B&W, 1955, 106 mins.
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Starring Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Gaby Rogers, Paul Stewart, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman, Juano Hernandez, Wesley Addy, Marian Carr
Criterion (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), MGM (DVD) / WS (1.66:1)

Film noir cynicism and atomic panic collide in Kiss Me Deadly, one of the oddest and most important mainstream films from the 1950s. Though based on a Mickey Spillane novel, the film apparently did not please the hardboiled author who later took a turn himself playing his impulsive private eye, Mike Hammer, in The Girl Hunters. However, time has been very kind to this Robert Aldrich classic and ultimately allowed it to stand as the best Spillane adaptations, and one of the best crime movies in general, to date.

While driving back at night to L.A., Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is stopped along a dark road by a panic stricken woman (Cloris Leachman), clad only in a trenchcoat, running down the asphalt. He picks her up and listens to her sobbing hysteria, accompanied all the while by eerie Nat "King" Cole music, as she explains that her name is Christina and that she has been forcibly imprisoned in an asylum. Suddenly a car runs them off the road, and Christina is brutally tortured to death while a drugged Hammer languishes on a dirty matress. Mike survives the assault and, after refusing to cooperate with the police, does a little investigating of his own with his faithful, sexy secretary, Velda (Maxine Cooper). A trail of clues leads him to Christina's former roommate, Lily (Gaby Rogers), and a series of bizarre encounters at a boxing hall, a swimming pool party, and a sinister scientist named Dr. Soberin (ill-fated Dr. Cyclops himself, Albert Dekker), all of them related to a mysterious case containing something dark, dangerous... and glowing.

Though the plotline seems terribly complicated, Kiss Me Deadly sweeps the viewer up in its dazzling rhythmic patterns, created through unbalanced, enigmatic dialogue and sharp editing which creates the illusion of wandering through the film in a drug-induced haze. The overall tone is more like that of a horror film, with the various genre elements (gumshoes, atomic terrors, stark lighting) combining in a way never successfully imitated. Frank DeVol contributes an effectively jarring aural atmosphere with his clashing symphonic riffs and jazz compositions, an indication of the equally fine work he would do on later Aldrich projects like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen.

For many years after its release, Kiss Me Deadly ended with an abrupt, apocalyptic conclusion which trimmed off the last few shots of the film as Aldrich originally planned. A restored version surfaced on television in the late 1990s, followed by repertory screenings and a widescreen laserdisc release (replacing an earlier, full frame edition of the shorter cut). The MGM DVD looks about the same as the laserdisc, which isn't a bad thing considering how terrific it looked in the first place. Contrast is excellent, and the whites are strong and subtly rendered without any blooming. The DVD also follows the laserdisc by including the original shortened ending as an extra, along with the jittery theatrical trailer. The only missing extra is the isolated music and effects score, but the DVD compensates by finally offering closed captions, which are quite helpful in discerning a few rushed plot points. The Criterion version bests it, particularly in its crisp Blu-ray rendering, plus a commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, a video intro by director Alex Cox (who paid overt tribute to this in Repo Man), a doc about Spillane, an excerpt from a doc about writer A.I. Bezzerides, location featurettes, the original theatrical ending, the trailer, and liner notes by J. Hoberman with vintage notes from Aldrich about the film's "excessive" violence.

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