A desperate woman races down an isolated road at night. She's only wearing a trenchcoat. And though the scene is rendered in black and white, color would hardly make a difference here: The shot, like the world of Kiss Me Deadly itself, is composed of stark contrasts.
That opening shot of the 1955 noir caper Kiss Me Deadly should be enough to snare any viewer up in the film's mysteries. If the prospect of a detective classic -- full of all the shady characters, leggy dames and iron-knuckled brutes that your life is sorely lacking -- doesn't grab you, consider the following reasons to catch tonight's big show.
Mickey Spillane. Kiss Me Deadly is the film version of Spillane's comma-inclusive 1952 novel, Kiss Me, Deadly. And while it's the most famous and most successful of the adaptations of any book in Spillane's Mike Hammer series, it's also the most controversial. Spillane -- a genuinely tough guy who actually played the Mike Hammer character in the 1963 film The Girl Hunters -- didn't appreciate some of the changes that ended up in the script: namely the inclusion of the "mystery box." (More on that in a bit...) If it's enough to get angry about, it just might be worth watching.
Cloris Leachman. Screw Betty White and her Mrs. Claus-esque ways. She may have a few years on old Cloris, but Cloris is the Hollywood granny to watch because she gets dirty and takes the whole crass granny schtick to a place Betty won't. #teamcloris In Kiss Me Deadly, Leachman plays the aforementioned scantily clad
woman running down the deserted road. It's a small part, but it's Leachman's first-ever film role, and fans of Phyllis Lindstrom and Young Frankenstein alike will get a kick out of a youthful Leachman playing the mysterious, alluring and troubled woman who gets Mike Hammer tripped up in this film's central mystery.
Pulp Fiction, Lost Highway and L.A. Confidential. Watching this one might remind the film-savvy of a few other wonderfully dark Los Angeles-based movies. Take the much sought-after suitcase that the Kiss Me Deadly's cast of goons is trying to get their grubby, blood-stained on. Does it remind you just a bit of the similarly sought-after suitcase in Pulp Fiction? You know, the one that may or may not contain the soul of Marcellus Wallace? It should. But rest assured -- unlike in Pulp Fiction, you find out what's causing bright light to emanate out of Kiss Me Deadly's piece of luggage. Furthermore, both the beginning and the end of Deadly might remind David Lynch fans of Lost Highway, what with black
asphalt snaking through the arid Los Angeles outskirts and ultimately leading to an isolated cabin that burns to the ground in a rather spectacular way. Then, of course, there's the fact that it exists in a bygone era of our city in a way that Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential did. But don't think of Deadly as a time capsule, exactly...
It was a throwback back then, too. You might consider Kiss Me Deadly to be genre-defining, but it plays with the conventions of the detective story quite a bit. For example, it's been argued that Mike Hammer is a sort of dinosaur whose hard-fisted method of cracking cases has already been rendered irrelevant by the
increasingly global stakes of organized crime. (A tough demeanor and a loaded gun prove fairly ineffective at taking down the film's big bad, as you'll see.) And some of the film's dialogue is so thoroughly hardboiled, in fact, that it verges on camp. If director Robert Alderich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides truly were mocking noir conventions at the same time as they were embracing them, then what you have is a smart, ahead-of-its time work that manages to both take down and build up of the most popular film genres ever.
Vintage Los Angeles. Our city has hosted than its fair share of hardboiled detective dramas, real and fictional, but Deadly stands out as notable by virtue of the fact that it captures a version of Los Angeles we can't see anymore. Hammer spends much of the film snooping around Bunker Hill residence that were demolished just a few years later. Hammer's home base, however, still exists today. (Head to 10401 Wilshire Blvd. if you feel like sightseeing or, you know, playing detective.)
It's restored. Even if you watched Kiss Me Deadly on TV years ago -- maybe as a late-night movie, maybe as filler for a rained-out ball game -- you may not have seen the "proper" version. Spoiler alter: The film's original theatrical ending but short Mike and his gal Friday's escape from the burning cabin, leaving the viewer to think that they maybe perished in the radioactive inferno that takes out the femme fatale. Only in 1997 did the film regain its original, non-truncated ending, in which you see the heroes' escape from the blaze and into the crashing waves of the Pacific. That's not far enough to escape radioactivity, of course, but it's a little hope that good can triumph even in this darkest of film noir endings.