A woman dressed only in a trench coat runs screaming down a highway, trying to get anyone to stop. She succeeds only when a sports car nearly hits her and goes careening off the edge of the road. The driver, one Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), is far from being sympathetic or even interested in why Christina (Cloris Leachman) is in such desperate straits. All he cares about is any damage to his car.
Thus begins Kiss Me Deadly, one of the most famous of films noir. This scream of an opening certainly gets your attention and proves to be just the beginning of an unrelenting battering that lasts nearly two hours. In a frantic whirlwind around an obscure mystery in which you are not even sure what has happened until nearly the end, one out-of-control moment after another pummels the characters and the viewer into bewildered submission.
To call Kiss a film noir is, however, a little misleading. A typical noir story follows a sympathetic protagonist through a web of deception and corruption. Hammer, on the other hand, is sympathetic only because, like a standard noir hero, he is at the mercy of events beyond his control. Even in that regard the film is somewhat uncharacteristic, however, because Hammer is not a passive victim; his reaction to every obstacle is to punch through it. Violence is not his modus operandi, it is his modus vivendi. Meeker provides a remarkably convincing, even alluring portrait of a strutting, self-confident rooster, but his bravado proves pathetically inadequate for dealing with the horror at the center of the mystery.
Like much of director Robert Aldrich’s work, Kiss never lets up or gives you time to breathe. Questions may arise. (For example, why are women so eager to offer themselves to such a self-absorbed bastard like Hammer?) But things move too quickly and viciously for the doubts to linger. And when the cause of the mayhem is finally revealed, we accept it in all its ludicrous glory, as if only something so outlandish could be in keeping with what we have been through. (I won’t give away anything. If you have to know the source of the flux, watch the movie.)
Whether you find this cinema of fascistic brutality exciting or repellent, Kiss Me Deadly compels through sheer force. While not initially successful, it was taken up by other filmmakers, including Godard, Alex Cox and Quentin Tarantino and today is considered one of Hollywood’s most important works from the 1950s. Love it or hate it, you cannot deny the taut skill with which it is made. Maybe Aldrich had to be as much of an SOB as his protagonist to make something like Kiss Me Deadly. But results are what count, and the film bludgeons its way into a kind of respect bred as much of exhaustion as affection, but real enough.