DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Kiss Me Deadly (1955/2011)

A film noir masterpiece.

Published on August 1, 2011

Kiss Me Deadly (1955/2011)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955/2011)

Based on book by Mickey Spillane
Screenplay: A. I. Bezzerides
Director: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rodgers
Studio: United Artists/The Criterion Collection 568 [6/21/11]
Video: 1.66:1 B&W for 16:9
Audio: English Dolby mono
Extras: Commentary tracks by film noir specialists Alain Silver & James Ursini, Video tribute by director Alex Cox, Excerpt from 2005 documentary on Screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides, “Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane” – 1998 documentary on the author, Videos on the film’s LA locations, Shortened alternate ending, Theatrical trailer, Illustrated printed booklet with essay by critic J. Hoberman and a 1955 article by director Robert Aldrich
Length: 106 minutes
Rating: ****½

I requested this film too late to get a Blu-ray version, but it is also available in that format.  I missed it on purpose in the ‘50s because of the controversies about its violent cruelty and Spillane’s political slant.  He supported the McCarthy era and liked nothing better than having Hammer mow down 200 Communists with his machine gun. (Actually the studio tried to censor that in a script, so he changed it to 100 Communists and then they said OK.)  Actually, Hammer may be mean-spirited, but by today’s standards he doesn’t seem so awful in his role as a brazen, try-anything private detective vigilante.

The weird thing about Kiss Me Deadly is the way the screenwriter changed Spillane’s original book, making Hammer a self-indulgent con artist whose major interest seems to be his various sports cars, and whose work is sleazy matrimonial mischief, using his ‘assistant’ Velda to help blackmail couples.  But his biggest change was to create a masterpiece of cold war paranoia by using a sort of nuclear Pandora’s Box as Hitchcock’s McGuffin, which the characters in the movie call “The Great Whatsit.”

The cinematography is full of weird noirish images and unusual angles; the screenwriter also reset the story to a run-down area of Los Angeles, and it mostly takes place at night. The transfer for the standard DVD looks terrific except for one or two places where some light vertical lines appear. For decades everyone saw the film with a very abrupt ending, which seemed in a way to add to the shock value of the production.  However, in 1997 the original complete ending was found in a personal print of the film which director Aldrich had, and it turns out a careless projectionist had originally just snipped off the ending of the film when it got damaged.  The abrupt ending is one of the extras. The strange introduction/tribute by director Alex Cox is almost as weird as the feature – you should see it before viewing Kiss Me Deadly.  The interviews with Spillane himself are a real kick too. I had forgotten he played Mike Hammer himself in one movie, and quite successfully – something no other detective story writer has ever done. At first I was surprised Criterion gave this detective movie any attention at all, but they were definitely correct in doing so – it’s a classic.

 – John Sunier




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