Cinematic introductions don’t come more dramatic than the scene that introduced Cloris Leachman to the big screen in 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly. In the classic noir’s opening, a traumatized Leachman runs down a lonely highway barefoot in a state of complete panic, naked but for a trenchcoat. No one will stop for her, so she throws herself in front of a car that veers out of the way just in time. The driver brusquely informs her he never would have stopped unless forced to. Her whimpers and sobs mingle with the lush beauty of Nat King Cole’s “I’d Rather Have The Blues” as the opening credits run upside down. The crazy credits almost feel redundant: We’d know we were in an upside-down nightmare world even without them. It would seemingly be impossible for any film to maintain that level of bleak, unrelenting intensity, but Kiss Me Deadly manages it; it’s a testament to the film’s consistency that its ending is much better known than its equally unforgettable opening.
Ralph Meeker stars as Mike Hammer, the man in the car, a brutal gumshoe created by pulp author Mickey Spillane as the ultimate no-nonsense tough guy. After the woman winds up missing, Hammer descends into a shadowy nightmare realm where everyone treats him like gutter trash and he gives people no reason to feel otherwise. He’s the hero mainly by virtue of being moderately less psychotic than the lowlifes around him.
Kiss Me Deadly is unsentimental to the point of sadism. Director Robert Aldrich generally favors deep focus, but he can’t help but switch to a rare close-up to illustrate just how much our protagonist enjoys slamming a sleazy mortician’s hand in a drawer when he proves unhelpful. Hammer inhabits a world devoid of warm emotional attachments beyond his affection for his crudely stereotyped ethnic sidekick. Kiss Me Deadly begins tough, funny, and utterly original, a film noir for an age of nuclear paranoia. And it never lets up until a rightfully iconic ending (super-fan Quentin Tarantino borrowed elements of it wholesale for Pulp Fiction) that elevates proudly pulp subject matter to the level of savage pop art.
Key features: The usual assemblage of awesome extras from Criterion, including an even bleaker alternate ending, audio commentaries from film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, a documentary on Spillane, and a video tribute to the film by Repo Man director Alex Cox.