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Kiss Me Deadly: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) movie poster Kiss Me Deadly

Theatrical Release: May 18, 1955 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Robert Aldrich / Writers: Mickey Spillane (novel), A.I. Bezzerides (screenplay)

Cast: Ralph Meeker (Mike Hammer), Albert Dekker (Dr. G.E. Soberin), Paul Stewart (Carl Evello), Juano Hernandez (Eddie Yeager), Wesley Addy (Lt. Pat Murphy), Marian Carr (Friday), Marjorie Bennett (Manager), Fortunio Bonanova (Carmen Trivago), Madi Comfort (Jazz Singer), Robert Cornthwaite (FBI Agent), Nick Dennis (Nick), Jack Elam (Charlie Max), Jesslyn Fax (Horace's Wife), Percy Helton (Doc Kennedy), Jack Lambert (Sugar Smallhouse), Mort Marshall (Ray Diker), Strother Martin (Harvey Wallace), James McCallion (Horace), Silvio Minciotti (Mover), Ben Morris (Radio Announcer), Paul Richards (Paul Richards), James Seay (FBI Agent), Leigh Snowden (Cheesecake), Jerry Zinneman (Sammy), Maxine Cooper (Velda), Cloris Leachman (Christina Bailey), Gaby Rodgers (Lilly Carver), Robert Sherman (Gas Station Man - uncredited)

Buy Kiss Me Deadly from Amazon.com: Criterion Collection Blu-ray Criterion Collection DVD MGM DVD


Mike Hammer was one of the defining heroes of the 1950s. Introduced by author Mickey Spillane in the 1947 book I, The Jury, the hard-boiled private detective went on to
star in over a dozen mystery novels, a radio drama, four television series, and a handful of motion pictures.

Hammer was written as unsubtly as he was named. Weary of law enforcement, committed to justice, and a master at fist fights with deductive powers to match, the character and his exploits are quintessential pulp fiction. Women want to lock lips with him. Men can choose only to help him or try to kill him, the latter certain not to end well for them.

Released in 1955, Kiss Me Deadly was the second Hammer movie made. It is based on Spillane's sixth Hammer novel, his seventh book overall and his last for nine years. Though the first three films were produced by United Artists every other year, the studio made no effort for continuity. In fact, unlike television, where the role was held by Darren McGavin from 1958 to 1960 and Stacy Keach ever since, no actor ever portrayed Hammer more than once in feature films.

In her film debut, Cloris Leachman plays Christina Bailey, a young trenchcoated hitchhiker whose mysterious abduction and death drive the rest of the film. Though old-fashioned in many ways, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is ahead of the times as far as telephone answering machines go.

In the lead role, Kiss Me casts Ralph Meeker, a 34-year-old actor with a handful of film credits and Broadway's Picnic to his name. Meeker had just turned down reprising his role in Columbia Pictures' major adaptation of that award-winning play, reportedly opposed to signing a long-term contract (earning William Holden the job instead). Meeker doesn't embellish the part of Mike Hammer, embracing his stubbornness and misogyny, punching his way out of life-threatening situations and barely noticing all the ladies swooning around him.

The film opens with an hysterical young lady (none other than TV veteran Cloris Leachman, making her film debut) naked under a trench coat taking drastic measures to flag a ride from Hammer. Her name is Christina and she desperately needs to be taken to a Los Angeles bus station. Though they clear one hurdle, they don't reach their destination, instead winding up in the company of angry, threatening men in whose hands Christina dies and Hammer barely lives. After weeks in the hospital, Hammer is released and questioned by police, whom he is uninterested in assisting.

By now well aware that he is mixed up in something big and potentially lucrative, Hammer is haunted by Christina's request for him to remember her. He and his girl Friday, Velda (Maxine Cooper), who usually dabble in and manipulate cases of marital infidelity, are determined to figure out why Christina was killed and why Hammer is being coerced into silence with threats and car explosives. Running through Greek and Italian stereotypes, the trail to answers leads to Christina's roommate Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers). Then, it continues, leading to one place and another, moving too hastily for you to easily follow.

Sweaty secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) clearly has eyes for Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), but his mind is on milk and other more important matters. Lilly Carver (Gaby Rodgers) feels the heat and glow of the film's MacGuffin, a briefcase presumably containing the soul of Marcellus Wallace.

Kiss Me Deadly feels like a wild goose chase that could have very easily been written as it was being shot instead of loosely following a 3-year-old book. Latching onto any characters other than Hammer and, to a much smaller degree, Velda, is rather futile, as situations regularly arise to divert your attention, making it impossible to figure out where this is heading.
The ultimate destination is a hot, glowing, secured briefcase whose contents shape the electrifying final act. It is one of a few things for which Quentin Tarantino has credited the film as an influence on his Pulp Fiction, with its own mysterious parcel.

According to Wikipedia, Kiss Me Deadly is "often considered a classic of the noir genre." This is echoed in a high average IMDb user rating currently standing at 7.7. I can't say I was too impressed by the film, however. The acting is generally underwhelming and the plotting is a distorted mess that moves you from one point to another without any flow or cohesiveness. At least, the historical value excuses most of the shortcomings, this hailing from the end of film noir's height, revealing much on public tastes of the time and even touching upon the Cold War paranoia for which the decade and its parabolic science fiction are recalled.

Easily the best-known and most highly regarded of Mike Hammer's big screen outings, 1999 National Film Registry selection Kiss Me Deadly has its status reinforced by this week's admission into The Criterion Collection, that beloved "continuing series of important classic and contemporary films." The boutique studio offers a single-disc standard definition upgrade over MGM's low-priced DVD as well as the film's debut on Blu-ray Disc, which we look at here.

Kiss Me Deadly: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Details

1.66:1 Widescreen
LCPM Mono 1.0 (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: June 21, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($29.95 SRP)
Previously released as MGM DVD ($14.98 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

As usual, Criterion stands above all other home video studios. None of them would be caught releasing Kiss Me Deadly on Blu-ray now and none with the highly pleasing results found here. Presented in pillarboxed 1.66:1, the film's black and white visuals elicit very few concerns. They remain clean, clear, sharp, and detailed throughout, only briefly faltering in one scratchy bedroom scene, an isolated fluke occurring in the middle of the film, and more understandably in a climactic effects shot. The picture is not overly scrubbed; the fine grain that is an essential part of the genre remains intact. Kiss boasts more artistry visually than in any other regard and the 1080p presentation makes it easier to enjoy than home video has previously allowed.

The uncompressed LCPM monaural 1.0 soundtrack is also satisfying, dispensing the dialogue and music with little evidence of 55 years of inevitable deterioration. The recordings remain crisp and intelligible almost without fail, with the rare lapse occurring presumably due to extenuating circumstances. Even the old-timers who saw this movie in its original theatrical release should be able to enjoy this mix fully. In case they can't, English subtitles are gratefully offered (though, per tradition, Criterion doesn't extend the service to the valuable bonus features).

In his video tribute, English writer/director Alex Cox counts his "Repo Men" among the films inspired by "Kiss Me Deadly." Writer Mickey Spillane, who played Mike Hammer himself in the character's fourth film, promotes Miller Lite in a 1980s commercial featured in Max Allen Collins' documentary on the author.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Those features, all in HD, begin with an audio commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, historians who have recorded tracks for nearly twenty noir films of the 1940s and '50s. That makes them qualified and comfortable to discuss this in screen-specific fashion with regards to the era, the makers, and to cinema at large.
They are full of terrific information on every aspect of the film and barely a moment goes by without them pointing things out or elaborating.

The short black & white featurette "Alex Cox on Kiss Me Deadly" (6:37) has the English Repo Man and Sid and Nancy writer/director singing the film's praises with production information, comparison to the book, and analysis. His interesting, admiring observations are complemented by askew clips of the film captured in front of him.

"Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane" (39:38) is a condensed new cut of a 1998 documentary on author Mickey Spillane directed by mystery writer Max Allan Collins (the author of Road to Perdition's source graphic novel and assorted film novelizations). A sharp piece that provides valuable Hammer film excerpts and interviews with a variety of authorities (including Stacy Keach, numerous mystery authors, and Spillane himself, who passed away in 2006), this is a most fitting inclusion. It's accompanied by a postscript essay by Collins about his friendship with Spillane and the writer's changed opinion on the film Kiss Me Deadly.

The "Kiss Me Deadly" screenwriter gives one of the last interviews of his nearly 100-year life in "The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides." Los Angeles sites featured in the film, like this Angels Flight funicular railway, are revisited in "Locations Today." The Altered Ending of "Kiss Me Deadly" doesn't add any footage, but it has much meaning in what it omits.

"The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides" is a windowboxed 9-minute excerpt from a 2007 feature documentary of the same name. In it, Kiss Me Deadly's screenwriter (who passed away in 2007 at age 98) recalls scripting it and departing from the text (which he calls "awful"). His work is celebrated by some and derided by Spillane.

"Bunker Hill, Los Angeles" (7:06) talks about the neighborhood where Kiss Me Deadly was shot and relocated (the book is set in New York), with narration written by Jim Dawson and read by Don Bajema laid over film clips and vintage photos of the region. "Locations Today" (1:45) cuts between clips from the film and new footage shot in the same places, getting less from that than you'd like.

A 20-second "Altered Ending" isn't much to see without more context, but as the menu write-up explains, this abrupt clip was what the film wrongly concluded with for decades, until over a minute of critical footage was restored in 1997, completely changing the fates of our heroes.

The advertised extras conclude with the movie's original theatrical trailer (2:13), which shows off several flashy scenes including a good amount of the final one. The trailer and alternate ending were the only extras on MGM's in-house 2001 DVD, which seems to have been discontinued recently.

Gilda Gray and Marian Carr are featured in Cavalier magazine's Mickey Spillane's Dames photo gallery hidden on the disc. Gaby Rodgers clings to Mike Hammer's leg and looks up in the most suggestive of the Blu-ray's three navigated menu photos.

Finally, in digging around the disc's files, I was able to find a gallery of about ten "Mickey Spillane's Dames" photos from a 1955 issue of Cavalier magazine. As far as I can tell, this isn't menu-accessible, so one can think of it as an Easter egg.

The Blu-ray's menu moves around the cover image and two more suggestive publicity photos while playing Kitty White's night club version of "Rather Have the Blues", an original tune Nat King Cole sings over the radio in the film's opening sequence.
The disc resumes playback like a DVD and, as usual for Criterion, is not delayed by ads and piracy warnings.

No Criterion release would be complete without a companion and this one maintains that tradition with a 24-page staple-bound booklet. It is handsomely designed like a 1950s Life magazine issue and has the musty smell that such an old periodical could very well have today. In "The Thriller of Tomorrow", Village Voice critic J. Hoberman eloquently breaks down the film while also detailing its challenges by the MPAA authorities and biographizing the director. "You Can't Hang Up the Meat Hook" is an article that Kiss Me Deadly director Robert Aldrich wrote for the February 20, 1955 issue of the New York Herald-Tribune. This spirited defense of violence places his film and particularly a torture sequence built on suggestion in the tradition of the Bible, Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, and "the emotions of two-legged animals." The two essays are surrounded by the studio's usual bevy of film and disc credits and even a column of vintage classified ads. Scent aside, this great, dense volume might be the best thing about this release.

In the studio's first/last display of nonconformity, the booklet is housed in a clear keepcase with none of the usual Blu-ray branding. Despite that, it measures the same height as standard Blu-ray cases but with the width of a DVD case.

For no apparent reason, hardboiled "bedroom dick" Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) gets a warm, friendly greeting from easy Friday (Marian Carr) at a gathering he wasn't invited to.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Over the years, Kiss Me Deadly has slowly developed the reputation of a film noir classic. Though it may have influenced the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pulp Fiction, this remains a pretty silly movie, capably shot but messily structured and poorly acted. Still, it holds up as a fascinating look at 1950s culture, from pulp mystery novels to Cold War nuclear fears. That gives it more value than many a better film.

Criterion's Blu-ray offers a delightful high-definition feature presentation along with a solid collection of supplements. The film won't get a better release anytime soon and most others of its era won't ever get such careful restoration and lavish retrospection bestowed upon them. That makes this disc more attractive than the vast majority of vintage noir. And though the film isn't good enough to recommend buying unseen, anyone with a soft spot for yesteryear mystery or Mike Hammer would be wise to give this a look.

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Reviewed June 20, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1955 United Artists and Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 2011 The Criterion Collection. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.