Cloris Leachman, an Oscar-winning American actress best known for supporting roles, died a few weeks ago. Most news reports focused on her later career, from the 1970s on, when she won her Oscar (for The Last Picture Show) and popped up regularly on TV. However, I didn’t notice any mention of two important movies of hers. One is Herbie Goes Bananas, an unwanted ’80s sequel in what we would now call the VW-with-a-mind-of-its-own ‘franchise’ or ‘universe’ — important because, when I was small, this was the very first film I was brought to see at the cinema. (The second was E.T. and the third was Rocky IV; I’m such a child of the ‘80s.) The other is a sensational 1955 crime thriller called Kiss Me Deadly, directed by Robert Aldrich. It’s one of my favourite films ever and if you don’t know it you’re in for a treat.
Leachman in Kiss Me Deadly makes an immediate impact; the film opens with the unsettling sounds of her gasping breath and bare feet slapping on an isolated tarmac highway late at night. It seems she’s running for her life, but from what and whom? Pretty soon she comes to the attention of a passing motorist — none other than hard-boiled private eye Mike Hammer, played here by Ralph Meeker. No better man, says you, to help a dame in distress, fend off a few heavies and solve the mystery.
But wait. Kiss Me Deadly is not that kind of detective flick. For one thing, for a mainstream 1950s film (noir-ish as it may be) it’s viscerally nasty. The heavies aren’t your usual musclebound goons throwing a cartoonish sock on the jaw or pointing a gun from inside their coat pocket; they go in for genuinely horrible and painful violence. Even the offscreen stuff makes your skin crawl.
Another thing about Kiss Me Deadly; its private eye isn’t a noble Dick Tracy or a likeable Sam Spade, but pretty much a dumb asshole, barely more than a sentient fist. With Hammer, witnesses get bullied, allies get mistreated, and still he never seems any nearer to solving the crime or even understanding what he’s mixed up in. In fact, one of the sheer pleasures of Kiss Me Deadly is seeing how the unlikeable Hammer is in way, way, WAY over his head. All he knows is that the whole affair involves a mysterious valuable package, which to the extent of Hammer’s limited brainfarting could mean something like a diamond brooch or Spade’s mythical jewel-encrusted falcon statuette. The truth, when it is revealed, is far more astonishing: the stuff that nightmares are made of.
That final revelation gives Kiss Me Deadly one of the most inventive and spectacular endings in cinema. Trust me, it’s something to savour. In particular, you’ll recognise its influence on a famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Influential is certainly one word to describe Kiss Me Deadly; it’s now a real-deal cult classic whose key notes have been echoing in countless crime thrillers and action flicks ever since. The debt owed by Raiders is clear enough. Gene Hackman’s rough-house cop Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, also up against something bigger than he initially realises, is arguably torn from the same cloth as Meeker’s Hammer. Meanwhile, the most notorious sequences in each of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction suggest Quentin Tarantino noticed Kiss Me Deadly’s effective use of offscreen, overheard violence. (Pulp Fiction, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, also gives a nod to the ending of Kiss Me Deadly.) Any time in a movie that our hero cop or private eye behaves like shit for brains, acts the bully or generally ‘crosses the line’, you can detect the particles from Kiss Me Deadly’s fallout.
But back to the start; here’s the late Cloris Leachman in the fantastic opening sequence of Kiss Me Deadly. Another of this film’s unsettling idiosyncrasies; note the direction of the title credits: