Saturday, 25 June 2011
Kiss Me Deadly
Starring: Ralph Meeker
By Alan Bacchus
Film noir is a well established genre – dark crime tales usually involving ordinary guys caught in tangled webs of intrigue or crime, visualized with dark shadowy cinematography. Often low budget with tier B actors, the sexuality and violence became the attraction rather than star power. Kiss Me Deadly, considered one of the greats, is now immortalized by The Criterion Collection. It’s familiar territory, as described above, dramatizing another hard boiled crime story from writer Mikey Spillane. The film is also famous for influencing Quentin Tarantino’s glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction, Alex Cox’s glowing trunk in Repo Man and Steven Spielberg’s mysterious Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It certainly has the noir mood and tone. But unfortunately, other than its historical significance and the usually terrific Criterion treatment, it doesn’t age well.
Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, an L.A. private eye who picks up a mysterious hitchhiker named Christina (a young Cloris Leachman). He then gets into an accident by the forced hand of an unknown assailant. When he wakes he finds that Christina has died. With the help of his local P.I. colleagues, Hammer embarks on a dangerous investigation into the accident and discovers a dark and dangerous magical maguffin that’s the root of all this criminal activity.
Two thirds of the film moves with the pace and excitement of a Law & Order episode. Hammer interviews several friends and colleagues trying to track down the source of Christina’s disappearance. Along the journey Hammer evades the usual shadowy but unimpressive henchmen. Hammer is no wimp though, as he fights off a knife-wielding hitman at night and violently throws him down a long flight of stairs; he disarms a bomb planted in his car with ease; and he fights off a half-dozen thugs at the home of local heavy Sugar Smallhouse.
The finale is a classic and the reason to watch the film. The legendary ‘whatsit’ box, which everyone is after, is never really explained, though it has been speculated that it’s one of several metaphors (a caution against atomic testing is the most popular). It’s interesting to see its influences on two important films from two different generations – Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pulp Fiction.
Though the ending packs a wallop, a great noir has to tease us with details, red herrings or false leads. Since the audience has the point of view of the investigator, we must also constantly feel the threat of Hammer moving forward to discover the mystery. For example, in DOA Edmund O’Brien’s character is poisoned and must find his killer within 48 hours in order to live. Or in The Postman Rings Twice, Frank and Cora conspire to murder Cora’s husband because it’s the only way she can escape her drab and boring life. Two acts of investigation in Kiss Me Deadly provide little drama or intrigue. Nothing is learned about Christina or the cause of her trouble until the very end in a rushed but fantastic finale.
Ralph Meeker is a tough gumshoe, but he’s missing the wit and charisma of a Humphrey Bogart and the confidence of a Fred MacMurray. As a character actor (Paths of Glory), he’s effective but doesn’t have the chops to fully carry a film (though I have to give him credit for the best-ever cinematic 'bitch-slapping'). Missing also is a credible antagonist. Where’s the Sidney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre or Orson Welles or Edward G. Robinson? A young and skinny Jack Elam makes an appearance, but his commanding presence just isn’t there yet.
Rudimentary plotting, which moves from scene to scene without impassioned danger or action, stalls the film. The ending certainly takes the film to another level, but the jump is too large, too quick and too much for me to recommend it over other classics of the genre. Watch Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil, Mildred Pierce, The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon first.
Kiss Me Deadly is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.