This post isn't technically a part of MovieZeal's Noir Month, but I thought I'd get all the noir I could into this month while my favorite blog was celebrating it. Head on over to Movie Zeal for another review of Kiss Me Deadly, and so much more noir.
Film: Kiss Me Deadly
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Robert Aldrich
Stars: Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it
Ignorance Rating*: Pending
"They. A wonderful word. And who are they? They are the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares."
Allmovie calls Kiss Me Deadly "the ultimate film noir." It's hard to disagree with them; the movie follows the perfect noir arc, as our private detective protagonist meets a dame, has the dame die on him, and then must travel through the underworld, acquiring contacts that die minutes after meeting him, in search of "the great whatsit." And our hero, Mike Hammer, walks a nice balance between classic noir heroes: he's half upright detective, half sadistic thug.
On the other hand, his name is "Mike Hammer." Get it? He's big and hard and hits people. Mickey Spillane is a well-regarded hard boiled writer (and Kiss Me Deadly is reportedly not terribly faithful to the source material), but he was certainly no Chandler, Cain, or Hammett. Kiss Me Deadly is the ultimate film noir because it takes every noir element - already a hyperbolic treatment of the standard pulp story - and ratchets it up even further. There's no subtlety, no confusion, and most of all none of the fascinating character development that makes the greatest noirs so compelling.
The only thing I'd seen Ralph Meeker in before Kiss Me Deadly was the Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart western The Naked Spur. I guess he specialized in dense sadists; his Naked Spur role was an amoral cavalry man discharged because he was psychologically unfit. Mike Hammer fits right in with that role; he looks and sounds bland, and is a somewhat improbable lady killer, but his eyes light up when he's asked to do physical violence to a human being (improbably, he never hits a lady. What kind of noir is this?). He also apparently likes blonds a great deal; his partner/secretary/girlfriend is absolutely gorgeous, a film fatale who works for him gathering information, and spends her spare time practicing her ballet moves. But like L.B. Jeffries of Rear Window, Mike doesn't seem to have much interest in "hammering" this gorgeous lady who's in love with him. Instead, like Hitchcock himself, he chases every single blond he comes across, including the damsel in distress who starts off the whole thing, her equally in distress roommate, and even the sister of one of the heavies who menaces him.
Even if you've never seen Kiss Me Deadly, the great whatsit will seem familiar when it finally appears on screen: it's a dangerous glowing box that shouldn't be opened. But if Kiss Me Deadly's MacGuffin appears in Pulp Fiction, Repo Man, and even Raiders of the Lost Ark, the movie is most similar to Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City. The body count is massive, the violence is sadistic, and the misogyny is palpable. Mike is like a slightly subtler version of Marv; he doesn't seem to be brightest detective, but he finds out what he needs to know by slapping, punching, and, in one particularly sadistic moment, slamming the coroner's fingers in a desk drawer. Like Sin City, Kiss Me Deadly is larger than life noir. It goes on a bit too long, it's completely lacking in subtlety, and it's loaded with violence. But if you like noir, it does represent one of the ultimate experiences, especially if you enjoy it painted with a broad brush.
*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.