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Kiss Me Deadly

What was the first film noir? "Discovered" by French cinema critics who noticed a bleak pessimism in American films after World War II, the matter is of some debate. Some say Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) was the first of the form, an irredeemable account of two illicit lovers who hatch a murder plot to collect insurance money. A remarkable, disturbing picture today as it was then, it was considered practically "unfilmable" for eight years because of the Hays Code before Wilder found a way to make it work. But some film historians point to an earlier event, John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), with its twisting tale of a two-bit private detective and a femme fatale who get mixed up with thugs and crooks hunting down a priceless statuette. Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945) is likewise noteworthy, if only for the fact that it embodies all of the noir hallmarks but came out of the B-film system, where it was shot in five days for just $20,000. Perhaps no American film genre has sparked as much critical analysis and debate, and the discussion is far from over. We can't know what was the first noir, nor can we firmly establish the greatest. But in some ways Robert Aldrich's 1955 Kiss Me Deadly is more monumental than any. This one's the noir to end 'em all. Based on the novel by Mickey Spillane, Ralph Meeker stars as L.A. gumshoe Mike Hammer, who is forced to stop his car on a dark highway one night when a panicked woman (Cloris Leachman) blocks the road. Discovering that the woman, who calls herself Christina, has escaped from a mental institution, Hammer has the opportunity to turn her over to the cops, but he doesn't — possibly sensing that she's been kidnapped (as she claims), but more likely because there may be something in it for him. But before Hammer can do anything the pair are abducted by a mysterious gang, who interrogate the duo and then send them over a cliff in Hammer's car. He barely survives, but he won't cooperate with the cops — not as long as he thinks there's an angle to be played. "There's gotta be a pitch," Hammer insists. "She must be connected with somethin' big." Using his own connections — including girlfriend Velda (Maxine Cooper) and local auto mechanic Nick (Nick Dennis), Hammer tracks down Christina's previous apartment and her old roommate (Gaby Rodgers). Learning of a few suspicious deaths related to the case, Hammer tries to shake down a local mobster. But while the trail looks hot, Hammer — and the audience — cannot possibly guess where all the clues will lead.

*          *          *

Kiss Me Deadly has remained a noir favorite over the years, thanks in part to Aldrich's riveting direction. All of the details that make films noir so compelling are front-and-center, with urban nighttime settings, low-key lighting, and disorienting angles shot from high, low, or simply off-kilter. Meeker's performance is central to the film — like all noir anti-heroes, he's smooth on the surface, with a sportscar, a well-furnished bachelor pad, sharp suits, and the sort of swagger that attracts dames. But he's not to be trusted any more than the villains. We watch him not because we admire him, but simply because we know he's as likely to cause trouble as get into it, and during the course of the story it's clear he has no problem smacking anybody who gets in his way or taking up with women when his girl Velda isn't around (and he asks Velda to date divorced men he's investigating as well). But Kiss Me Deadly perhaps is most unique in its use of modern technology as instruments of dehumanization — Hammer never answers his phone, but instead screens calls with an answering machine; automobiles are not just everyday modes of transportation, but used repeatedly as murder weapons; a secret key is hid not under a mat or in a flowerpot, but someplace far more sinister. Like its noir inheritor L.A. Confidential (1997), Kiss Me Deadly sees Los Angeles as a technological paradise, a "city of the future," but at the same time questions what sort of future such a society will provide. In this case, the film's conclusion is not merely pessimistic, nor fatalistic. Rather, it borders on the apocalyptic. MGM's DVD release of Kiss Me Deadly features a good letterboxed transfer (1.66:1) from an attractive black-and-white source print that looks fine for its age, with plenty of low-contrast detail. Audio is in the original mono (Dolby 2.0), and on board are two conclusions. The feature presentation includes a "restored" ending, which offers about a minute of extra footage but contains a bit more thematic texture, while the abridged ending — which has been on most home-video presentations to date — is offered as a supplement. It is one of the most notable film finales in the noir genre, and both conclusions (and possibly different implications) will generate discussion among the picture's most ardent fans (and our pal Glenn Erickson, who played a part in the restoration, has written a SPOILER-filled account, which can be found here). Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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