Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Kiss Me Deadly

A search of the blog claims that I've never even m Kiss Me Deadly before. It's airing overnight (or early tomorrow morning depending on your time zone) at 4:30 AM on TCM as part of this month's "books to movies" salute, having been based on one of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels.

The part of Mike Hammer is played here by Ralph Meeker. I'll admit to never having read any of the Mike Hammer novels, but Hammer here is even more hard-boiled than Sam Spade or a disillusioned cop like Glenn Ford's character in The Big Heat; reference sources suggest that this is par for the course for Hammer. Ralph Meeker also certainly looks the part. Anyhow, the movie starts with Hammer driving his car and coming across a harried-looking woman (Cloris Leachman) who is running away from people because she apparently has knowledge of the MacGuffin that's going to drive everybody's behavior throughout the course of the movie. The bad guys aren't far behind, and eventually catch up, forcing Hammer's car off the road in an "accident" which sends Hammer to the hospital and the girl to the morgue.

After some time in the hospital, Hammer learns of the girl's death, and is told by the police that he shouldn't bother himself with this case, because this is much too big for him. In fact, the feds are on the case, which only serves to make Hammer believe that he really should be investigating. Part of this is that the investigation into the MacGuffin is liable to lead to putting the case of the woman's murder on the back burner, but also because with so many people trying to get this MacGuffin, it has to be something really valuable. Perhaps it's even the stuff that dreams are made of. (In the original book, everybody's apparently after illegal drugs, but for the movie it's been changed to something that will provide a more spectacular ending.)

As I wrote earlier, Mike Hammer here is an extremely rough, cynical, hard-boiled character, who has no qualms about committing violence to get to the bottom of the mystery, something he has no qualms doing in part because he sees the police as ineffectual as they're not allowed to resort to violence. (The policing of today might show that Hammer's faith in the nonviolence of police is misplaced, but that's another story.) Indeed, there's a lot of violence on display here, not only from Hammer but also from the bad guys who not only kill the Cloris Leachman character, but are not above going after a lot of other people.

I think the word I would use to describe Kiss Me Deadly is "stylized". The violence is over-the-top at times, almost as if the characters are more archetypes than realistically-drawn people. The story also seems secondary at times, as though it doesn't matter what the characters are trying to obtain; no, it's simply more imprtant that the characters are willing to kill each other over something valuable. Hence, my use of Alfred Hitchcock's word "MacGuffin" several times above. In that regard, the movie succeeds quite well. It has a starkly interesting visual style, looking much different than what the major studios were putting out at the time, and not only because of Hammer's willingness to engage in violence. There's a sub-genre of films that I've referred to as "post-noir" before, which I think of as different from traditional noir pictures in that three's a much brighter (in terms of lighting, not necessarily mood) atmosphere, combined with what appears to be less studio-bound shooting. Kiss Me Deadly combines that with the 1940s hard-boiled detective stories in a way that I can't think of any earlier movie combining the two. Kiss Me Deadly is a treat to watch.

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