I’m a crime fiction addict—honestly and unrepentantly—but I’ve found that some of the classics of the genre fail to get me high. Raymond Chandler called Philip Marlowe “neither tarnished nor afraid . . . the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” That’s nice enough for Phil, but I always found it disappointing. What’s the point of a tough-talking PI if his hardboiled shell conceals a center of sickly sweet Cadbury cream?
Film adaptations of detective classics tend to amplify their hero’s moral side, making his snark into little more than bluster. No matter how hard Sam Spade might crack wise, we know that Bogie would never really do the wrong thing. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is the exception to this—his Marlowe is truly laid back right until he becomes a killer—but it was made in the ’70s. For years, I have hungered for a film adaptation from pulp’s golden age that did justice to the fact that, to be a private detective, you have to be a motherfucker.
And then I found Kiss Me Deadly. I wasn’t expecting much from this 1955 Mickey Spillane adaptation, and the first scene hit me like a sucker punch. Cloris Leachman, barefoot and naked save for a trenchcoat, throws herself in front a private detective’s car. He is Mike Hammer, played with a snarl by Ralph Meeker, and he initially seems like just another tough guy. An escapee from a mental institution, she begs for a ride, and he gives it to her—driving just far enough that they can be run off the road by her assailants. When he wakes, the girl is dead and, worse, his car is totaled. For the sake of both of them, Mike goes hunting for justice.
The playwright in me was quickly entranced by the beauty of the film’s structure. In each scene, Mike meets someone who leads him to someone else. As he puts it, “Yesterday I was looking for a thread. Today, a piece of string.” This is private eye structure distilled to its purest form, and it works because each character he encounters is finely wrought and unforgettable. There’s Velda, his pseudo-girlfriend, whom he pimps out to get information from lonely men. There’s Nick, Mike’s mechanic, an over-the-top Greek caricature who punctuates every thought with “Va-va-vooooooom!” There are a pair of surprisingly polite—and utterly strange looking—heavies, who explain their cheery attitude by saying, “We’re on this earth such a brief span—we may as well be.” That’s a line worthy of the mobsters on the Simpsons.
But as the film rumbled on, I realized something that my playwright’s eye had missed. Meeker’s Mike Hammer is a cruel son of a bitch. A true bedroom PI, his tough-talking exterior hides something much darker underneath. He’s either a nihilist or a sociopath. By the end of the film, he dispenses with the cute talk and goes straight to hurting people to get what he wants—slapping around a desk clerk and breaking a medical examiner’s fingers because reasoning with them would take too long. The man is truly evil, and boy do I love it.
And that doesn’t even get into Kiss Me Deadly’s famous ending. Rather than ruin the surprise, I’ll just say that this movie’s answer to “What’s in the box?” is even stranger than Seven’s. Noir is supposed to represent the dark side of the post-war American dream, an unflinching examination of the evil that lurks around the edges of progress. But too often, when confronted with that evil, famous private detectives flinch. Not only does Mike Hammer stand firm, he charges straight ahead into the blackness, and takes you along with him. You won’t regret the ride.