Mekaela and I have designated this November as Mystery Month, for reasons that I’ve already forgotten. So it seems the right time to jump back into those noir films I’m continuously behind on.
I like parts of Kiss Me Deadly. But it’s definitely not one of my favorites.
“Bedroom dick” and all-around lousy human being Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a hitchhiker. Shortly thereafter, she’s murdered and he’s nearly killed himself. Now he’s determined to look into the case, despite (or possibly because of) all the asshats who warn him not to.
1. Sometimes, I feel like the two words I type more than any other on this blog are “likable characters.” Obviously, not every movie needs to center around likable people, but the bonus to having them is that your audience is automatically invested in your story because they care about what happens to these people.
Kiss Me Deadly has virtually no likable characters.
We will begin with Mr. Hammer, our very masculinely named protagonist. Hammer isn’t a particularly nice guy, considering he’s far more concerned about the state of his car than the woman he almost hit in the middle of the road. (To be clear: it’s her fault for jumping out in front of him. Regardless, most people at least feign concern when they nearly run over someone.) Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this schmuck. He also says this to our distressed hitchhiker:
“What’s this all about? I’ll make a quick guess. You were out with some guy who thought ‘no’ was a three-letter word. I should have thrown you off that cliff back there. I might still do it.”
Charming. I’m aware that noir detectives are usually dicks (pun intended), and I’ve liked movies that have featured asshole protagonists before, but there’s a delicate sort of balance to it that I think Kiss Me Deadly falls on the wrong side of. The majority of positive reviews I’ve read for this movie have all praised Hammer for being the slimiest and dirtiest noir hero of them all, but creating a deeply unlikable protagonist doesn’t usually seem like a bold choice to me. It seems likes poor strategic planning.
2. And obviously it doesn’t help that everyone else is annoying too.
The women in this movie . . . yeah. They’re not good, and an unlikely number of them seem to find our charmless hero mysteriously irresistible, which meant I kept thinking, “HE GETS THE WOMEN,” to myself throughout the film. I’ll wait to address most of the female characters until the Spoiler Section, but I do want to spend a little time here on Velda (Maxine Cooper). Velda is Mike Hammer’s Girl Friday and Quasi Love Interest, and at times she actually seems somewhat competent. At other times, she’s completely infuriating.
Like, okay. There’s this one scene where Velda has done a bunch of research for her boss, and as he’s asking her questions about this and that, I’m thinking to myself, You know what? Velda is clearly the actual detective here. This is cool. I’m all for that.
But then she’ll rapidly change direction from being independent and awesome to being needy and weird. Like when she awkwardly transitions a dead woman’s last words into a bid for sex. Or how she tells Hammer that she likes it when he gets into trouble — since that means he’ll need her around — but then immediately becomes angry with him, since getting into trouble means he’s putting everyone’s lives in jeopardy, including (gasp) hers! I think I’m supposed to feel sorry for Velda here, but instead, I’m just stuck on . . . but . . . I don’t understand. These two thoughts don’t follow logically at all.
I really wish Hammer and Velda weren’t sleeping together, and not just because I’m currently working on a noir story featuring the platonic relationship between a detective and his awesome secretary, I swear. I think it would solve a lot of problems for me. Hammer and Velda would, at the very least, both be instantly more sympathetic, even as they do some less-than-nice stuff in order to pay the bills.
3. Also, their close-talking scene was just awkward and not cute or sexy at all. Juliet and Shawn do a much, much better job of this. (It kills me that the full clip isn’t here, though. Youtube! Why have you failed me yet again? Now I have to go watch the full scene on Netflix just because you left me hanging.)
4. The credits in this movie are kind of interesting. They go backwards, like so:
I’ll admit, I don’t have any particular deep thoughts about that. I just thought it was unique and thus worth bringing up.
5. But back to those
wascally wabbits characters: I’m not convinced that a single person in this movie acts rationally. It’s not just Velda and Hammer, although it’s fair to say that Hammer regularly acts like a moron. (Why do you keep going back to your apartment when people are after you? WHY? Oh, they’ll never suspect me here because it’s far too obvious? Hammer, you’re an asshole.) It’s also the people who want to stop Hammer from pursuing this case. I can’t speak too much about that now, but I will say that at least some of them have decent reasons for not wanting Hammer involved, reasons beyond the fact that he’s a slimy moron asshat. (Which, obviously, should be reason enough.)
The problem is how these people try to dissuade Hammer from getting involved.
Shortly after surviving a car accident that nobody could’ve survived, Hammer is brought in for the most one-sided interrogation I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s asked disdainful questions about his seedy business practices, which are then answered by the other men in the room. This is really an expository scene to let the audience know that Hammer is a scum bucket — in case the “maybe you were raped, which is totally your own problem” line wasn’t enough to clue you in — but from the POV of the characters involved, it just doesn’t make much sense. When dealing with a disagreeable person that you want out of the way, it’s usually not the best idea to repeatedly mock or insult him. Because really, guys, what are you even picturing here? That he’s going to bury his head in the sand and feel ashamed about all the bad things he’s done? That he’s going to forget he and his precious car were ever shoved off a cliff, simply because you were mean to him? Please. Even if he wasn’t already interested in a score, Hammer is far more likely to stick with the case just to fuck with you. Hell, I probably would do that, and I’m not nearly as disagreeable as Mike Hammer.
It doesn’t help that certain information is withheld from Hammer, information that I’m relatively sure would’ve made a direct impact on Hammer getting involved in the first place. One particular snotty bastard — I can’t remember his name, so we’ll be calling him Cop McSneer — even says something like, “Would it made a difference if we had told you?” and Hammer, suitably chastised, does not answer. Meanwhile, I’m having an apoplectic fit on my couch, screaming, “OF COURSE IT WOULD MATTER!” while my sister laughs at me. (And, incidentally, agrees with me. These people are dumb.)
6. Admittedly, maybe I missed some stuff to explain all this. If so, I’m sure someone, likely using their most condescending language, won’t miss the opportunity to tell me. But despite opening with a bang, Kiss Me Deadly seemed pretty dull for well over half the film, and I had a lot of trouble focusing on the various names and faces of all the people involved. I really had to keep dragging my wandering attention back to the film, and I didn’t get fully invested until a surprising turn about 2/3 of the way into the story. That turn is really what makes this movie worth all the recognition, although I can’t say it makes me forgive the film’s various other shortcomings.
7. Finally, I found this ancient answering machine entirely too fascinating.
It’s huge. I kind of want one now, possibly because I’m a ridiculous person.
So, our hitchhiker’s name is Christina.
This is Cloris Leachman in her very first role, and I’ll be honest: it’s not my favorite. But I don’t like anybody in this movie, so that’s no big surprise, really. I find Christina particularly annoying as she diagnoses Mike Hammer as being as one of those “self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself,” not to mention the kind of guy who “never gives in a relationship.” She’s not wrong, but it’s not exposition I’m convinced we need, and if I were Hammer, I wouldn’t be real thrilled with some escaped mental patient hopping in my car and giving me an unflattering psychoanalysis within five minutes, either. (Although Hammer has already regretted not throwing Christina off a cliff, so it’s not like he has the moral high ground here.)
Of course, if I were Hammer, I would press for more details once I knew my passenger had escaped from a mental institution. Because Hammer kind of asks, but he doesn’t seem all that concerned or curious about it. I, on the other hand, would be curious about it. I would have questions. And depending on the answer to those questions, that’s when I would consider throwing her ass out of the car, not after speculating that she’d possibly been raped. I mean, Jesus.
Hammer plans to drop Christina off at the bus stop. Christina tells him, “If we don’t make it, remember me.” This is said with capital ‘S’ significance, so we know it’s a capital ‘C’ clue, as is Christina just happening to mention her namesake, the poet Christina Rossetti. We then spend the entire movie waiting for Hammer to finally consider looking through a book of Christina Rosetti poems. It turns out that the one he’s looking for is called “Remember Me,” which, in retrospect, is pretty obvious. But I was stuck on “Goblin Market,” mostly because it’s the only Christina Rossetti poem I’ve ever read. (And I only read it after a friend was horrified I’d never heard of it. I don’t recall having much opinion on the poem either way.)
I should mention that the whole ‘Poem as Clue’ thing ends up being kind of lame. This is the passage that Lily reads out loud:
“Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you’ll understand.
But if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once we had.”
First, it’s lame because Lily is cutting out lines. I don’t mind that she magically skips to the relevant stanza, but I’m decidedly not okay with her just cutting out two lines in the middle of her recitation. That’s dumb. I hate it when movies do that. Also, some of the words seem wrong (like using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ and ‘but’ instead of ‘for’), and I don’t think Christina is supposed to have edited them or anything. The clue is also lame because after Lily reads this passage out loud, Hammer somehow divines that Christina must have swallowed something significant. And bitch, please. You did not figure that out from this passage. I don’t believe you.
But that’s skipping ahead. Let’s go back to when Christina kicks it.
(The leg pun was unintentional. Hell with it. I’m keeping it now.)
My brain had a serious disconnect while I was watching this scene. The second I saw her legs, I assumed the bad guys hanged Christina, except then she started screaming. (And went on screaming long after her legs had gone still, like, whoops.) Now, obviously, they’ve probably just strung her up by her arms or something while they’re torturing her for information, but at first I was like Are they really trying to make me think that she’d be screaming while BEING HANGED? And then my brain caught up and I was like Ohhhh. Silly rabbit.
When Christina passes out, one of the bad guys says he can revive her, but Mr. Boss Bad Guy, otherwise known as Blue Suede Shoes, ex-nays that plan on the basis that it would be Resurrection and playing God, or something? I don’t know, that bit seemed weird. Anyway, Christina and Hammer are put back in Hammer’s car and driven off a cliff. But it’s okay because Hammer is totally fine.
I suppose he does at least end up in the hospital. Briefly, anyway, with nary a scratch anywhere on him. This is where we meet Velda, not to mention Cop McSneer. Unfortunately, this is also about the time I started checking out of the story, so I’m transitioning from a detailed synopsis to a more random notes approach for the rest of this review.
1. If you know there’s a bomb in your car, don’t get inside it.
At one point, bad guys put a bomb in Hammer’s car, which Hammer’s mechanic friend, Nick, nearly triggers when he begins to turn the key in the ignition. Hammer saves him, which is nice, and they extract the bomb and drive to Nick’s garage. Nick cheerfully holds the bomb in his lap the entire ride, which just drives me nuts, but nothing beats Hammer casually announcing that he only found the bomb the bad guys wanted him to find. Dude. DUDE. You do not get in a car when you know there’s another hidden bomb, especially if you’re not quite sure what will trigger it. In this case, it’s tied to the speedometer (Kiss Me Deadly is the predecessor to Speed!!!), but YOU DIDN’T KNOW THAT WHEN YOU DROVE ACROSS TOWN, DID YOU, BUDDY?
You should be dead right now, Mr. Hammer. This is Darwin Award material. I am done with you.
(I almost forgot to say that when Nick extracts the first bomb, he doesn’t know what he’s looking for. Hammer only says to take out whatever’s near the starter. Nick extracts what appears to be a bundle of dynamite and asks, “This is what you mean?” Yeah, Nick. I think that’s what he meant. I’m not sure if this moment was intentionally funny or not, but I did laugh pretty hard.)
2. Nick, unfortunately, isn’t as lucky as his friend. He survives the multiple car bombs, only to die the way that so many movie mechanics do — crushed under the car he’s working on. Mean, Blue Suede Shoes. Very mean. Although I feel it should be said that Nick is also a little obnoxious. I mostly felt sorry for Nick’s less obnoxious and less plot-relevant friend, who’s all broken up about it. Poor dude. Go be in a movie with nicer people.
3. This movie has a ton of classical music in it. I kept thinking it was some big clue. It wasn’t.
4. Christina’s supposed roommate, Lily, is super annoying.
I’m not sure what she’s going for, exactly — seductive with a heavy side of vulnerable and frightened, I guess? — but she mostly comes off as loopy and grating. Actually, Mek and I were initially convinced that Lily was an escaped mental patient herself, but in turns out, she’s actually a bad guy, which, honestly? Kind of a relief. I liked her much more when she was greedy and evil. Too bad I couldn’t stand her for every other scene.
5. Through obscure poetry references and deduction, Hammer discovers that Christina swallowed a safe deposit box key. He leaves Lily outside and alone in a top-down convertible in the middle of the day when people are (supposedly) trying to kill her so he can check it out. Because, really, he is such a moron. Which I know, I know. Many people say that’s the whole point, that Kiss Me Deadly is a scathing indictment of film noir — and maybe that’s my problem with it. I like genre deconstruction; hell, I love genre deconstruction, but I feel like it works best when you’re a fan of the genre itself, when you see all its potential and possibilities as well as its problematic flaws and missteps. I don’t want to watch a noir movie that hates noir, anymore than I want to see a western that hates westerns, or even a romantic comedy that hates romantic comedies. I want an intelligent discussion, maybe an angry one, but not one filled with contempt and scorn.
6. Mike Hammer uses the safe deposit box key and discovers . . . Marsellus Wallace’s soul!
Kidding. He discovers a nuclear weapon, but you can clearly see where Quentin Tarantino is lifting from with his briefcase in Pulp Fiction. The words “nuclear weapon” are never actually used, though, and we never really see what’s inside of the box, just that it glows ominously, giving the whole movie a sudden sci-fi bent, which is awesome. THIS is when I finally started giving a damn about the movie, when my kind of dull noir suddenly turned out to be apocalyptic SF noir. There really needs to be more apocalyptic SF noir.
7. Hammer doesn’t fully open the box, which ends up being a very good call. (We’ll find out how good a little later.) It does burn his wrist, though, which Cop McSneer later notices.
Hammer gives up the key to Cop McSneer after he figures out just what kind of shit he’s involved in. He says he didn’t know, to which Cop McSneer asks, “Do you think you’d have done any different if you had known?” And this is a problem for me because — like I said earlier — I feel pretty confident that Hammer would have done differently if he’d known. And I don’t like this guy, like, I’m not looking for excuses to defend him. Mike Hammer is a total assclown. There is no doubt about that. But the movie wants me to shake my finger at him here, and I’m like, “Uh, no. If they wanted him to back off because national security is at risk, all they really needed to do was show him pictures of people with radiation poisoning, and this guy? Would have backed off so hard his shoes would still be on fire.”
8. In the meantime, Velda’s been kidnapped. (Which Cop McSneer doesn’t give a damn about, because I guess her death will be just desserts for Hammer? Wow. Thanks, Cop McSneer. Let me just say how encouraged I feel, knowing that a woman’s life has been entirely reduced to how her death would make a man feel. I can only hope that your fellow detectives take protecting the public as seriously as you do.)
(Also, now that I’ve looked it up, I see that ‘just desserts’ should actually be spelled ‘just deserts,’ but I’m actively choosing not to spell it that way because it just seems wrong. #RebelliousSpellingBeeChampion #OkayFineIOnlyGotThirdPlace
Hammer tries to save Velda — which would have been a lot more interesting if they weren’t sleeping together, like he actually valued a woman without (gasp) having sex with her — and ends up getting abducted himself. (Actually, this part happens earlier, but whatever. Chronology, pah.) Mr. Blue Suede Shoes gives him sodium pentothal — truth serum, to anyone who’s ever seen a movie — which, in this particular version, will make him dream about his secrets and talk in his sleep. That’s sort of an interesting variation on how Movie Sodium Pentothal usually works, and makes me wonder if this is the first film to use it, and if not, what is.
It should also be said that everything Hammer says here is an incoherent mumble, so I’m not particularly convinced about the effectiveness of this plan. Especially since he awakens, kills people, and escapes.
9. Mr. Blue Suede Shoes gives Lily — or actually, Gabrielle — a long, villainous monologue about Pandora and various other mythologies where women are killed for the sin of being inquisitive. (Is there a myth where a man is killed for his curiosity? There must be, right? Please?) It’s all very tiresome, and thankfully Lily kills him, which is easily the best thing she does in the whole movie. She also shoots Hammer before opening The Box. Unlike Hammer, though, she opens it the whole way.
I’ll give Kiss Me Deadly this much: Lily killing herself by essentially opening the Ark of the Covenant surprisingly doesn’t bother me here, unlike when they actually open the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have never liked how that movie resolves, and I don’t care who knows it. So there.
10. The ending of this movie is interesting for a couple of reasons.
As far as I can tell, I saw the ending that original audiences saw, where Hammer and Velda make it out to the beach and stumble around in the waves as the house explodes. The ending itself is incredibly abrupt, but not in a way that seems incongruous with old movies. However, there was also an alternate ending that a huge number of people are more familiar with, one where we never see Hammer and Velda make it out. Instead, the film ends with a series of images that suggest the nuclear apocalypse has come.
I’d have to see both endings to decide which I preferred, but honestly, even the supposedly happy one didn’t actually strike me as all that upbeat. I think I was supposed to go, “Yay! They made it! Good guys win again!” But I didn’t, and not just because I don’t like anybody. I just figured, Yeah, okay, they made it out of the initial blast radius, but dude. There’s no WAY that they — or anyone else in the area, for that matter — aren’t going to suffer and eventually die from radiation fallout, right? Especially Hammer, who, besides still being shot, was already exposed to radiation when he partially opened the box and BURNED HIS FLESH. We’re totally looking at a nuclear disaster here, right? Right.
I feel like this movie ends in apocalypse, no matter where the film actually cuts out. And you know what? I’m pretty okay with that.
I really like the SF apocalyptic turn of this story, and even a couple of moments here and there. But it’s still not my favorite. Due to the deeply unlikable characters and a mystery that wasn’t particularly intriguing (until it suddenly was), I just couldn’t engage with the story.
Er. I guess Ralph Meeker did what he was supposed to do, even if I didn’t like him. I certainly bought Hammer’s relish whenever he was punching someone. (Or slapping someone. Shit, I almost forgot — Mike Hammer’s signature move is to slap people silly. He did it to like twelve people in under ten minutes. I was cracking up.)
Don’t continue to open boxes if the contents start to glow. Shut the box and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
Also, don’t be a dick. You might accidentally help kick off a nuclear apocalypse. At the very least, Wil Wheaton is going to be very disappointed in you.