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Kiss Me Deadly (Blu-ray Review)

23 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not Rated.
Stars Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Cloris Leachman, Maxine Cooper.

It was long ago clear from a rollicking interview with the late Mickey Spillane on the great old “Later with Bob Costas” show that the famed schlock private eye novelist of monster sales was a transcendently agreeable regular-guy with absolutely no pretentions. Easily compounding this perception is the revealing 40-minute Spillane documentary — I, for one, didn’t know he had been a Jehovah’s Witness; can you imagine having him at your door on a canvassing knock? — that accompanies what will likely end up being one of Criterion’s top releases this year. This was the kind of down-to-earth guy with whom you’d want to have a beer (if not necessarily horse-tinkle Miller Lite, despite his onetime TV huckstering of the stuff). Still, this doesn’t mean he was always the best judge of his own material.

Spillane hated the movies that producer Victor Saville fashioned from four of his novels, and he certainly had a case with the sorry, censor-compromised screen versions of I, the Jury, The Long Wait and My Gun Is Quick (the last of which, in what is likely a coincidental dovetail, has just come out as an “on-demand” release from MGM-UA arm of Fox distribution). But third-in-line Deadly turned out to be a bedrock masterpiece of American cinema, one with a far more illustrious international reputation than any book or movie with which Spillane’s name was ever associated. Director Robert Aldrich and fellow Left-ie screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides took the author’s politically reactionary thug/cretin of a detective Mike Hammer and used him to personify most of what they thought was wrong with America in 1955. What’s more, it totally ignored or up-ended the novel’s plot in the process.

I didn’t see Deadly when it came out because I was only just about to turn 8. What’s more, it was not a movie that garnered all that much attention — though there’d been some bad pre-release publicity that Aldrich had tried to rebut in print. The picture barely escaped a Legion of Decency “condemned” rating over not just its molar-busting violence but implied sex (note the nightclub chanteuse here holding a mike that could pass for a penis, close to her vocal). When Deadly opened downtown the first week of June at my home turf Loew’s Ohio (billed with a uranium claim-jumping drama called Canyon Crossroads), the sister Loew’s Broad was playing the ’55 re-issue of The Wizard of Oz, and the RKO Palace was a week away from opening Fess & Buddy in Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. These were much more on my mind (sensibilities that would soon change).

But by 1961, as with a lot of low-budget United Artists releases of the ‘50s, Deadly had already been sold to TV — and I was ready for it when it played on a summer late-late show aired by the local CBS affiliate, where I later worked for five years. What a set-up: Two of my five favorite TV shows of the era had been “Mike Hammer” with Darren McGavin (even though he was too nice for the role) and the far smirkier Ralph Meeker’s weekly showcase for military police punch-outs (“Not for Hire”). And now here was Meeker playing Hammer. Beyond this, I was also fully immersed in the hard-boiled Hammer milieu: Starting in the fourth grade, my best friend Jim Freeman and I frequently sneaked into the “adult” section of our local library (which was essentially a row) to read and re-read the last five pages of Jury — a book whose famous payoff is the scene where the duplicitous ‘B’-girl peels off her underwear in an attempted seduction of the sleuth, and Hammer pumps a bullet into her navel.

Even today, Deadly is one weird movie by any standards, but seeing it in ’61 at an impressionable age was an indelible experience. First off, it didn’t even launch with standard opening credits (Aldrich would later become more famous than anyone for letting footage elapse before the credits finally rolled: think What Ever Happened to Baby Jane or The Flight of the Phoenix). Then, when the familiar ritual did begin, the credits rolled backwards over the action (for an almost future Star Wars effect) as the soundtrack got even more dreamy portent out of a Nat King Cole ballad than Terrence Malick would get in Badlands. Three different actresses had scenes (including then newcomer Cloris Leachman in the opener) where their characters were naked either under a coat or a more revealing garment. And Hammer had the first personal telephone-answering machine I had ever seen (a reel-to-reel tape on his office wall).

What else? With a ‘50s buzz cut that any hard-ass suburban baseball coach (and were they ever legion) would have been proud to sport in the same era, Meeker’s Hammer was a nasty guy who nonetheless exuded cool in a small white Jaguar convertible that you wouldn’t want to be in if it were hit by Zsa Zsa Gabor’s moving van. He also knew how to treat Percy Helton, an ubiquitous character actor who specialized in playing the most sleazy derelicts. In one unforgettable scene that’s rough even today, Meeker shuts a desk drawer on Helton’s fingers and applies about a million foot pounds (a term my science teachers of the era liked to use) of pressure.

The crazy-quilt plot involves one of filmdom’s most memorable “nuclear devices,” for which an effectively cheesy special effect and some high-pitched fun on the soundtrack suggested a lot. The TV prints shown at the time — and for a couple decades more — were inexplicably truncated during the combustive finale, a version of the scene that’s part of the Criterion bonus section. This cut was never the producer/director’s intention, something I learned fairly early in life once Aldrich began lending us his personal 35mm print for showings when I was programmer for the American Film Institute Theater in Washington, D.C. — one of them in a series devoted to Francois Truffaut’s favorite films, for which Truffaut made an appearance. In the predictably pro-job commentary by top-drawer noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini, the point is made that, yes, in Aldrich’s intended version, Hammer and his office associate Velda (Maxine Cooper) survive the device’s explosion. But they’ll likely die sooner or later of radiation fall-out.

In addition to a couldn’t be-better Criterion essay by Jim Hoberman, there are also instructive supplements about Bezzerides (who, judging from the footage here, must have fallen on hard times) and about the mostly vanished Los Angeles locales Aldrich used for this definitive L.A. movie (even if the original novel did take place in New York state). I’m also happy that the commentary on this good-looking release gives credit to Aldrich’s magnificent work for the Director’s Guild, which led to major reforms that still stand today. And this from a patrician-by-birth who never towed the family line (his first cousin was Nelson Rockefeller, and the “A.” in Nelson A. Rockefeller stands for Aldrich).

There are a couple gonzo footnotes regarding the casting. Gaby Rodgers (who really gets it at the end) was, says IMDb.com., married to rock royalty Jerry Leiber — and, with Billy Edd Wheeler, she eventually co-wrote “Jackson” (the staple for Johnny Cash-June Carter and then Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazelwood). Better yet, actress Cooper married producer Sy Gomberg, who became an activist against “gratuitous and unwanted violence in movies and television.” You gotta love it.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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