Kiss Me Deadly (Blu-ray)
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 106 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: June 21, 2011
Review Date: June 16, 2011
Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is a film that neatly bridges the cinematic eras between film noir and the slicker, sleeker private eye dramas of the late 1950s and 1960s. It’s a breathless film masterfully directed and featuring the typical hard-boiled characters and rough, seedy locales that one comes to expect with a private eye drama set in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. The fact that it was made on a low budget actually helps it now as a barebones film of the period where the narrative and characters carry the day with very little in the way of superfluous glitz to distract from what’s going on.
Private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a frantic woman (Cloris Leachman) hitchhiking on a road in the dead of night who’s obviously on the run but who won’t say anything about her situation other than, “If they catch us, remember me.” Sure enough, the two are apprehended and eventually sent careening down a steep mountainside from which Hammer miraculously escapes death. Once it becomes clear to the bad guys that he’s alive, they begin a series of threats against his few friends – girl Friday Velda (Maxine Cooper), garage mechanic Nick (Nick Dennis) – to keep him from investigating what the murdered woman (who he learns was named Christina Bailey) had or knew that they’re interested in, but the deeper Hammer digs, the more dangerous his job becomes especially since it involves a tough syndicate boss Carl Evello (Paul Stewart) who has thugs on retainer to deal with the Mike Hammers of the world.
Though Mickey Spillane’s name was featured prominently in the advertising, Kiss Me Deadly takes only the title and a few characters from Spillane’s novel of almost the same name (a comma was left out). Screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides hated the novel and crafted his own scenario with a different MacGuffin from the book and almost completely different dialogue. (Not surprisingly, Spillane hated the screenplay and didn’t understand why they bought his book and didn’t film it.) Director Robert Aldrich really exploits the mixture of sleek and sleazy environs for the movie, showing us several views of Hammer’s nifty apartment with its surprising spaciousness and built-in answering machine but also taking us to such atmospheric dives as a sweaty boxing gym, the greasy garage where Nick plies his trade (and where a nasty murder occurs), and a rundown flophouse where a failed operatic tenor still dreams of impossible glory. He also directs scene after scene of stylish set-ups and occasional brutal violence. He’s particularly impressive in one shot where Hammer lowers the boom on thug Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert) right above the frame so we don’t see what knocks the big man cold and a later scene where Hammer enters his darkened apartment and turns on a lamp which, as he raises it higher, reveals two goons there to ambush him. He also switches scenes up sometimes doing them in long, unbroken takes and others in quick bursts that parallel the tough talk that is the mark of the effective film noir aspects of the movie. Bezzerides’s hard-boiled dialogue trips off the tongues of all of the characters and rewards a viewer with repeated plays of this movie.
Ralph Meeker is a great Mike Hammer, handsome and virile enough to make all of the women who throw themselves at him believable but also sneering and callous enough for us to buy him utterly as a real antihero. Wesley Addy as his benevolent policeman buddy Pat Murphy underplays to good effect, particularly helpful since his other friend Nick is performed in such an over-the-top manner by Nick Dennis. Albert Dekker and Paul Stewart play menacing bad guys with subdued relish while Jack Elam and Jack Lambert get the most out of their nasty henchman roles. Three actresses are introduced in the film, but truth to tell, only one of them really shows any kind of distinguished acting chops here: Cloris Leachman as the desperate blonde with many secrets who dies before she can reveal them. As for the other new faces, Maxine Cooper is a rather too stoic and flat-voiced Velda while Gaby Rodgers’ (as Lily Carver) ethnicity makes her speech patterns very stilted and her performance unconvincing.
The film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and features 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Grayscale rendering results in terrific, crisp whites in the transfer, but the black levels vary from fair to good. For the most part, sharpness is outstanding, and the image is clean apart from some slight speckled damage on the right side of the frame late in the movie. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
The PCM (1.1 Mbps) uncompressed mono track sounds very good for a low budget production from this era, but Criterion’s engineering wizards haven’t been able to remove all of the aural anomalies from the mix with some slight, muffled crackle evident from time to time. Still, the voices, sound effects, and music blend together smoothly without one overtaking the other throughout the presentation.
The audio commentary is provided by two film scholars who know their way around films noir and the movies of Robert Aldrich: Alain Silver and James Ursini. They speak easily and well about the film and the director’s career never talking over one another and providing enough insight into the movie that a listen is mandatory.
“Alex Cox on Kiss Me Deadly” spends 6 ½ minutes with director Alex Cox comparing the book to the film in this 1080p featurette.
Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane is the 1998 documentary in which author Mickey Spillane discusses his life and career with clips from some of the films where he starred as Hammer as well as featuring interviews with Leonard Maltin, Stacy Keach, and quite a few notables in the field of detective fiction and the literary world discussing the work of the author. It’s in 1080i and runs 39 ¾ minutes. Max Allan Collins adds a postscript to the documentary in a separate three-page text entry.
“The Long Haul of A. I. Bezzerides” features an interview with the feisty writer who talks about his loathing of the book on which he based his script in this 9 ¼-minute piece presented in 1080i.
“Bunker Hill, Los Angeles” is a 7-minute documentary featuring the Los Angeles locations presented in the film. It’s culled by director Jim Dawson and narrated by Don Bajema. The piece is presented in 1080p. A 1 ¾-minute follow-up shows the few remaining locations today, also in 1080p.
The altered ending which changes the fates of two specific characters is presented in a 22-second clip in 1080p.
The film’s theatrical trailer is presented in 1080p and runs 2 ¼ minutes.
The enclosed 22-page booklet features cast and crew lists, some superb stills and posed publicity photos, film critic J Hoberman’s critique of the movie and rundown of the career of Robert Aldrich, and Aldrich’s defense of the movie when he faced receiving a condemned rating by the Legion of Decency.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
A low budget independent film becomes a memorable crime drama of the mid-1950s when Robert Aldrich tackles Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. Outstanding bonus features along with a very good audio and video presentation make this a release that’s not to be missed. Recommended!