Warning: this review contains major spoilers!
Kiss Me Deadly opens with a scene that reaches out and grabs you by the neck. Tough-as-nails private eye Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) drives down a dark country road, where he picks up a lone female hitchhiker named Christina (Cloris Leachman, wearing nothing but her birthday suit beneath a white trench coat).
Things go a bit askew and, next thing Hammer knows, he’s waking up somewhere or other. But he can hear Christina screaming as she’s being tortured to death.
Did I mention that Christina had escaped and was on the run from a local booby hatch? So, anyway …
Exit Christina from the movie’s plot. Hammer, through luck or movie magic or … the kindness of torturers ends up in a hospital. When he wakes up, his secretary/assistant/lover Velda (played by Maxine Cooper) is at his bedside.
Well, the whole business gets Hammer’s dander up. So, instead of simply continuing to work on his clientele’s “penny ante divorce cases,” Hammer decides to figure out just what the hell that business with the late Christina was all about.
This leads Hammer to the mysterious Lily Carver (as played in her blonde, elfin way by Gaby Rodgers), who’s pretending to be Christina’s ex-roommate. Lily seeks Hammer’s protection, while she looks for this box that’s supposed to contain … stuff that’s worth a fortune.
Only a little reminiscent of a certain other film noir. One where Mary Astor sought Humphrey Bogart’s help to find a valuable thingy. Sound familiar?
However, in this case, Hammer is so hard he makes Sam Spade look like Mr. Rogers. Plus the box (or valise) in question turns out to be, not only a MacGuffin, but a metaphorical MacGuffin.
You see, the box (which Hammer eventually finds) is hot to the touch, because it contains radioactive substances. Or perhaps disintegrating aliens. (See Repo Man to understand that reference.)
Anyhow, after a lot of twisty storytelling stuff, Hammer finds Lily (who’s real name is Gabrielle) and her evil boss, Dr. Soberin. By this time, you need a scorecard to remember who the hell is who and what the hell this story’s about.
The point is they’re so awful they have Hammer’s squeeze, Velda, held as a hostage. But Gabrielle and Soberin squabble over who will get the amazing box. Gabrielle shoots Soberin and wounds Hammer, who stumbles about until he finds Velda.
And as Hammer and Velda hobble out the door, Gabrielle just has to take a peek inside that box. And guess what happens?
First, there are creepy sounds. Then Gabrielle, who’s all lit up, bursts into flame. She sets the whole house off. And … then …
In the American version, Hammer and Velda escape the apocalyptic house, running through the ocean, as the words “The End” appear on-screen.
Not quite as noir as the slightly altered version, in which their escape is removed, implying that they didn’t make it. The implication being that the house’s destruction represents The Apocalypse. One without zombies. Who needs zombies when you’ve got the H-bomb?
This movie is, in many ways, the ultimate in film noir, and richly deserves two thumbs up!