Movie Review: Kiss Me Deadly

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A private investigator gets drawn into a deadly plot after picking up an intriguing hitchhiker.

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Robert Aldrich, 1955

When private dick Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up hitchhiker Christina (Cloris Leachman) on a deserted stretch of highway in the middle of the night, the enigmatic, frightened woman turns his life upside down. They are kidnapped and Christina killed, and when Hammer returns home, he investigates Christina’s murder. Hammer and his assistant Velda (Maxine Cooper) flirt, quip and cajole their way to more and more strange information about the shady plot. As he digs deeper into the mysterious threatening forces that killed Christina, Hammer puts himself and his friends in danger.

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Kiss Me Deadly is another film I ended up watching late at night thanks to the wonders of the YouTube autoplay feature, although this venture into the YouTube rabbit hole was far more enjoyable than my last journey into the dark. It wasn’t until I reached the end of Kiss Me Deadly that I realised I’ve heard about it before in film school. There are so many threads of influence throughout cinema that can be traced back to this movie. It’s a carefully constructed, weird little gem of a movie. The ending is so crazy and unexpected that it could easily sink a lesser film, but the journey to it has been so carefully crafted that it’s almost impossible not to be hooked, to want to see what happens next. This is despite Mike Hammer being a pretty nasty piece of work – his only redeeming feature is his dogged obsession with finding out the truth behind the murder of a girl he found interesting, but that single-mindedness is also his undoing. His name is oddly apt – at the start of the film he uses his brain and smooth talk to wheedle information out of anyone he can, but as the film moves along his methods become more and more bluntly violent. It earns its noir credentials the hard way, infused with darkness. The dialogue is on absolutely the finest noir form, all dames and gams and silver-tongued puns that are a delight to listen to.

Being a film noir, Kiss Me Deadly is rife with sexism and outright, hostile misogyny. The film’s women are all ingenues, sex kittens, or straight-up evil – after all, it wouldn’t be noir without a femme fatale. Probably the most troubling character is the infantile sister of a gangster, a woman who throws herself at Mike Hammer the minute he shows up at her brother’s mansion. He is appallingly condescending as he mansplains that she shouldn’t be so “friendly”, all while taking advantage of her. Velda is a very different beast, though – she is damselled, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s also implied that she flirts with marks for information in the same way that Hammer does, and their relationship is much more explicitly sexual than you’d usually see in a film noir. Some of the overt sexism is almost funny now – watch Christina say that women are incomplete without men and try not to laugh. Having said that, Cloris Leachman kills it as Christina. The opening ten minutes of the film take place largely in Hammer’s car, with a terrified, yet whimsical Christina completely winning Hammer over. It’s an arresting way to start the film. The cinematography of Kiss Me Deadly is terrific too, using sunlight and darkness to great effect – the night is when Hammer operates, sneaking around in the shadows, while he’s generally out of his depth during the day. This movie is clear in its vision, and it carries it out with aplomb and considerable disdain for the nastiness of the world. It’s definitely worth seeing.

Kiss Me Deadly on IMDb

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