KISS ME DEADLY—-Mike Hammer Vs.Radiation. The hardest boiled private dick of all, courtesy of Monsieur Mickey Spillane, on a case for a case that contains something so ominous it could blow everyone’s cover.
En route to minute 106 are dames to be insulted and lip-locked, policemen to be snubbed, and a plethora of slapping and socking of thugs (and anyone else who doesn’t cough up answers quick enough). Funny because it’s so utterly ridiculous, thanks not just to the un-hero’s heelness (Ralph Meeker) and the story line, but to Robert Aldrich’s inspired direction, which makes everything so heavy you’ll roll on the floor at the dense emptiness of it all.
Seriously rough for 1955, and even today the violence comes off gratuitous. Taken straight, it’s absurd, but the arty cinematography of Russell Metty , beyond-taste attitudes in the stylized dialogue and overall soak in ooze make it good for laffs. Done on the dime for $410,000, the bruiser greased $952,000, reaped scathing reviews and rebukes, including an indictment from the Kefauver Commission, which saw it as ruinous to America’s youngsters (what wasn’t?). They actually deemed it the ‘Number One Menace to American Youth for 1955.’ The initial backhands have turned into near-universal gushes of praise. Warranted? *
Aside from Meeker, the cast is a mix of good and bad (and plenty of ugly), with some awful delivery of the awkward dialog. Fitting with the essential ick of Spillane’s world and Aldrich’s dour imp everyone in this caper is unattractive. On the performance scale, the men fare somewhat better than the ‘dames’. Albert Dekker displays affect in his brief scene, Paul Stewart and upcoming bad guy Jack Elam are okay, Wesley Addy and especially Nick Dennis overdo it. Percy Helton squeals like a pig. Other bits are handled by Juano Hernandez, Jack Lambert, Fortunio Bonanova, Robert Cornthwaite, Bing Russell and Strother Martin.
On the distaff side, the lineup of molls who inexplicably throw themselves at the charmless Hammer are (with one exception) hard-looking, amateurish second stringers who faded quickly: Maxine Cooper, Gaby Rodgers (terrible), and Marian Carr. Only Cloris Leachman (in her feature debut at 29) would go on to success, toiling unsung for another sixteen years before finally breaking big with her 1971 Oscar for The Last Picture Show. She starts the tawdry, sluggish tale off with a weird flair, then gets one of the 50s most disturbing murders (off camera, but suggestive of something wretchedly sadistic involving tools).
While lovers of this movie cite it as Ralph Meeker’s high point (as a low-life), it may well have cost him a bigger career. With a prestigious buildup from Broadway work and eight films under his belt (best The Naked Spur), the 35-year old riser turned down Picnic, which he’d scored on stage, for this and another nasty crime flick, Big House USA. William Holden got Picnic, which was a huge hit, while this and Big House USA flopped, and shortly thereafter Meeker’s slot as leading man was over. He did notably fine supporting work in Paths Of Glory, and kept busy, alternating TV gigs with token work in movies (the flustered shrink in The Dirty Dozen), but Hammer nail-gunned his shot at the brass ring.
* This is one of those times where I just have to copp to being a dope (even while believing everyone else has eyes full’a wool) because I’m only mildly entertained by this ‘classic’. Someone needs to bring out the pliers or bat me down a flight of stairs, as while I appreciate the camera angles, some bits of performance and various moments it just doesn’t shake me like it’s apparently supposed toThe man who wrote the script, A.I. Bezzerides, clears it up: “I was having fun with it. I wanted to make every scene, every character, interesting…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.”
Spillane’s book sales of the eleven Hammer’s and other lofty tomes came to a jaw-breaking two hundred twenty-five million copies. Western Civilization sags. Enjoy away, come up with your own superlatives to add to the mountain heaped on this molehill. Like Mike Hammer, I gotta walk away from this case, shrugging.