Mike Hammer, a tough Los Angeles private eye who is almost as brutal as the crooks he chases. Mike and his assistant/secretary/lover, Velda (Maxine Cooper), usually work on "penny-ante divorce cases".
One evening on a lonely country road, Hammer gives a ride to Christina (Cloris Leachman), an attractive hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat. She has escaped from a mental institution, most probably the nearby Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Thugs waylay them and Hammer awakens in some unknown location where he hears Christina screaming and being tortured to death. The thugs then push Hammer's car off a cliff with Christina's body and an unconscious Hammer inside. Hammer next awakens in a hospital with Velda by his bedside. He decides to pursue the case, for vengeance, a sense of guilt (as Christina had asked him to "remember me" if she got killed), and because "she (Christina) must be connected with something big" behind it all.
The twisting plot takes Hammer to the apartment of Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), a sexy, waif-like woman who is posing as Christina's ex-roommate. Lily tells Hammer she has gone into hiding and asks Hammer to protect her. It turns out that she is after a mysterious box that, she believes, has contents worth a fortune.
Later, at an isolated beach house, Hammer finds "Lily", who is revealed to be an imposter named Gabrielle, with her evil boss, Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker). Velda is their hostage, tied up in a bedroom. Soberin and Gabrielle are vying for the contents of the box. Gabrielle shoots Soberin, believing that she can keep the mysterious contents for herself. She also shoots and badly wounds Hammer, who is able to find and release Velda. Now focused solely on the object of her desire, Gabrielle slyly opens the stolen case. The highly unstable radionuclide material inside reaches explosive criticality as it becomes fully exposed. Loud, horrifying sounds emanate from the material as Gabrielle and the house burst into flames; Hammer and Velda barely manage to escape.
The original American release of the film shows Hammer and Velda escaping from the burning house at the end, staggering into the ocean as the words "The End" come over them on the screen. Sometime after its first release, the ending was altered on the film's original negative, removing more than a minute's worth of shots where Hammer and Velda escape and superimposing the words "The End" over the burning house. This implied that Hammer and Velda perished in the atomic blaze, and was often interpreted to represent the apocalypse. In 1997 the original conclusion was restored, where Velda and Mike survive. The DVD release has the original ending, and offers the truncated ending as an extra.
The film is described as "the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time – at the close of the classic noir period".
Kiss Me Deadly remains one of the great time capsules of Los Angeles. The Bunker Hill locations were all destroyed when the downtown neighborhood was razed in the late 1960s.Hill Crest Hotel, NE corner of Third and Olive Streets, Bunker Hill (Italian opera singer's home)
The Donigan 'Castle', a Victorian mansion at 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue (where Cloris Leachman's character lived; it was used for interiors and exteriors).
Apartment Building, 10401 Wilshire Blvd, NW corner of Wilshire and Beverly Glen (Hammer's apartment building; still standing)
Carl Evello's Mansion, 603 Doheny Road, Beverly Hills, California
Clay Street, an alley beneath Angels Flight incline railway, on Bunker Hill, where Hammer parks his Corvette and then takes the back steps up to the Hill Crest Hotel, but when we cut to him approaching the hotel's large porch, he's on the Third Street steps opposite Angels Flight.
Club Pigalle, 4800 block of Figueroa Avenue (the black jazz nightclub where Hammer hangs out)
Hollywood Athletic Club, 6525 W. Sunset Blvd. (where Hammer finds the radioactive box; still standing)
"The great whatsit", as Velda refers to the small, mysterious valise at the center of Hammer's quest, is hot to the touch and contains a dangerous, glowing substance. It comes to represent the 1950s Cold War fear and paranoia about the atomic bomb that had permeated American culture by the time the film was made.
Homage is paid to the glowing suitcase MacGuffin in the 1984 cult film Repo Man, the film Ronin, and in Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction. The "shiny blue suitcase" is mentioned with other famous MacGuffins in Guardians of the Galaxy. In the film Southland Tales, Richard Kelly pays homage to the film, showing the main characters watching the beginning on their television and later the opening of the case is shown on screens on board the mega-Zeppelin.
Critical commentary generally views it as a metaphor for the paranoia and nuclear fears of the Cold War era in which it was filmed.
Although a leftist at the time of the Hollywood blacklist, Bezzerides denied any conscious intention for this meaning in his script. About the topic, he said, "I was having fun with it. I wanted to make every scene, every character, interesting."
Film critic Nick Schager wrote, "Never was Mike Hammer's name more fitting than in Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich's blisteringly nihilistic noir in which star Ralph Meeker embodies Mickey Spillane's legendary P.I. with brute force savagery… The gumshoe's subsequent investigation into the woman's death doubles as a lacerating indictment of modern society's dissolution into physical/moral/spiritual degeneracy – a reversion that ultimately leads to nuclear apocalypse and man's return to the primordial sea – with the director's knuckle-sandwich cynicism pummeling the genre's romantic fatalism into a bloody pulp. 'Remember me'? Aldrich's sadistic, fatalistic masterpiece is impossible to forget".
The film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 97% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 37 reviews with an average rating of 8.1/10; its consensus states, "An intriguing, wonderfully subversive blend of art and commerce, Kiss Me Deadly is an influential noir classic."
In 1999, Kiss Me Deadly was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
American Film InstituteAFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
CHRISTINA: "Get me to that bus stop and forget you ever saw me. If we don't make that bus stop…" MIKE HAMMER: "We will." CHRISTINA: "If we don’t, remember me." – Nominated
AFI's 10 Top 10 – Nominated mystery film
The original novel, while providing much of the plot, is about a mafia conspiracy and does not feature espionage and the mysterious nuclear suitcase, elements added to the film version by the scriptwriter, A.I. Bezzerides.
It further subverted Spillane's book by portraying the already tough Hammer as a narcissistic bully, the darkest anti-hero private detective in the film noir genre. He apparently makes most of his living by blackmailing adulterous husbands and wives, and he takes an obvious sadistic pleasure in violence, whether he's beating up thugs sent to kill him, breaking a contact's treasured record to get him to talk, or roughing up a coroner who's slow to part with a piece of information. He also apparently has no compunction about engaging in nefarious acts such as pimping his secretary. Bezzerides wrote of the script: "I wrote it fast because I had contempt for it ... I tell you Spillane didn't like what I did with his book. I ran into him at a restaurant and, boy, he didn't like me".
A digitally restored version of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in June 2011 and has the alternative ending as a bonus feature.