'Kiss Me Deadly' feels like a good episode of 'The Twilight Zone.' Not a great one, but a good one. It's got all the components for a suspenseful noir film, deadly dames, greedy thugs, a murderous mystery, and the threat of some kind of nuclear annihilation.
You don't mess with Mike Hammer. He's a private detective who specializes in bilking spouses out of money when they want a divorce. He plays both sides of the case and ends up playing the two against each other. In Hammer's own words he's "a real stinker."
One night, as Hammer is driving along a dark, open road he has to swerve out of the way of a woman standing in the median. Christina (a very young Cloris Leechman) is running from something. We don't have any clue why she's so scared, but Hammer seems to take some sort of pity on her. He picks her up and they drive.
Christina is acting very strange. Someone is after her, but we never really know who, what, or why. Director Robert Aldrich ('The Dirty Dozen') directs the action just like an episode of 'The Twilight Zone.' Little is explained, but we can feel the suspense building. We know something is going on, but like Hammer, we can't put our finger on it. There's an underlying sense of fear as Christina's wide eyes and quivering mouth beg for Hammer to "Remember me."
Getting away isn't in the cards though, as they're caught by her pursuers. Christina's torture scene, while off camera, is quite disturbing. More unnerving than say a 'Saw' movie where you just have to watch all the blood and gore. Here Aldrich is smarter than that. We see her feet struggling, we hear her screaming, but that's it, and that's enough to give us the heebie-jeebies. There's a faceless organization at work and we have no idea what they're up to. What we do know is that Aldrich's movie is suspenseful and at times brutal.
There's an underlying science fiction current bubbling under the surface. As Hammer tries to unravel the mystery of who is behind Christina's murder, he begins to find out more and more that he may be in over his head. But, that's not how Mike Hammer operates. Nothing is over his head. He'll take on anyone and anything. Partly because of his hero complex, and partly because he's an egomaniac. No one pulls one over on Mike Hammer, no one.
Perhaps Aldrich's finest accomplishment in 'Kiss Me Deadly' is his strategic placement of his camera. He catches shots that we never would have thought possible in the 50s. When he straps the camera to the back of the sports cars featured in the movie it gives us a unique view we're not used to seeing in older movie. He isn't afraid to let the camera linger. One shot in particular is a tracking shot where Hammer is being followed. On the side of the frame we can barely see a man slowly following Hammer. The angle of the camera is perfect and adds to the suspense that's been building throughout the movie.
The climax and subsequent ending feel overly strange, but again it's like watching a 'Twililght Zone' episode so that's to be expected. Watching Hammer conduct his business is fun, but watching Aldrich conduct his is delightful.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has provided a BD-50 Blu-ray Disc to house 'Kiss Me Deadly' on. The disc is stored in the standard clear Criterion case. The movie comes complete with a 20-page booklet that features an essay from J. Hoberman, film critic for The Village Voice, called "The Thriller of Tomorrow" and an essay from director Rober Aldrich called "You Can't Hang Up the Meat Hook" where he defends his film when controversy arose about its violent content.
Comparing 'Kiss Me Deadly's look to say Image Entertainment's transfers of 'The Twilight Zone' seasons, I have to say you'll come away just a little disappointed.
'Kiss Me Deadly' features a rich looking black and white picture, but it's plagued with a few problems. Chief among them is the issue of the movie's overall soft look. Clarity is lacking here. Where black and white films usually do so well on the Blu-ray format, this is one of the softer ones I've seen. Edges are hard to define, and fine detail becomes a little lost in the movie's haze. The movie has its fair share of noise also. There's one part in particular where Hammer has one of the women pinned up against the wall. The lighted parts of their faces are crawling with errant noise that really distracts.
Blacks are deep and provide for a stark portrayal of 50s Los Angeles, but they do waver on occasion. There is evidence of edge enhancement being used also. This just isn't the stellar looking video presentation I'm used to seeing from Criterion. With that said, compared to other films it still comes out as an above average transfer. It's just not quite up to Criterion's astonishing standards.
'Kiss Me Deadly' features a remastered mono audio mix from its original 35mm optical tracks. This track, for the most part, does exactly what it's supposed to do. It sounds natural, and true to the source.
There are accounts that the movie has always had post sound production errors. Problems with lip synching and such. Those errors are still evident, but are no doubt due to the movie's source, and not really a problem with Criterion's remaster. Overall, it's a haunting track that screeches loudly when it needs to. Women's screams tend to waver as the higher end sonics sound a bit brash.
This is a well-rounded, natural-sounding audio mix which comes straight from the original recordings.
If you're up for a good mystery with some sci-fi elements then 'Kiss Me Deadly' is the movie for you. Even though the violence would seem extremely tame by today's standards, it's easy to see why this movie caused so much controversy in the 50s. It's a brutal film at times, but with Aldrich's great camera work the film is able to build some great suspense. It's too bad that the video isn't quite up to Criterion standards, but the audio is presented as perfectly as it can get. With the standard inclusion of a variety of special features 'Kiss Me Deadly' comes recommended, mostly for Criterion collectors.