Thursday 30 August 2012

1,001 Films: "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly comprises one of the most distinctive, strikingly haphazard private-dick mysteries the studio era produced. By way of contrast with The Big Sleep - which famously offered too much plot for even its creators to fully figure out - Robert Aldrich's film has a story that goes nowhere between ten minutes (when a letter is posted) and 75 minutes (when the letter is received), involving a hero who really doesn't have an idea what he's getting into (the case drops into his passenger seat rather than walking into his office, which limits the element of choice), which has to end with a Big Bang simply to dispel all the uncertainties gathered over the previous hour-and-a-half.

While out driving along some lost American highway, preening, self-regarding thug Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) almost runs over a dame who's naked under her trenchcoat, then wakes up to learn that heavies have pushed him and his now-dead passenger's corpse off a cliff. Soon, "the big squeeze" is being put on Hammer and his associates, convincing the detective the dame was into "something big". The thick-ear plot - adapted from a well-thumbed Mickey Spillane novel by A.I. Bezzerides - then goes on simply to follow its protagonist from interrogation to interrogation, but the film has a) an interesting hero to follow, and b) a director capable of working variation into each of those interrogations. In Hammer - who, like the perpetually digging Sam Spade, lives up (or down) to his name - we're presented with a shamus who uses brute force, rather than wit or cunning, to extract his answers; flashes of his previous criminal career come through in scenes which find him terrorising a pool party or snapping an opera fan's most collectible records, and in the look of pleasure on Meeker's face as Hammer goes about shutting a coroner's hand in a drawer. 

In the absence of clear, considered narrative, Aldrich instead stages a series of inspired, outlandish moments: the flourish of ominous brass that accompanies Hammer as he takes the two - two! - steps required to get him from a boxing trainer to a nearby telephone; small, progressive nods of the head towards L.A.'s emergent Irish, Asian and African-American communities; out-of-nowhere lines of dialogue ("Why are you always trying to make a noise like a cop?"). The sets, similarly, are dotted with instances of off-the-cuff invention: Hammer's extraordinarily futuristic answering machine, a sister to 2001's HAL, perhaps; the dog with bow in hair perched on a secretary's desk, apparently placed so to set up a symmetry with a cat sitting atop a switchboard later on. With its still-jolting violence and absurd, darkly comic flourishes, it's hard not to think this is the P.I. movie David Lynch would make: the final sequence, with its stroboscopic light, erupting beach houses and peroxide-blonde femme fatale, isn't so far removed from the world of that director's very own Lost Highway. Which is where we came in...

Kiss Me Deadly is available on DVD through Twentieth Century Fox.

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