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Genres collide in the great Hollywood movies of the midfifties cold-war thaw. With the truce in Korea and the red scare on the wane, ambitious directors seemed freer to mix and match and even ponder the new situation. The western goes south in The Searchers; the cartoon merges with the musical in The Girl Can’t Help It. Science fiction becomes pop sociology in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And noir veers into apocalyptic sci-fi in Robert Aldrich’s 1955 masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly, which, briefly described, tracks one of the sleaziest, stupidest, most brutal detectives in American movies through a nocturnal, inexplicably violent labyrinth to a white-hot vision of cosmic annihilation.
A crass private eye looking for the big score, Mike Hammer plays with fire and gets burned. From the perversely backward title crawl (outrageously accompanied by orgasmic heavy breathing) through the climactic explosion, Kiss Me Deadly is sensationally baroque, eschewing straight exposition for a jarring succession of bizarre images, bravura sound matching, and encoded riddles the likes of which had not been seen in Hollywood since Orson Welles kissed the industry good-bye. Like one of Mad’s parodies, the movie unfolds in a deranged cubist space, amid the debris of Western civilization—shards of opera, deserted museums, molls who paraphrase Shakespeare, mad references to Greek mythology and the Old Testament. A nineteenth-century poem furnishes the movie’s major clue.
Kiss Me Deadly exploited as it satirized Mickey Spillane, the most commercially successful American novelist of the cold war. Spillane’s violent thrillers, including I, the Jury; My Gun Is Quick; and Vengeance Is Mine, sold twenty-four million copies between 1947 and 1952; at one point, he was responsible for seven of the ten best-selling titles in the entire history of American fiction. In Mike Hammer, Spillane imagined a new sort of hero—a vigilante enforcer who was detective, judge, jury, and executioner in one. Spillane offered his readers God’s Angry Man—a function that would later be satisfied by irate evangelists and talk-radio personalities, as well as fictional characters like Dirty Harry. Hammer was the personification of rage, a self-righteous avenger whose antagonists were gangsters and Communists. At the end of One Lonely Night, he exults, “I killed more people tonight than I have fingers on my hands. I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of it . . . They were Commies.”
Hammer knows he is rotten, and he knows why his rottenness is tolerated: “I was the evil that opposed the other evil.” This ends-justify-the-means brutality had its contemporary political manifestation in Senator Joseph McCarthy, described by one colleague, in suitably Hammer-esque terms, as a “fighting Irish marine [who] would give the shirt off his back to anyone who needs it—except a dirty, lying, stinking Communist. That guy, he’d kill.” In late 1954, the Saturday Review published an essay by poet Christopher LaFarge comparing Hammer to McCarthy, also a “privileged savior.”
LaFarge noted that, however “soft, homosexual, stupid, gullible, childish, or easily tricked,” Hammer’s antagonists also represented “the Most Dangerous Thing in the United States,” and “any means which will, with Hammer, lead to their extirpation and in particular their death by his hand are Good.” Similarly, “with Senator McCarthy, any means that will expose Communists, including the derogation of all public servants, the telling of lies, the irreparable damaging of the innocent, the sensational and unfounded charge, are justified so long as he thinks it is the right thing to do. Each, then, reflects the other.”
This analogy seems also to have occurred to Aldrich, who was already working on an adaptation of Kiss Me, Deadly around the time the Saturday Review article appeared. Or perhaps Aldrich and A. I. Bezzerides, whom he hired to adapt the novel, simply made use of it. In some interviews, Aldrich would characterize Hammer as “a cynical fascist” and call Spillane “an antidemocratic figure,” arguing before the MPAA’s Production Code Administration—which was prepared not to pass Kiss Me Deadly—that the film demonstrated that “justice is not to be found in a self-anointed, one-man vigilante.”
Ironically, Aldrich was himself something like the leader of a personal rebellion. Born in 1918, he was the scion of a prominent Rhode Island family. His grandfather Nelson Aldrich served as a U.S. senator; his uncle was ambassador to Great Britain during the period Kiss Me Deadly was made; his aunt married John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his first cousin was Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller.
Aldrich broke with his family in 1941, when he went to work at RKO. During the forties, he served a distinguished apprenticeship as an assistant director with Jean Renoir (The Southerner), Lewis Milestone (Arch of Triumph), William Wellman (The Story of G.I. Joe), and Charles Chaplin (Monsieur Verdoux). Most crucially, Aldrich worked with leftists Abraham Polonsky, Robert Rossen, and John Garfield on Body and Soul and Force of Evil, and Joseph Losey on The Prowler and M (another Kiss Me Deadly precursor). Among his first solo features were the anti-American Apache, which, starring Burt Lancaster as the last unreconciled member of Geronimo’s band, was the top-grossing western of 1954, and the remarkably cynical mercenary oat opera Vera Cruz, also from 1954.
Given this background, and the company he kept, Aldrich expected to be named during the Hollywood witch hunt. He wasn’t, nor does he seem to have inspired an FBI file. Perhaps he was too unimportant, or, conversely, too well connected. When he teamed with producer Victor Saville to make Kiss Me Deadly, he hired Bezzerides, another Hollywood fellow traveler, to adapt Spillane’s novel. Bezzerides’s script was saturated with cynicism and predicated on free association: “I wrote it fast because I had contempt for it. It was automatic writing. Things were in the air at the time, and I put them in.”
Bezzerides shifted the novel’s location from New York to Los Angeles, eliminated the first-person voice-over, and downgraded Hammer from private eye to divorce dick. Rather than an adoring fiancée who “could whip off a shoe and crack a skull before you could bat an eye,” Hammer’s secretary Velda is his devotedly amoral mistress, serving as sexual bait to entrap the husbands of Hammer’s female clients. It’s a not unprofitable line of work. The detective, played by Ralph Meeker (the actor who replaced Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire), drives a Jaguar, has a futuristic telephone answering machine built into his bachelor pad’s wall, and, a bag of golf clubs in the corner, lives a version of what was not yet called the Playboy philosophy. The faux Calder mobile and checkerboard floor pattern add to the crazy, clashing expressionism.
After reading the script that Aldrich submitted in September 1954, the MPAA informed him that his story was totally unacceptable, both for its treatment of narcotics and for the hero’s cold-blooded, never entirely justified vigilante killings, as well as “numerous items of brutality and sexual suggestiveness.” The script was resubmitted in early November sans drugs and with atomic spies substituted for gangsters. The context shifted, the mercenary antihero remained. As embodied by the muscular, smirking Meeker, Hammer is a hustler who, as one cop grudgingly allows, “can sniff out information like nobody I ever saw”—not to mention a voyeuristic creep who takes sadistic pleasure in violence, exhibiting a surplus of macho behavior that, aggravated by sexual repression and crass self-interest, ultimately becomes a criticism of itself. The movie stops in its tracks to focus on his excited grin as he snaps a collector’s priceless 78 record, a crime also committed by the punks of Blackboard Jungle, or slams a desk drawer shut on another potential informer’s fingers—or when, with a mix of pity and contempt, a police detective gives him the clue “Manhattan Project” as though addressing a dumb animal.
Everyone is under surveillance, everything is a secret; the protagonist, who is described as returning from the grave, is a walking corpse. Jagged and aggressive, Kiss Me Deadly is one paranoid movie—with all that implies. Fear of a nuclear holocaust fuses with fear of a femme fatale. Hammer pursues and is pursued by a shadowy cabal—a mysterious “They,” as they’re called in the film’s key exchange, “the nameless ones who kill people for the Great Whatsit.”
Some months before Kiss Me Deadly opened, Aldrich pragmatically defended the movie’s violence in a February 20, 1955, New York Herald-Tribune article titled “You Can’t Hang Up the Meat Hook”: “We think we have kept faith with the sixty million Mickey Spillane readers” while making “a movie of action, violence, and suspense in good taste.” Only days before, the director had written to the MPAA with thanks for its reconsideration of its decision not to approve the production—and about two months later, he would be appealing to the association for help: in May, just as the film was to be released, the Legion of Decency condemned it, demanding “over thirty changes, cuts, and deletions.” Aldrich made minor cuts, ensuring a B rating (condemned in part).
Kiss Me Deadly’s ads were displayed in June 1955 during Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency, with Senator Estes Kefauver interrogating the director of the MPAA’s Advertising Code Administration, Gordon S. White. Pointing to a poster for “Mickey Spillane’s Latest H-Bomb!” Kefauver lectured White:
These producers have told us that in all of the pictures, horror and crime and sex pictures, there is some moral they are trying to prove. I just wonder if you get the moral in this advertising up here. There is a “Kiss Me Deadly. White-Hot Thrills! Blood-Red Kisses!” That is all it says about it. What is moral?
“I don’t like that any more than you do, Senator,” White maintained, without answering the question, even though Kiss Me Deadly had a good deal to say about greed, corruption, vigilante justice, and the apocalypse.
Taken for trash, this great movie was never reviewed in the New York Times and was banned in Britain. In France, Kiss Me Deadly was admired mainly by the young critics at Cahiers du cinéma, where it was considered “the thriller of tomorrow” and Aldrich, dubbed Le gros Bob, was hailed as “the first director of the atomic age.” Kiss Me Deadly, Claude Chabrol wrote in his passionate review, “has chosen to create itself out of the worst material to be found, the most deplorable, the most nauseous product of a genre in a state of putrefaction: a Mickey Spillane story.” Aldrich and Bezzerides “have taken this threadbare and lackluster fabric and splendidly rewoven it into rich patterns of the most enigmatic arabesques.” Amen.
J. Hoberman is the senior film critic for the Village Voice and the author of 2003’s The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and its 2011 prequel, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, from which this essay was adapted.