Every now and again I watch a movie I know nothing about and it really pays off, more than I bargained for. A couple of months ago it was ‘The Servant’ which I picked up for the names Pinter and Bogarde alone, this month it was ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ which I picked up because it cost £1.50 in CEX and was based on a Mickey Spillane book. I don’t know much Spillane’s work, I only knew the name Mike Hammer from my grandmother who used to watch the Stacey Keach series.
I’d heard Mike Hammer was a brute – an unpleasant oaf of a private dick who was just as corrupt as the guys he chased down. While watching Kiss Me Deadly, he didn’t come across like this very much at all. Sure, he doesn’t mind a fist fight and has no qualms with polyamorous affairs, but aside from that he was a nice enough guy. Spoke politely to people. It’s only as the film speeds towards its his conclusion does he lose his manners and temper. Slapping an elderly man who refuses to accept a bribe is one thing, but slamming a morgue worker’s hand in a drawer had me wincing with…delight?
The film starts out in a fairly ordinary way. Hammer is driving home to LA and picks up a lady. All the best films start like this. It reminded me instantly of Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’ – an opinion apparently shared by many. But Lynch’s film tips its hat to many great noir elements and I thought nothing of it.
Much of it is typically noir though I was distracted by several things. I looked up the year it was made. 1955. I noticed that Meeker’s Hammer had a Mexican friend, an African American friend and a secretary who was also his lover. His free-love attitude, which his secretary Velda doesn’t seem to mind, is quite modern (although the depictions of ethnic minorities are certainly dated!) and I began toying with the idea that this was one of those ‘anti-noir’ films you hear about – like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which came some 18 years later. I forgot that thought a few moments later when I was reminded of the film’s 1950s trappings – at best, the sweet cars and slick suits (and let’s not forget the wall-mounted reel-to-reel answerphone), and at worst, the poor dubbing and downright awful supporting cast. In all honesty, an hour into this film and I was prepared to give it up as a Sunday afternoon film, pin 3 stars onto it and leave it at that. But the film did one thing I did not expect it to…it got weird.
If you’ve read anything about this film, as I now have, you’d notice that it is often discussed, and considered a milestone film noir, notable for its ending. I’m going to say some words now, as the Police Commissioner says to Hammer: “I’m going to say a few words to you. They mean nothing. Just letters strung together.”
Here they are.
Raiders of the Lost Highway.
What follows in the final act is a surprising turn of events, lit up by both literal and figurative flashes, a predictable (in the best possible way) betrayal, and hints of archetypal symbolism both classical and contemporary. I hadn’t realised what I had been watching was…what it is. I might have clocked it if I had read any of the writing on the DVD cover or the IMDb message boards.
This film might just have the most influential McGuffin of all time. I sat staring at the main menu of the DVD on the screen for about ten minutes, trying to figure out where it had changed from a middling 1950s B-noir to an anti-noir prototype of techno-thrillers, Pandora’s Box movies and supernatural neo-noir like Angel Heart.