Former comic book writer Mickey Spillane published his first Mike Hammer mystery, I, The Jury, in 1947. In a way, it wasn’t that far removed from the superhero stories he’d been writing, even if it was a bit earthier without all the funny costumes. Spillane’s own alter-ego, the burly, hard-drinking, tough-talking Hammer was harder-boiled than that mealy-mouthed wimp, Sam Spade. And unlike that other wet blanket named Philip Marlowe, Hammer had few if any qualms about taking sleazy divorce cases or pulling his gun.
Over the next three decades, the Brooklyn-born Spillane pumped out a dozen more Hammer mysteries, including My Gun is Quick, Vengeance is Mine, and The Girl Hunters. Along with Spillane’s no-nonsense writing style and stories packed with extreme (for the 1950s) sex and violence, the lurid and suggestive cover art that graced his paperbacks helped establish him as the undisputed King of Second Generation American Pulps. As far as cheap detective stories go, the thing that really set Hammer apart was that in a solid reflection of the times, along with the standard array of mobsters, lowlifes and kidnappers, Hammer also spent an unusual amount of time battling communists. More than you might expect for a standard gumshoe just trying to make a buck, anyway. In Hammer’s eyes, at least in the later novels, commies were often depicted as being on the same moral level as child molesters.
It only seemed a given Hollywood would latch onto Spillane and Hammer both. It was a natural, especially with the popularity of gritty crime melodramas in that era. Considering it was the first Hammer novel as well as a massive bestseller, there was little question I, the Jury would become the first Spillane film adaptation, arriving in 1953. Over the years, Hammer would be played by a startling array of actors, from Biff Elliot, Brian Keith, and Stacy Keach to Robert Bray, Armond Assante, Darren McGavin (in the great late-’50s Hammer TV series), and even Spillane himself in 1963’s The Girl Hunters. But for all those actors and all those films, TV shows, and made-for-television movies, you always have to return to Ralph Meeker in 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, which remains the beginning and the end of Spillane adaptations, even if it had little to do with the novel.
It could be argued that Spillane’s own turn as Hammer in The Girl Hunters was the most authentic of the lot. He was no actor, and by then was a little old for the role, but still no one else knew the character more intimately than his creator, and it comes across. Meeker’s delivery might be a shade nasal and slurred, his round face unmarked, his eyes a little wide for the hard-bitten, two-fisted detective. But there’s just something about him that seems right.
The film surrounding him, all those eccentric side characters, all that brutality, the inescapable nihilism, the serpentine plot and the unforgettable apocalyptic climax certainly help matters. Plus, ignoring the fact you can clearly see the actors’ spots marked out in tape in the overhead shots, I was always envious of the wall-mounted reel-to-reel answering machine in Hammer’s strangely modernist apartment.
At the time, Meeker was reasonably unknown, but earlier that year had gained some attention playing an opportunistic but ill-prepared childnapper in the all-star Big House U.S.A. Director Robert Aldrich was also fairly new to the game, but after a couple recent hits with Apache and Vera Cruz, he’d somehow earned enough clout to demand a contract that gave him complete creative control and final cut. Thank God for that, otherwise, once the studio brass and censors were finished with it, the film would have likely been about 12 minutes long. The real coup, though, was in hiring screenwriter (and later victim of the black list, ironically enough) A.I. Bezzerides, who a couple years earlier had written the seminal noir mystery On Dangerous Ground.
Much like 1948’s The Woman on Pier 13, which clearly began life as a standard water front gangster movie but morphed into an anti-communist tract to reflect the second Red Scare and the new Cold War, Bezzerides (much to Spillane’s horror) did a little tinkering with the source novel. The film and Spillane’s 1952 book begin in much the same way, with Hammer driving down a lonely stretch of highway and nearly running down a naked woman who’d just escaped from a local asylum. In the script, the early stages of Hammer’s investigation into the woman’s subsequent murder also parallels the book, and many of the same side characters are on board.
But then Bezzerides starts to stray, and stray wildly. In the novel, Hammer finds himself running up against your standard issue thick necked mobsters. Bezzerides, though never naming them as such, switched out the mobsters for commies, added the espionage, the federal government’s involvement, and most importantly the atomic briefcase and the apocalyptic ending—none of which are even hinted at in the novel. Along the way, he also transformed Spillane’s schlubby but ultimately likeable and heroic tough guy into a vain and downright nasty antiheroic son of a bitch. I mean, when Meeker’s Hammer picks up a naked and hysterical Christina (Cloris Leachman in her film debut), instead of showing the slightest bit of concern for whatever it is she’s been through, all he can do is berate her for almost wrecking his car.
Oh, it’s just a mean and nasty film across the board, beginning with the (mostly off-screen) torture and murder of Christina, which was not only almost unheard of in its day, but even today still tops Marathon Man in its toe-curling brutality. Apart from the dirty commie thugs with their pliers and assorted other hand tools, Hammer himself spends much of the film wandering around LA beating the crap out of everyone from knife-wielding hoods to meek city coroners half his size. For a good guy, he sure does his share of threatening, intimidating and blackmailing to get what he wants. Also shocking for the times, we learn in no uncertain terms exactly how he goes about handling those sleazy divorce cases.
Trying to follow the plot is all but irrelevant as Hammer picks up scattered bits of information from boxing managers, janitors, failed opera singers, science reporters, waifish femme fatales, gangsters, and the aforementioned mousey coroner (though his secretary Velda does most of the legwork). Even at the end, trying to piece together exactly how he got from Cloris Leachman to the atomic briefcase involves a mighty leap of faith. Better to just sit back and enjoy the set-pieces, the eccentric characters (and character actors), the hardboiled dialogue, and all that fantastic location shooting around mid-century LA.
In that way, Aldrich’s film is akin to The Big Sleep from a decade earlier. But while great as it is (at least in its original cut), The Big Sleep remains a stylish Bogart/Bacall fantasy; Kiss Me Deadly, while just as stylish, is a much more accurate reflection of its day and the general mood of the country. It’s relentlessly dark, hopeless, nihilistic, and paranoid. Even the sort-of happy ending, with Hammer and Velda escaping the burning house as everything quite literally goes to hell, was truncated by a few minutes after the film’s release, closing instead on a note that seems to imply complete nuclear annihilation.
I mean, there’ve been plenty of nihilistic noir films, from Detour to The Killing to Blast of Silence, but name another one that closes with the End of the Whole Goddamn World. You can’t get much more nihilistic than that!
Which may, along with that torture scene, help explain why The Kefauver Commission, a government investigation into assorted cultural corrupters of American youth like rock ’n roll and comic books, cited Kiss Me Deadly as the year’s most dangerous threat to the upstanding moral development and innocence of the nation’s youngsters. Which right there tells you Aldrich was doing something right.