The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents September 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Kiss Me Deadly
New York, New York
The Sacrifice
ASC Close-Up
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Blu-ray Edition
1.66:1 (High Definition 1080p)
LPCM Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Part hard-boiled detective story, part apocalyptic sci-fi horror film, Kiss Me Deadly is one of those rare movies that seems as audacious now as it must have to audiences in 1955. The basic plot, loosely adapted from Mickey Spillane’s bestselling novel, does not sound like anything special: after private-eye Mike Hammer picks up a hitchhiker who is later murdered, he becomes determined to learn the truth about her death and punish those responsible. In director Robert Aldrich’s hands, this formulaic premise becomes a starting point for a delirious expression of 1950s anxiety and paranoia, starting with opening credits that run backwards and ending with an atomic explosion.

In between is a tour through Los Angeles, an attack on McCarthyism and the atomic age, riffs on classical mythology and literature and even a running commentary on Spillane and the detective genre itself. Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides held the novel Kiss Me Deadly in contempt and held liberal political views in direct opposition with Spillane’s more conservative leanings. Their disdain created an interesting tension in the finished film. On the one hand, the movie takes Spillane’s essentially sexist tale and infuses it with a feminist critique via the women who consistently call Hammer out on his Neanderthal behavior; on the other hand, the force of Spillane’s conception is too strong to be completely wiped out by Bezzerides’ and Aldrich’s attempts at subverting it. Bezzerides largely jettisons Spillane’s macho posturing, but he cannot erase it entirely, especially since Spillane and Aldrich share something in common: they are both strident moralists, albeit on different sides of many of the ethical and political issues they address. The upshot of all this creative tension is Kiss Me Deadly is far more complex than it would have been if it were the product of unified sensibilities: it veers from scenes of brutal violence to moments of great poignancy and from broad comedy to true horror, with Aldrich’s firm directorial hand keeping the whole thing from spinning wildly out of control.      

In keeping with the film’s genre crossbreeding and extreme shifts in tone, director of photography Ernest Laszlo, ASC, offers a diverse array of images ranging from traditional noir chiaroscuro to brightly lit Los Angeles exteriors in which lazy days by the pool contain as much menace as dark urban alleys. Laszlo was a frequent partner of Aldrich on seminal films, including The Big Knife and Vera Cruz, but Kiss Me Deadly is their greatest collaboration; honoring film noir conventions while pushing the detective film in new directions influenced by modern painting and architecture, it serves as a transitional work between classical mysteries like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and the slick, mod crime movies of the 1960s (Gunn, Point Blank). Laszlo is particularly good at using lighting as an element of production design, creating clean, geometric patterns through shadows that complement the abstract expressionist influence on the décor and sets.

Laszlo’s images have been given a new high-definition restoration that preserves the movie’s beautiful but gritty black-and-white photography with rich detail, texture and contrast — a massive improvement over MGM’s artifact-laden original DVD release. The mono soundtrack is excellent as well — so faithful to the source, in fact, that it occasionally makes the flaws in the original dialogue recording uncomfortably obvious. (The clarity in the image similarly exposes some of the film’s ragged edges, such as stunt performers who bear almost no resemblance to the principal actors.) As far as extras go, Criterion has produced one of its very best commentary tracks in the form of an ongoing narration by Aldrich scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini, who analyze the movie in language both thoughtful and accessible.

Director Alex Cox then provides a brief (at six-and-a-half minutes) but provocative appreciation of the film in which he introduces several intriguing lines of inquiry; this is followed by the excellent 40-minute documentary “Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane,” which utilizes interviews with Spillane and his admirers and collaborators to present a thorough introduction to the author. Further comments from Spillane (who hated the screen adaptation of Kiss Me Deadly) can be found in a nine-minute video piece on Bezzerides, which also includes interviews with Bezzerides and novelists George Pelecanos and Barry Gifford. A seven-minute featurette on Kiss Me Deadly’s locations is a delight for Los Angeles history buffs, as is an accompanying montage contrasting the Los Angeles of 1955 with that of the present day. A theatrical trailer, as well as the bowdlerized ending from the original release of Kiss Me Deadly, round out the disc.

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