Reworking Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly

Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 film version of Mickey Spillane’s pulp classic, is one of those rare exceptions of a film adaption surpassing the original book. Mike Hammer, the protagonist, is a sleazy P.I. who specializes in divorce cases. This changes one night when he gives a ride to a hysterical woman with a deadly secret. Hammer and the woman are captured by some mysterious men, and, after getting tortured, they are put back in his car and rolled over a cliff. The woman dies in a ball of flame and Hammer miraculously survives. Similar to Spillane’s other novels, this violent episode serves as the catalyst to a relentless story of revenge.

The difference, though, between the movie and the book, lies in the secret that the woman holds. This important difference is the reason why Spillane’s book is merely entertaining, while the film version of it is a trenchant critique on 1950s America. (Don’t worry, Hammer’s knuckle sandwiches and nymphomaniac girlfriends are still in practically every scene).

Spillane’s Mike Hammer stories are fueled by relentless pacing, over-the-top dialog, and raw, sadistic violence. Although they have a sordid appeal, it’s hard to take them seriously because most of the time his written pyrotechnics seem like a ruse to get a rise out of the reader – and nothing much beyond that. Spillane’s books are visceral and entertaining, but they lack profoundness. A writer like Dashiell Hammet, for example, was able to do both, in books like Red Harvest, which is about a private detective taking on an entire town of corrupt politicos and businessmen. He was a writer who could entertain you and make you think.

Before I get into it, it would be helpful to mention a little film trivia which I gleaned off of IMDb and Wikipedia after watching the movie. For one, the movie was named by the Kefauver Commission, a federal unit investigating corrupting influences, as 1955’s most corrupting influence on American youth. This came out at the height of cold war hysteria, when McCarthy was leading the nation on a witch hunt for commie pinkos collaborating with the evil Soviet empire. Also interesting, is that the movie was adapted for the screen by A. I. Bezzerides, a writer with purported leftist sympathies. Supposedly Spillane ran into Bezzerides in a restaurant around the time of the movie’s release, and the two had an immediate dislike for each other – mainly because Spillane didn’t like what was done with his book. It is also said that Bezzerides hated Spillane’s book and rushed through the adaptation because he “had contempt for it”. You’d think that two such clashing personalities would be a formula for disaster, but strangely Kiss Me Deadly the movie takes the best comic overtones of Spillane’s work, and adds that “something” extra which makes it a film noir classic.

The movie, directed by Robert Aldrich, left in the sadistic, womanizing Mike Hammer, and took out the clichéd mafia conspiracy at the heart of the book version of Kiss Me Deadly. In Spillane’s book the investigation eventually centers on a missing narcotics shipment, but, in Bezzerides’ screenplay, the narcotics shipment becomes contraband radionuclide – a glowing Pandora’s box that when opened unleashes atomic hell fires.

Bezzerides may not have been intentionally injecting “leftist” interpretations into the script, but he was a witness to the times, and anyone working in Hollywood surely was affected by McCarthyism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. What happens in Kiss Me Deadly is interesting because Bezzerides turned it from a cartoonish detective story into a topical story that captured the paranoid atmosphere of the times. Mike Hammer is still hilariously macho, but the essence of the story now centers on a mysterious box containing atomic destruction.

What’s more striking than that is the movie’s climax. True to Spillane’s “go out on a bang” formula, the movie ends with the atomic box being opened, an exploding house, and Hammer limping away with radiation burns and a bullet lodged in his gut. The movie ends on this climactic note, but it’s obvious that this is one scrape Hammer won’t survive. When reading about the making of this film, I couldn’t help but think this was a subconscious change ideated by Bezzerides, to kill off Mike Hammer. Hammer is an egotistical bully whose modus operandi is blind rage, revenge, and the hope of a big “pay off”. His fiery demise is his nemesis. Spillane for obvious reasons, would never have done that.

If I have any gripe with this film noir classic, it would be that Hammer could have been more loyal to Spillane’s vision. For one, Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an unabashed “bedroom dick”, a sleazy P.I. who makes a living doing divorce cases in which he gets his girlfriend to seduce wayward husbands. He’s supposed to drive a “heap”, not a hot rod like in the movie, and he certainly doesn’t have all the latest modern accoutrements in his apartment – like the new-fangled answering machine which is highlighted a couple of times in the movie. The book also has Hammer in his native New York, but the movie takes place in Los Angeles. However, these are just a minor complaints, because, much more importantly, Hammer’s insanely sadistic side is perfectly evoked, and the stark black and white of the movie make it suitably noir. Robert Aldrich’s direction and Ernest Laszlo’s great cinematography perfectly render the shadowy American underbelly of the 1950s.

By taking Spillane’s run-of-the-mill story and adding the element of atomic hysteria, Bezzerides and Aldrich turned this into a film with a deeper message. Mike Hammer is still a sleazy detective, he is still an entertaining anti-hero, but he can now be seen as a symbol for man’s insatiable curiosity and greed, whose blind fury ultimately unleashes unknown powers on the world.

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16 Responses to “Reworking Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly”

  1. 1 Lenox

    Oddly, I picked up and read an omnibus of his in Madrid last month. The collection contained three of his books, with ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ at the back. I read them straight and was a bit tired by the third one. Spillane says he wrote his novels when he needed the bucks. His first book was ‘I The Jury’ which I’ve got somewhere lying around the house in paperback. Apparently Mike Hammer started out as ‘Mike Danger’, cartoon character, and evolved.
    So – he was always going to be a bit on the ‘pulp’ side.

  2. 2 Unnatural Habitat

    I agree, Spillane’s Mike Hammer formula gets old quickly. I also read “I the Jury”, but I prefer “My Gun is Quick”.

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