Bright Lights Film Journal

Whose Noir Is It, Anyway? Robert Aldrich’s <em>Kiss Me Deadly</em>

Mike Hammer deconstructed, or Mike Hammer disrespected?

Back in the day — way, way back in the day, when life in America was not a total girlie show — Americans did not read books by single moms living in the UK. They did not read books about little boys with magic wands, or magic unicorns, or cute little dudes with big, hairy feet. They read books written by men, about men, for men. They read Mickey Spillane.

Starting with I, the Jury in 1947, Spillane’s Mike Hammer mysteries were among the best-selling books ever written.1 But they were so damn lurid, not to say sadistic, that Hollywood scarcely had the nerve to lay a hand on them.2 And, in fact, Spillane’s work never got the big studio treatment. For whatever reason, he made a deal with less than top-of-the-line Parklane Pictures for all the classic Mike Hammer books, written in the late forties and early fifties.

The first Parklane production, I, the Jury, scripted and directed by Harry Essex,3 didn’t hit the screen until 1953. The ad campaign at least was great, promising “MICKEY SPILLANE’S Kind of Fury, Savagery, Temptation and Man-Woman Violence in 3-D!”, but apparently the flick didn’t deliver,4 drawing terrible reviews from those who’ve seen it, including Mickey himself, who was disgusted by the casting of Biff Elliot5 as Mike. Elliot was “left-handed, with a Boston accent,” groused Mickey — in other words, a damn homo.

The Long Wait,6 which followed in 1954, starring Anthony Quinn, also disappointed.7 But the third time a year later proved the charm for Parklane, when they gave Kiss Me Deadly to Robert Aldrich,8 who turned out a noir classic scripted by Albert Bezzerides9 that pleased everyone.

Everyone but Mickey Spillane, that is. “They didn’t read the book,” said Mickey. And, comparing the book and the movie, it’s easy to see why Mickey was pissed.

There’s plenty of noir in the Hammer series, but it’s Mickey’s kind of noir. In the early books, Mike Hammer is driven entirely by lust and revenge, bedding every available female (“Her dress peeled off like paint. She was all woman.”) and smashing every worm, punk, and pretty boy who crosses his path. In other words, the good life!

Not that Mike isn’t conflicted, and even acquainted with self-doubt. Is he a good guy, or a freaked-out psycho-killer, a feral beast driven by an insatiable blood lust? Actually, it’s a bit of a moot point, because all the people Mike smashes, bashes, mutilates, and kills are bad. The worse Mike is, the better the world becomes. No harm, no foul, eh, mon ami?

In fact, by the time Spillane wrote Kiss Me Deadly, Mike had cleaned up his act — the sex part, at least — because he was engaged to the divinely sexy, yet divinely chaste, Velda. And, of course, when he wasn’t gouging bad guys’ eyes out, Mike had to keep himself chaste for Velda as well.

I haven’t read many of the Hammer books, but in the ones that I have read, Mike never has an actual case, brought to him by a paying client. He’s always on a private errand of revenge, either because a friend has been murdered or because he’s been set upon and beaten half to death by a bunch of punks.

Other than pussy and mayhem, Mike has no interests in life. If you’re not humping some broad or smashing some worm’s skull in, you may as well be dead. Booze and food are fuel. Sports? Well, the Friday Night Fights are OK, but, listen, put Mike up against any of those bozos and he’d fucking kill the pansy, right? So why pay good money to watch a couple of sissies waltz around the ring?

The only product mentioned in Spillane’s books is Lucky Strike (“I reached for my deck of Luckies”), at that time the quintessential working-man’s smoke. As for the “finer things” — you want to see something fine? Velda’s pussy, that’s something fine. But don’t look at it, because if you do, Mike will fucking kill you.

Aldrich and Bezzerides took Spillane’s killing/fucking machine and made him both more conventional and complex, with lots of artsy-fartsy touches that reflect an LA scripwriter’s idea of “class” back in the fifties, but which were anathema to Spillane’s relentlessly blue-collar Mike Hammer. Worst of all, Mike doesn’t even kill one woman in the whole picture!10

Aldrich and Bezzerides follow Spillane’s opening pretty closely, showing Mike, played by Ralph Meeker,11 driving down a lonely highway and almost wrecking when some crazy broad in a trenchcoat and nothing else runs right out in front of him! But Mike isn’t driving his no-name “heap”! No way! It’s a low-slung, way-cool Jag!12

Mike, ever the gentleman, lets the lady in — Cloris Leachman in her first role.13 Her gasps for breath, which accompany the opening credits,14 are probably intended to suggest sexual breathing. Meanwhile, Nat King Cole is singing a cheery song on the radio, “I’d Rather Have the Blues Than What I’ve Got,” nice noir, but a long way from Mike Hammer, whose idea of a good tune was probably “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

The flick veers wildly away from Hammer territory when we learn that Cloris is “Christina Bailey,” named for pre-Raphaelite poetess Christina Rossetti. If Mike or Mickey ever met Christina Rossetti, or any other poetess, for that matter, I’m sure he would have shot her on general principles. At least I hope so.

Christina doesn’t quote any poetry to Mike, thank the lord, but she does analyze him, which is almost as bad. Naturally (and rightfully), the dame doesn’t have long to live. A long, black Caddy blocks Mike’s path, and when he stops a bunch of dudes with snappy shoes step out and put the snatch on both Mike and the broad. We see a shot of Cloris’ naked legs and hear her screaming. Then, silence. We don’t see the dudes’ faces, but we do see someone holding a pair of pliers. “Shall I revive her, boss?” one of them asks. “If you revived her, do you know what that would be?” replies the “boss,” in an icy, intellectual voice. “That would be a resurrection. And do you know what that would be? That would be [beat] impossible.”

OK, torture, particularly torture of broads, is definitely a Mike Hammer thing, but theology? Forget it!

No, Christina does not get resurrected, but Mike does, waking up in a hospital with Velda (Maxine Cooper)15, who is quickly joined by Pat Chambers, Mike’s police department buddy, a (very) standard plot device, who alternately threatens Mike and supplies him with inside information.

It’s the former this time around, and when Mike gets out he has a date with the “Interstate Crime Commission,”16 a bunch of sneering feds who harass and humiliate Mike, telling us that he’s not so much a private dick as a pimp/gigolo. Got a wife you’d like to divorce? Mike can get you all the evidence of adultery you need, even if he has to get it the hard way, if you catch my drift. Tired of your hubby? Hire Mike. He’ll turn Velda loose on the old man and you’ll be looking at a tidy divorce settlement to ease your sorrow.

Mike is glad to get away from these jokers, and so are we, because it gives us a chance to see Mike’s fabulous, fabulous swinging bachelor pad, which must have made Hugh Hefner green with envy.17 A trés hip, trés horizontal fireplace features extra-length silver birch logs, imported from New England, one must imagine. Modern art adorns the walls, not to mention a built-in telephone answering machine — a reel-to-reel tape recorder with five-inch reels, which must have set Mike back two hundred and fifty clams.18 Most outrageous of all, we see a set of golf clubs resting inconspicuously against a wall. I’m sorry, Bob! I’m sorry, A.I.! Mike Hammer did not play fucking golf!

Velda joins Mike for a little clinch time. “Just to hold the soft part of your arms is a meal,” he tells her — a compliment, apparently. Velda spends the entire picture trying to impale herself on Mike’s mighty cock, but Mike has a few things for her to do first. This case smells big, very big. The pussy can wait.

Like so many noir flicks, and novels, the plot of Kiss Me Deadly consists largely of Mike tracking down a person, who gives him a name. Mike tracks down that person, who gives him another name. And so on, and so on, until all the pieces start to fall together. If you keep dealing long enough, you’re bound to find the joker.

Mike’s pursuit takes him up and down some of the darkest staircases ever. I’ve never thought of Aldrich as a staircase man, but here he out-Hitchcock’s Hitchcock.19

Along with the staircases, we get a look at Velda’s pad, as sweet as Mike’s. Velda, apparently an amateur ballerina, has full-length mirrors and a dancing barre in her apartment,20 along with a poodle who wears a rhinestone collar.

Because his Jag’s been totaled, Mike tools around in an MG, perhaps the cutest car ever made, a car that the real Mike Hammer would have gladly run over with a steam roller, again on general principles. Mike replaces the MG with a 1954 Corvette, a teenage boy’s idea of heaven. Mike runs into a dame who’s strictly trouble, Gabrielle21 (Gaby Rodgers), a clingy, whiny blonde who can’t keep her mouth shut, as well as a rich broad who can’t keep her legs together.22

Eventually, Mike solves the case, with the aid of Christina Rossetti’s poetry — you knew the film would come back to her, didn’t you? — but Gabrielle double-crosses him, as dames are so wont to do. She’s in league with the icy, intellectual dude, Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker)23 , who spouts some ridiculously over the top dialogue at her and us: “Listen to me as if I were Cerberus,24 barking with all his heads at the Gates of Hell.” Quite sensibly, she plugs him. When Mike shows up, she plugs him too. Then, unwisely, she opens the box the doc told her not to open, which turns out to be some sort of atomic pile. The unholy fires leaping from the box consume poor Gabrielle (well, by this point she’s murdered a couple of people, so really, she’s got it coming).25 Mike, shrugging off the effects of a .45 slug to the belly, struggles to his feet and saves Velda, who (of course) had been kidnapped. Afterwords

Parklane followed Kiss Me Deadly with My Gun Is Quick. Again the hype was superb — “The High Society Dame Who Played It Lowdown And Dirty! The Secretary Who “Worked” After Hours! The Stripper Who Knew How To Tease! The Blonde Who Left Her Bedroom Door Open!” — but the flick itself, apparently, less so. It’s not available on disc. The only other Mike Hammer film that is available on home video is the 1963 Girl Hunters, starring Mickey himself as Mike. An online reviewer finds that Mickey, “though he isn’t Olivier, grows on you” and also finds the climax “surprisingly violent.” Stacy Keach played Mike on TV in both the eighties and the nineties, mostly for laughs, with an endless bevy of buxom bimbos vying for Mike’s eye. Some of these episodes are on disc but I’m not sure which years are represented.

In a serious instance of life not imitating art, Mickey did not take his well-earned millions and head out to Vegas for a life of booze, broads, and good times back in the fifties. Remarkably, he spent much of his time going door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness. But as the fifties waned he came to senses, more or less, and started writing two-fisted fiction again, eventually dropping his first wife and picking up a young blonde, Sherri Malinou,26 who famously posed nude for the cover of The Erection Set.27 In the seventies and eighties he made a lot of cash in the Miller Lite TV ads.

Mickey discourses on life, literature, and the apocalypse (the correct, Greek, word is actually parousia, as Mickey notes) in an excellent interview here.

For the flamin’ finale of Kiss Me Deadly, go here. here.

  1. I, the Jury sold six and half million copies in the U.S. alone, back when the population was about half of what it is today. For many years, Spillane was regarded as the best-selling author in history, but in the past few decades he’s fallen way, way behind. Wikipedia has a fascinating list of all-time best-sellers here. []
  2. Sample prose from the Mickster: “I snapped the side of the rod across his jaw and laid the flesh open to the bone. I pounded his teeth back into his mouth with the end of the barrel  . . and I took my own damn time about kicking him in the face. He smashed into the door and lay there bubbling. So I kicked him again and he stopped bubbling.” []
  3. Essex, much more of a writer than a director, only directed three other pictures, Mad at the World (1955), Octaman (1971), and The Cremators (1972, aka The Dune Rollers). But he wrote the scripts for fifties kitsch classics like It Came from Outer Space (1953) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), not to mention Jail Bait (1955). He then shifted to TV, writing for everything from The Untouchables to I Dream of Jeannie. In 1996 he had the satisfaction of recycling his script for It Came from Outer Space for TV, writing It Came from Outer Space II. []
  4. I, the Jury, unfortunately unavailable today, must be a real curio, one of the very few black-and-white 3-D flicks ever made. []
  5. Elliot did not get many starring roles following I, the Jury, but did work for 30 years in Hollywood, usually in supporting roles, and usually on TV. []
  6. The Long Wait was the only non-Mike Hammer novel that Spillane wrote in his early, golden days. []
  7. Like I, the Jury, The Long Wait is not available on home video, but it does have at least one admirer on the web: “The scene where a bound-up Peggie Castle crawls to a bound-up Quinn (to get her hands on his hidden pistol under pretense of a final kiss) would have made a great paperback cover for a Spillane Novel.” []
  8. Aldrich, who came from a seriously old money family in Rhode Island, moved to Hollywood to embrace the down and dirty. Read Gary Morris’ classic review of Aldrich’s classic The Killing of Sister Georgehere. []
  9. Albert apparently preferred to go by “A.I” Kiss Me Deadly is his best-known script. A.I. got his hands on some real money in the mid-sixties when he “created” The Big Valley TV series, a shameless rip-off of Bonanza. In 1969 he worked with Aldrich on an obscure short, The Greatest Mother of Them All, starring Peter Finch and Ann Sothern. It sounds like the quintessential cult failure, but unfortunately I know nothing about it. []
  10. Spillane’s books typically end with Mike blowing away a gorgeously seductive Judas dame. Mickey had perhaps the goriest Madonna/whore complex on record. []
  11. Although Meeker had a long, active career in film and TV, he rarely had lead roles. His performance as Mike Hammer is easily his best-known. []
  12. Probably an XK-120, which stayed in production through 1954, and probably the sexiest car in America at the time. (Ferraris were practically unknown.) By 1954, Mickey himself had gone upscale, even if Mike hadn’t. Spillane appeared as himself in an unusual 1954 film,Ring of Fear, now available on DVD, that consisted largely of acts from the Clyde Beatty Circus. (Mickey’s investigating a series of mysterious “accidents.”) Spillane’s payment was a new Jag. []
  13. Leachman, still active, has been doing TV for sixty years, surely a record. []
  14. The credits come at us from the top down, so that they have to be read bottom up, an unusual device. []
  15. Cooper, like many of the actors in Kiss Me Deadly, worked primarily in TV. []
  16. Kiss Me Deadly was “inspired,” at least a little bit, by Senate investigations into organized crime headed by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, hearings that acquainted Americans for the first time with an organization known as the “Mafia.” In the book Mike mentions “Mafia” as a forbidden word. For whatever reason, there is no mention of the Mafia in the film, but apparently the Kefauver Committee did not like being portrayed as the “Interstate Crime Commission,” and they denounced the film. According to online gossip, Aldrich “felt compelled to conduct a writing campaign for the free speech rights of independent film-makers.” []
  17. Hef, who started Playboy in 1954, was probably still putting the issue together on his dining-room table in 1955. []
  18. Audio tape did not come into existence until after World War II. Home machines were extremely rare. []
  19. I wrote about Hitchcock’s fascination with staircases here and in my long review of Psycho. []
  20. Cooper, I must say, does not look like much of a dancer, because she can’t get her foot more than twelve inches off the floor. At least, she doesn’t. []
  21. Throughout most of the film, we believe Gabrielle to be “Lily Carver,” whom she in fact murdered before Mike got on the case. []
  22. Mike tries to give her a lesson in bourgeois morality and deferred gratification, but when you wanna, you wanna, right? The more Mike says “no,” the more the gals want him to say “yes”! Dames! They never change! []
  23. Dekker clearly had a classy mien, playing the Comte de Provence in Marie Antoinette in 1938 and Louis XIII in The Man in the Iron Mask in 1939. He closed out his career as “Pat Harrigan” in The Wild Bunch. []
  24. According to Greek legend, the entrance to Hell was guarded by a three-headed dog, Cerberus. []
  25. In the book, the “McGuffin” (Hitchcock’s word for whatever it is that everyone is looking for) is a device for smuggling drugs, which will somehow blow the case wide open. Mike disposes of Gabrielle by setting fire to her. (She’s just had an alcohol rub. I seriously doubt that a couple of tablespoons of alcohol could supply enough fuel to consume a human being, but a good plot twist is hard to find.) Neither Mickey nor A.I. could figure out a way to present the words “kiss me deadly” as a line of dialogue. []
  26. Sherri “went Hollywood,” according to Mickey, as young blondes named Sherri so often do, particularly when they’re married to men twice their age. []
  27. Boys growing up prior to the sixties used to play with Erector Sets, with miniature girders, etc. Sort of like Lego, except much cooler. []