In Spillane's books, the protagonist, be it the NYC-based private eye Mike Hammer or others (Tiger Mann; Morgan the Pirate; The Hood), is the one avenging figure that's protecting us from some kind of great apocalypse just brimming under the surface of what we perceive as the real world, that's about to erupt. Characters in these books who the reader and the protagonists think are pillars of society are anything but decent people, and their corruption and evil intentions infest and degrades our culture. Such corruption will, Spillane seems to be saying, eventually collapse under itself and destroy everything and everyone, regardless of their true intent. As long as we have Mike Hammer and others fighting an often lonely battle against these forces of venality, we have a, somewhat slim, chance of surviving. Until the next storm begins approaching...
That's the underlying message that comes out in Spillane's works. Yeah, there's a real right-wing reactionary bent to the stories and lots of (sometimes) subtle Biblical imagery that occasionally slows down the storytelling . But boy, could Spillane write! His stories have a compelling narrative sweep that carry you along from start to finsh and never let up. Regardless of your political or social outlook, once you start reading Spillane's stuff, you can't stop. (Click here to reserve online the titles by Spillane that we carry. And click here to get us to pick up more, like the aforementioned Kiss Me, Deadly novel. Tell 'em Ed sent you.)
Now that I've (finally!) gotten all that out of the way, here's the skinny on the recent Criterion Collection DVD restoration of the 1955 film adaptation of Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly (and note the lack of a comma in the film's title). Director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen; The Longest Yard; the underrated 1977 film Twilight's Last Gleaming) and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (Thieves' Highway and lots of TV shows) hated Spillane's work so much that they altered the novel's tone and plot. Here, Mike Hammer (the great character actor Ralph Meeker) is a Los Angeles-based "bedroom dick" who sets up clients' husbands with his secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) then blackmails the husband. Meeker's Hammer sees opportunity for the Big Money however, after a young girl (Cloris Leachman) he attempted to help is murdered by a group of hoods who try unsuccessfullly to kill him too. The crooks, working for a mysterious, well-educated (he loves to talk) leader, are after the "great whatsit" (as one character puts it), some kind of device that could spell doom for the world. (In the novel, the more heroic Hammer goes up against the Mob over hidden drugs.)
Despite their deviations from and distaste for the source material, Aldrich and Bezzerides, with considerable assistance from the cast and great, stark black and white cinematography by Ernest Laszlo, manage to create the best visual representation of Spillane's fictional universe. Fantastic tilting, claustrophobic camera blocking and strong direction (the script has a lot of holes, but is reasonably easy to follow) perfectly represent the nightmarish world depicted by Spillane in his work, but with an even more cynical, downbeat message. As far as Aldrich and Bezzerides are concerned, the film seems to be saying, we're doomed, period. In their view, an amoral (but not cowardly), opportunistic creep like Mike Hammer is no match for the forces that threaten our society. (Funny though, how Hammer risks everything in the end to rescue Velda...)
Nevertheless, the film version of Kiss Me Deadly is a great ride from start to finsh. Click here to reserve our copy. And be sure to watch on the same disc the DVD extra Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane, a condensed version of the 1998 docummentary by Max Allan Collins that's (so far) the best overview on Spillane's life and work.