One thing’s for sure: I’ve never watched a noir quite like Kiss Me Deadly before. From the moment it begins, with Cloris Leachman breathlessly running on that deserted road, it never lets up on its relentless assault on our senses. In every scene, the wheel of motion churns and churns. Leads build to the mystery of the “great whatsit.” Pale, sensuous limbs tangle around unscrupulous private eye Mike Hammer, who makes no effort to brush them off. Leather shoes squeak ominously on pavements, or loom just out of sight as signifiers of a greater menace. Everything builds to a resolution of great moment, which makes no bones about hiding its nihilistic intentions. Pandora ’s Box is opened and the world, as we know it, changes irrevocably. It reminded me of the famous eighth episode of David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks revival, with the atomic bomb ushering in the Evil of All Evils, and I wouldn’t be shocked if this film was partly an influence on his artistic vision.
I think the only thing that prevents me from calling this a masterpiece is how sprawling the plot can be at times. Hammer’s investigation doesn’t have any particular structure, and half the time he’s just chasing down names his secretary has somehow procured for him. Most of the characters he interviews come and go without us knowing them any better, and even when the villains are sussed out, it still takes a while for their intentions to come to light. It’s true that Hammer himself doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but based on how he goes about his search, you’d think he were better at his profession (and wouldn’t have to rely on Velda so much, like Jesus Christ).
I also think the connection to Rossetti’s poem, and how Hammer extrapolates the clue from it, is really tenuous. Maybe it’s the English major in me, but I can’t believe it took that long for Hammer to connect Christina’s letter to the poem, and I also have no idea how the passage he latches onto would make him think Christina hid that key where she did. It would have made more sense if she had underlined it in her book, but as far as we know, she didn’t.
Picky, picky, picky, I know. I just couldn’t help notice these things, and they slightly dampened my enjoyment of this. The ending, on the other hand, is perfect. Illogical and ridiculous it may be, but so stunningly executed in its technique. Visually and aurally magnificent, and oh so fucking miserable. That’s how you do a downer ending, folks.