion’, Deheny Road, Beverley Hills – Clay Street – the Club Pigalle, Figueroa Avenue – the Hollywood Athletic Club, W. Sunset Boulevard.
Brooklyn-born Frank Morrison ‘Mickey’ Spillane (1918-2006), alleged comic book writer and crime novelist, wrote thirteen novels featuring the ‘hardboiled’ private detective Mike Hammer character, the first being I, The Jury, published 1947/48, which sold 6.5million copies in the USA alone. The formula was sex and violence, with covers depicting scantily-clad women, although gradually in the 1950s the villainous gangsters were replaced by evil communists. The last Mike Hammer novel was Black Alley, in 1996. Kiss Me Deadly was the sixth novel, after which there was a 10-year gap. In total he sold 225million books, including the ‘Tiger Man’ novels (1964-66) and ‘Morgan the Raider’ (1967), together with sixteen listed other novels (two published after his death), and various short stories. He served in the US Army Air Corps in the Second World War, as a flight instructor, with the rank of Second Lieutenant. According to a number of websites, including Wikipedia, during the 1940s Spillane reputedly wrote comic book stories featuring Captain Marvel, Superman, Batman and Captain America. However, having consulted blogger and author Martin Crookall, who is something of an authority on golden era American comic books, he couldn’t find anything to support this claim. Indeed, his conclusion is the story originated from claims made by Spillane in an interview late in life. The origins, dates and their creators for all the above comic book characters are well documented. Our conclusion is this claim is a complete fabrication on Spillane’s part – maybe he was trying to pretend he wrote something more acceptable and ‘mainstream’? Or maybe he was just bullshitting.
In reply to the sniffy literary critics and the moralists who called his books “trash”, or “distasteful”, or him (and/or his character Mike Hammer) “a dangerous paranoid, sadist and masochist” or “a homicidal paranoiac”, he remarked “You can sell more peanuts than caviar.” Point made. He got a lot richer than his critics. He also did a bit of acting on the side, and in 1963 he actually played his character Mike Hammer in the British-made movie of his 1962 novel The Girl Hunters – which also featured Shirley Eaton, best known for her ‘golden girl’ part in the James Bond movie Goldfinger. He was married three times, and later lived on Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. He was both a fan and friend of the philosopher/writer Ayn Rand (1905-1982), who championed laissez-faire capitalism, and remains the ‘high priestess’ of the small- or even anti-government libertarians. That comes as no great surprise perhaps, given his anti-communist sentiments in his novels, but her rejection of religious faiths seem slightly at odds with Spillane’s apparent choice of religion – that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
So, from the same basic beginning, scriptwriter Bezzerides made various changes to the book, starting with moving Mike Hammer from New York to Los Angeles, and rewriting him from being an exceptional hardboiled sleuth into a “sleazy narcissistic bully”. The movie Mike Hammer is played by Ralph Meeker (born Ralph Rathgeber, 1920-1988), again originally a stage actor (from 1945 to 1965), whose filmography is from 1951 to 1980, and television appearances from 1952 to 1979. In the movie Mike Hammer doesn’t carry a gun – the reason given by LAPD police Lieutenant Murphy (played by Wesley Addy, 1913-1996), is his P.I. licence and gun permit has been revoked. In consequence, although held at gun-point, pistol-whipped, and shot, Hammer’s retaliation is almost exclusively with fists. But he thinks nothing of easily resorting to violence – beating up or signing off hoodlums, breaking a treasured phonograph record to get a man to talk, roughing up a coroner who tries to withhold a vital item in his relentless search for the MacGuffin. We also learn that Hammer’s regular income as a private detective is blackmailing adulterers, often with him or his secretary Velda Wakeman (played in her debut role in movies by the extremely sexy Maxine Cooper (1924-2009, actress, photographer and activist), setting up the honey-trap. The Hammer-Velda/boss-secretary relationship is blatantly sexual, but again with Meeker’s Hammer indifferent to her at any emotional level. This despite that she saves his arse a few times, although he does at least stop to rescue her from the exploding beach-house in the last reel, as they stagger away together into the sea moments before the ‘Big Bang’. Some of the best publicity stills feature Cooper in stretch-pants and a striped crop-top, tied into a bow between her breasts, her midriff bare. Taken together with the casual violence, and the underlaying sexuality, it’s no wonder that the Kefauver Commission – a government investigation into the cultural corruptors of American youth (for instance, comic books, rock ’n roll), thought the movie that year’s “most dangerous threat to the upstanding moral development and innocence of the nation’s youngsters.” Oh yeah, right.
Bezzeride himself was in danger of being blacklisted as a communist sympathiser. Albert Isaac Bezzeride (1908-2007, known to friends as ‘Buzz’) was a Turkish-born Greek-Armenian childhood immigrant to the USA. His 1938 novel The Long Haul was filmed as They Drove By Night, with Humphrey Bogart and George Raft. His first screenplay was Juke Girl, 1942, with Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan. He wrote numerous other screenplays based on source novels from 1947 to 1962, many for Warner Brothers, and later contributed to some well-known television serials, including Bonanza, Rawhide, 77 Sunset Strip and The Virginian. He also co-wrote the 1960 western The Big Valley, starring Barbara Stanwyck. Writing the Los Angeles Times obituary, Dennis McLellan wrote Bezzeride’s overriding thread was “human – essentially male – destructiveness to nature, to each other, to themselves,” but, despite his emphasis on the dark side of human nature, he himself was “gentle, big-hearted and generous.”
The part of femme fatale Lily Carver/Gabrielle was played by Gaby Rogers, aka Gabriella Rosenberg (born 1928), a German-Jew who moved to Amsterdam (where she apparently knew Anne Frank), before fleeing with her family to London, then the USA. She had only acted in one other film, The Big Break, 1953, but was a stage actress, journalist and director. She was married to lyricist Jerry Leiber, who wrote “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock” and “Jackson”. Albert Dekker – full name Thomas Albert Ecke Van Dekker (1905-1968) – played the film’s other bad guy, Dr G.E. Soberin. He was a character actor, previous known for starring in the title role of Dr Cyclopes (1940). Other notable films include The Killers (1946) and The Wild Bunch (released 1969). Paul Steward played the gangster Carl Evello, and Nick Dennis played Nick, Mike Hammer’s unfortunate auto mechanic.
Finally there is Mike Hammer’s office telephone answering machine (apparently a first for the 1950s movie viewing public)…It comprised a square metal panel on the wall, I guess to be about 18” x 18”, with twin speakers, an adjustable microphone, knob-like switches, and a tape-to-tape reel, together with a white box on the desk, next to the black Bakelite telephone itself. Totally, delightfully, 1950s-retro. What every office should have!
My own critical commentary dated 12/02/1988.
Nothing much subtle about the 1955 movie of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly either, a black and white film noir, and whose basic ingredient is implied sex and surface violence. Orwell’s essay No Orchards for Miss Blandish springs to mind. The plot has as many holes as a fishing-net. The anti-hero Mike Hammer (played to perfection by Ralph Meeker) is nearly killed in a crashed car, but still keeps any scars or injury well-hidden for the rest of the movie. He comes out of hospital, apparently five weeks later, but the girl killed with him is still unburied and the garage attendant’s memory is still fresh. The distinction between cops and villains is so blurred as to be virtually non-existent. They all talk the same, mostly words (in ‘street talk’ L.A. style) without actually saying anything. If anybody actually managed to communicate than the plot would have been seen for the crap it really is. Bodies pile up (seen and unseen – I counted ten at least), almost everyone getting bumped off Hamlet-style except the dumb cops who appear merely to rant and rave, then as the body count increases and the population decreases, go to ground again! Finally we have what surely must be the inspiration for Spielberg’s ‘Lost Ark’ – a box that is hot (yet sits in a leather case in a club locker) and emits rays, blinding light and explosive radioactive death when opened. A strange way, even in the 1950s, to transport atomic samples!
There are no good guys, just different shades in the hierarchy of greed, brutality and sadism. The cops hold the girl Christina naked in a nut-house. When she escapes the hoods torture and kill her. Hammer pushes a flick-knife carrying hood down a flight of stairs (although next scene he is miraculously uninjured) and joyfully murders his mates. Crepe-shoes drops a car onto Hammer’s mechanic friend – splat! Then gets shot himself by his wispy little blonde moll (a spooky Gaby Rogers), who also shots Hammer before blowing herself – and presumably everyone else this side of California – to bits by opening the box. The End. What a strange film. Spillane believed that civilisation is a thing of the past, that we have returned to the primitive violent world – a dark age with automobiles and Tommy-guns…
PS Why did I have to wait until the very last reel before Hammer’s whiny, pouting secretary got hers?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.