This week at the Hardboiled Hangover, we’re taking a look at some films based on the books of Mickey Spillane – the prolific pulp maestro of sex and carnage. During his time on earth, Spillane (1918 – 2006) sold tens of millions of books, most notably his Mike Hammer series. A private detective who was fueled by rage and moral righteousness, Hammer was a misanthrope who preferred beating confessions out of riff raff rather than questioning them. Spillane put the hard back in hardboiled, with Mike Hammer as his literary tool for vengeance. He certainly wasn’t going for deep insights into the human condition. Mickey wrote to get paid and his books were all about instant gratification of the two-fisted sort.
In Harry Essex’s I, the Jury, Mike Hammer is a dim-witted, primitive goof who punches his way out of a whodunnit. The next film to feature the private dick stepped it up a notch, portraying Hammer as a crass neanderthal who not only uses his fists instead of wit, he’s a pure sadist. Despite having the meanest of mean bastards as a protagonist, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is a landmark film of the classic noir period’s twilight years. It’s a satirical look at Mickey Spillane’s creation, while also miraculously blending hardboiled noir with apocalyptic science fiction. The mystery at the heart of the film unfurls against a violent maze of Red Scare paranoia and features one of the greatest MacGuffins of all time – one of white hot nuclear fire.
The film opens with a delirious, nearly naked woman (Cloris Leachman) running barefoot down a street at night. She jumps in front of the next car that approaches, nearly killing herself. It’s a Jaguar convertible with one snarling prick in the driver’s seat: Mike Hammer. First he yells at her for almost wrecking his car. Then he barks at her to get in.
The credits roll BACKWARDS against their drive in the dark. There’s something offensive about watching credits rolling the wrong way. Their drive is waylaid by a group of unseen thugs who torture and kill the girl. Hammer’s beaten unconscious, crammed back into his Jaguar with the girl, and pushed off a cliff. Hammer miraculously survives and once he’s on his feet again, decides to investigate the dead girl. He does this not to defend her honor or any heroic shit like that, no. He’s probably just pissed they trashed his car.
The Hammer in this film, played by Ralph Meeker and his childish grin, is the lowest common denominator of private detective. He only takes on volatile divorce cases (something Philip Marlowe swore off) to wring large fees from desperate husbands and wives. His loyal secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) helps seduce cheating husbands while Hammer takes photos of the philandering. He’s that kind of “detective.” It seems to be working out for him too. His apartment is littered with fancy digs and electronic marvels of the time, like a reel-to-reel answering machine built into the wall. Fast cars, fancy gadgets, a sexy aide, expensive booze – Hammer’s living the Playboy lifestyle before it was a thing.
Much like the Mike Hammer in I, the Jury, Meeker’s Hammer doesn’t so much as solve the mystery as he follows a loose trail and beats the hell out of anyone he comes across. There are clues, references to Shakespeare and 19th century poetry, and actual trails to follow, but Hammer’s too stubborn to actually figure anything out. Instead he cleans clocks, punches a dude down three flights of concrete stairs, breaks a coroner’s hand, and even smashes a rare Pagliacci record. And he does all of this while smiling sadistically. The one thing he understands is violence and he’s damn good at it.
Like most noirs, the trail is a convoluted one infested with many characters and side plots. It all leads up to the great whatzit: a briefcase stashed in a locker. What’s inside? It burns Hammer’s wrists when he takes a peek. It glows and hums. Why, of course it’s a chunk of raw nuclear material stolen from a test site in Los Alamos. If simple clues confuse Hammer, this turn of events really gives him a migraine.
Spillane’s original novel (published in 1952) had none of this nuclear suitcase* plot. It was concerned with a mafia conspiracy, not intrigue and espionage. These elements were added by screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground), who later had an encounter with Spillane and boy howdy did the author not appreciate the changes. And while Spillane’s ending is ridiculous in his typical macho manner, the ending of Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is a literal nuclear apocalypse that swallows the world in white fire. THE END.
The film is a big departure from the straightforward bad vs. badder dichotomy of Spillane’s novel, but these diversions pay off in spades. Kiss Me Deadly is an unforgettable film noir/sci-fi hybrid that packs more than just punches (there’s also torture, bones breaking, opera, great driving scenes, backwards credits, disorientating camerawork, and a little Spanish guy who says “Va-Va-Voom!” a lot). The Criterion Collection released a fantastic Blu-ray choking with bonus features, so if you dig the film I highly suggest spending the dough for that bad boy.
* The briefcase MacGuffin of Kiss Me Deadly influenced later films such as Repo Man and Pulp Fiction.