One of the more interesting parts of doing reviews is the ability to buck conventional opinion when it comes to critically loved movies. I always site two classic films as examples: John Ford's "The Searchers", while considered a classic western and was the inspiration for "Taxi Driver", has some jarring unfunny attempts at humor that damn near derailed the whole film for me. "Touch of Evil", which is cited by many as one of the best examples of Film Noir, has never evolved for me above a collection of interesting camera movements and locations.
But as for the Film Noir genre, even "Touch of Evil" was better in my mind than "Kiss Me Deadly", which features one of the first portrayals of Mickey Spillane's hard-as-nails detective, Mike Hammer. Hammer is a classic character who is a thug and a detective, usually in that order. He picks up a mysterious woman on the side of the road and makes brief conversation before finding out that there are bad guys after her. Before he knows it, she's dead, the car is totaled and he's beaten into a coma. When he wakes up, he's determined to find out what all of it is about.
A big fault of this film is the acting. Ralph Meeker, who looks like a cross between Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston, has the charisma and acting talents of neither. His tough guy facade is all he has, and even that can't hide the moments when he looks like he's reading off cue cards. This same tendency afflicts many of the other characters who deliver their dialogue as stilted lines with no real emotion behind them. Of the few actors who do, you know, act, there is the big villain, who is only revealed at the end and cannot go two sentences without making a reference to ancient mythology or the Bible. It is a simplistic way to characterize him as the "educated" villain, and is an example of the film's attempts at subtlety.
The film as a whole was also choppily made with some bad visual and sound editing. The very beginning has the woman on the road panting from the first time we see her to the end of the credits. It gets annoying after awhile, especially since it sounds like they had the actress "pant" once and simply looped it over and over again, often to a steady rhythm. The shot of the woman waving down cars also seems to be the same shot recycled over and over again. Such sloppy work is not a good first sign and does nothing for pulling the viewer into the story.
One positive to the film is the cinematography, which is essential to a good Film Noir. Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, who did wonderful things with b&w photography in "Inherit the Wind" and "Judgment at Nuremberg", does some nice arty shots that catch the viewer off guard. My favorite was when Hammer enters a room bathed in shadows and walks up to his desk. He turns on the desk lamp and two thugs that had been sitting there are suddenly illuminated. It actually made me jump when I first saw it. Too bad there wasn't more of that.
Something should be said about the ending, so those who hate spoilers should beware this paragraph. Much is made on the DVD that the original ending is edited into the film. The other shorter ending is also included as an extra for comparison purposes. I had read that the included footage answers so many questions about the plot, but I sure didn't see that. All you find out from the longer ending is that the two main characters escape the exploding the house (the original ending left it more ambiguous as to whether they survive or not). It was just another annoying aspect to the film that had annoyed me already.
This is a film only for those who love Film Noir, and then just barely. All others should avoid it. If you want a good taste of the genre, start with "Out of the Past" with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. And then there's "The Killing", "Asphalt Jungle", "The Big Sleep", "Laura" and, well, you get the idea.
Five out of Ten