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(Criterion Blu-ray)

Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1955
Cast: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Wesley Addy, Marion Carr
Director: Robert Aldrich
Release Date: June 20, 2011
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 01h:46m:12s
Genre(s): noir

"It's all right, you can trust me." - Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker)


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How can you not love a movie that starts with a psycho, speechless Cloris Leachman, and ends with the prospect of nuclear armageddon?

Movie Grade: A-

DVD Grade: A-

So you're driving along the mean streets of Los Angeles, and a crazy woman throws herself in front of your car, causing you to screech to a halt. You find out that she has, literally, just escaped from the asylum. The cops stop you, looking for a mental patient on the lam. Why would you cover up for her? Well, the question this movie asks, really, is: Hell, why not?

Things start loopily, and get even seedier as things go on in Kiss Me Deadly, newly tricked out on Blu-ray from our friends at Criterion. The movie is based on a Mickey Spillane novel, but, as we learn from the ample supplementary material, it's far from faithful to its source; it certainly features one of the most loathsome central characters in all of the genre, if not in all of film history. That would be Spillane's iconic detective, Mike Hammer, played here with blistering intensity by Ralph Meeker—he lacks all of the almost romantic noblesse oblige of colleagues like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and has an almost uncanny knack for saying or doing the wrong or most boorish thing. He does remain oddly formal throughout, in a manner that only movie detectives can adhere to—he may speak and act like a pig, but he always is perfectly tailored in his coat and tie, even when he's checking himself out of the hospital.

His business is digging up dirt for divorces (making him an obvious progenitor to the hopelessly sentimental Jake Gittes), and wow, does he love wallowing in the mud of his work. Director Robert Aldrich sends him on a dizzying journey, one that's so byzantine that it's almost not worth trying to follow—but the dastardly doings in Act 3 sort of make you wish you had paid more attention earlier on in the story.

Aldrich runs through the catalog of the best noir locations—we even get scenes at a boxing gym and a racetrack—and despite how things conclude, you get the sense that the movie really isn't very interested in politics. They do provide a convenient way to ratchet up the stakes, though. (It's easy to imagine James Ellroy going loopy for this movie; and he ends up lapping it, with a much more deft touch in mixing the historical with the pulpy.) Aldrich displays some obvious affinities with Samuel Fuller, but he's even more geographically specific—this is just a fantastic Los Angeles movie (featured prominently in the difficult-to-find-but-worth-it documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself), for a part of the city (pre-gentrified Bunker Hill and the east side) that now exists only in our memories and on film.

Criterion had me with the cover design alone, and their love of noir permeates this set. Alex Cox kicks it off (6m:38s) with a look at the film and its hero, who he accurately describes as "violent, thuggish and stupid." Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane (39m:38s) is a look at the novelist prepared by Max Allan Collins, in which a later generation of pulp writers pay their respects; in a text postscript, Collins offers a few final thoughts of his own. (This also features an instruction from Criterion whose philosophical implications I cannot stop pondering: "To exit, press ENTER.")

The Long Haul of A. I. Bezzerides (9m:14s) is an excerpt from a longer documentary on the film's screenwriter—he's happy to take credit for what's good in the movie and blame others (Spillane, Aldrich, the cast) for what's bad. He's got skills, but he also seems like an enormous pain in the ass. Bunker Hill Los Angeles (7m:06s) focuses on the location shooting, with an appealing, informative appendix (1m:45s) of then-and-now shots. What we see in the feature is a version restored in 1997; a minute or so of footage was truncated previously, and Criterion gives us a chance to look at this bowdlerized conclusion to the story. And old noir hands Alain Silver and James Ursini provide a chatty commentary track, which runs the gamut, with a particular emphasis on how the filmmakers didn't care much for Spillane or his work, and wanted to "turn the novel on its head." The accompanying booklet features an essay on the film and its reception by J. Hoberman, and a rousing defense of the picture, published in 1955, from Aldrich.

Posted by: Jon Danziger - June 23, 2011, 1:33 pm - DVD Review
Keywords: noir, criterion, spillane

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