Whatsit all about, Mickey Spillane?

I am a lover of mysteries.  Whether they take place in Agatha Christie’s socially-proscribed England, or Michael Connelly’s sun-baked Los Angeles, or Stieg Larsson’s frozen Sweden, I’ll happily let myself be transported to the setting and dive into solving the crime.  With its emphasis on plot, the mystery was made to be adapted for the screen.  It would be hard to read Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” these days without hearing Humphrey Bogart’s voice.  The whole genre of film noir is rooted in mystery and crime.

The movies and film noir also influenced the mystery genre in the 1950’s, with the rise of the hardboiled detective.  No one was tougher than Mike Hammer, the gumshoe created by Mickey Spillane.  Most people today know the character from the Stacey Keach TV series that ran from 1984 to 1987.  However, that was a kinder, gentler version.  If you want to see Mike Hammer in all his glory, check out 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly that has just received the Criterion video treatment.

Hammer was played by Ralph Meeker as a blunt instrument, a man who often found the easiest way to answers was to break things or people.  Meeker would later appear in dozens of films in supporting roles, two of the best being Paths of Glory and The Dirty Dozen, and he was a fixture on television drama series for thirty years.  (He died of a heart attack in 1988, in Woodland Hills, California.)   But in Kiss Me Deadly, he took center stage and held it beautifully.

The movie featured in small roles three character actors who became well known in the next decade.  You’ll find a restrained Strother Martin, a thin Jack Elam and, making her screen debut, Cloris Leachman wearing only a trench coat.  The movie opens with her character, Christina, running along a highway, trying to flag down a ride.  She finally steps out in front of a Jaguar roadster driven by Mike Hammer.  He gives her a ride and even lies to get her past a roadblock looking for her.  As they drive, Christina asks Hammer to “Remember me,” if anything happens to her.  Within a few miles it does – a car runs Hammer off the road.  Thugs take Christina and torture her for information until she dies, then they put her back in the car with Hammer and fake an accident, sending the car into a ravine.  Hammer is injured but survives.  After he recovers, he hardly steps out of the hospital before he’s whisked away by the FBI for questioning about Christina.  Hammer’s a low-level private eye, getting by on divorce cases, but he senses that there may be a big payout if he can find what Christina was hiding, an unknown item that Velda, Hammer’s secretary, calls “The great whatsit.”  But there are others searching for the whatsit.  Before the end of the film, a friend of Hammer’s is murdered and Velda is kidnapped, and Hammer himself is betrayed and shot.  However, he wreaks a fair bit of mayhem on the other side too.  When the whatsit is finally revealed, the story makes a jump-shift change, leading to a final, spectacularly explosive climax.  (It does require a fairly large suspension of reality, as well as the laws of physics, simply to believe Hammer and Velda survive, but in the ‘50’s the whatsit was new and shrouded in Cold War secrecy.)

The movie was directed by Robert Aldrich.  He had started as a production clerk at RKO in 1941 and worked his way up to directing television shows such as “Four-Star Theater” in the early 1950’s.  Kiss Me Deadly was his third feature film.  Later he did such films as Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Dirty Dozen, and The Longest Yard.  Deadly is visually stunning when compared to the studio-bound productions common at that time.  Instead, it follows The Naked City style with much of the movie shot on location.  For driving scenes, Aldrich eschews the common blue-screen technique and mounts the camera on the car, looking either forward or backward, depending on the scene.  In this, he was assisted by a legendary cinematographer, Ernest Laszlo, who’d begun his career as a camera operator on Wings.  Laszlo would eventually do eleven movies with Aldrich.  In Deadly, the camera often shoots from an eavesdropper position, such as from high on a staircase looking down on the action.  (Aldrich did try to be different with the opening credits by having them scroll down the screen, rather than up.  It was like reading a book from the bottom of the page to the top, and was unnecessary and distracting.)

The bleak story, with its hero motivated by greed as much as the villains, was controversial when it was released.  The committee chaired by Estes Kefauver that investigated corrupting influences in society named Kiss Me Deadly the number one menace to American Youth of 1955.  There was a different, truncated ending on some prints due to censorship.  (The abbreviated ending was incorrectly labeled “the European ending” even though it was done in the US; the original ending has been restored on the DVD versions.)  The movie later achieved a cult status as people discovered it on late shows and became entranced with its dark, twisty story.   If you don’t mind a two-hour walk on the dangerous side of the street, give it a look.

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