Over on the Noir of the Week blog, there’s an interesting article by Glenn Erikson about the history of the alternate endings of Kiss Me Deadly. It’s a little long, but if you’re a fan of that particular film or noirs in general or of film preservation, it’s a good read.

I did not see the film until a few years ago, after the long-lost ending had already been restored. However, my DVD has the other, alternate ending, so I was able to see the mutilated version as well. kmd3.jpgNot only is Kiss Me Deadly one of my favorite films, but the ending on the beach as Aldrich originally filmed it is one of my favorite scenes in classic film, so I was shocked to find that it had been so butchered. Yet, as Erikson’s article describes, this alternate version was the ending that for decades critics assumed was the correct one, and consequently, there is a great deal of criticism incorrectly discussing the “deconstructed” nature of Kiss Me Deadly‘s ending. At any rate, read it if you’re interested.

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kissmedeadly.jpgThere are classic film noirs, I suppose, and then there are classic film noirs. I recently re-watched one of my absolute favorites of the genre – Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly. While on the surface the film contains many of the tried and true genre conventions – the labyrinth-like urban setting, the morally ambiguous protagonist, the unknown but much sought after MacGuffin – it infuses these conventions with vigorous new life and meaning. In fact, there is a depth to the script (owing in no small part, I’m sure, to the original novel by Mickey Spillane) that is often absent in noirs. The resulting film goes well beyond the superficial detective story and raises many questions regarding what it means to live in a world where the lives of individual people actually matter surprisingly little.

The concept of the investigator being involved in a story where he has to figure out exactly what it is that is at stake is by no means rare in the noir genre. On the kissdeadly.jpgcontrary, protagonists are rather commonly thrust unwittingly into mysteries where they must figure out for themselves just what it is they’ve gotten themselves into. Kiss Me Deadly simply takes this quest a step further. When investigator Mike Hammer (played ever so cooly by Ralph Meeker) stumbles upon a girl named Christina (Cloris Leachman) late one night on a deserted highway, he discovers she is harboring secrets that others will stop at nothing to obtain. After she is eventually tortured and killed over these secrets, Mike starts his quest to unravel the mystery. Guessing that he’s on the trail of “something bigger” than his usual small-time divorce cases, Mike begins searching for clues that will eventually lead him to the source of all this intrigue. But the further along he searches, the clearer it becomes he might be biting off more than he can chew. As his assistant, Velda, quips, “First, you find a little thread, the little thread leads you to a string, and the string leads you to a rope, and from the rope you hang by the neck.”

Indeed, as it turns out, the thing Mike is looking for isn’t just “something bigger,” it’s something huge. In a post-WWII, nuclear age, private ambitions and plans of individuals mean little compared to the large ideological and political forces that can result in wholesale destruction and death. By the time Mike realizes this, he is in way over his head, and abandoning his hopes for a big payday, he must struggle just to keep himself and those closest to him alive. The famous closing scene (strangely not shown in the original release in many countries) has Mike and Velda clinging to each other in the water upon the shoreline – a haunting image which from its liminal perspective would seem to indicate the struggle of the couple to maintain its relationship from a rather marginalized position in the world. It’s a stunning visual that really has a tremendous effect. It seems an appopriate ending to a work in which everything good – love, beauty, poetry – struggles to survive in the face of greed and power.

I seem to have rambled into a bit more analysis with this posting than I usually do. Suffice it to say that Aldrich’s direction is excellent and energetic, the acting is good, and the script is top-notch. Owing much to the zeitgeist of the 50s, the film really captures the paranoia and strange sense of discomfort beneath the surface of post-War America. Kiss Me Deadly is one of those entertaining films that has a surprising amount of depth to it and just never seems to get old. I highly recommend it.