Before you hear the title Kiss Me Deadly and begin to enthusiastically sing the chorus of Lita Ford's super-de-duper 1980s hit of the same name, consider that the film Kiss Me Deadly is not soaked with hairspray, musical production echoes, or unironic leather. It's not a cringeworthy exercise in sweaty nostalgia; it's a fundamental work of film noir.
I throw the term "film noir" around in reviews quite often, sometimes seriously and sometimes comparatively. But Kiss Me Deadly is not slight nor an imitation of the genre: along with The Big Sleep, Raw Deal, and The Third Man, it is one of the defining films of the era. Yet it subverts conformity like the plague. Sleazy private eyes and gun-toting broads are fun and all, but what if you suddenly want to embark on a wildcard journey into what resembles an abstract Lichtenstein painting? Don't listen to the crowd; just do it.
The film opens in typical noir fashion. The setting is a kettle-black road in the middle of nowhere, cars zooming in-and-out with the frequency of a moviegoer seeking out Sylvester Stallone's newest movie. But cracking the deadly calm of the shot is a frantic blonde, barefoot, dressed only in a white trenchcoat. Desperate for someone to hitch her out of the nightmare she's living, she lunges in front of a speeding convertible. Inside this convertible is Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), a detective. The woman, Christina (Cloris Leachman), has just escaped from a local mental institution; but being caught by her doctors seems to be the last of her worries. Someone, or something, is bothering her.
But her worries become a reality when a group of thugs block the road, knocking out Hammer and brutally murdering his passenger. The next day, he awakens in a hospital bed; paramedics discovered him, his car, and Christina's body residing on a rocky cliff in the early hours of the morning. Despite almost being killed in the violent series of events, though, Hammer is intrigued. Christina, it seems, was part of something bigger, something more threatening. Without hesitation, he takes the case. But as it develops, it becomes quite clear that it isn't going to pass by with the sinfully simple workings of the divorce cases Hammer usually supervises.
Kiss Me Deadly has all the usual noir touches, but there's something compellingly, and unusually, artificial about the atmosphere. Everything looks as though it's part of a set (most likely due to the film's microscopic budget), but its cheapness, purposeful or not, establishes the tone even more than the material. Unlike other film noirs of the time, Kiss Me Deadly doesn't take itself seriously (even if the characters hardly ever crack a smile). It exists in the same universe as a comic strip that stars a Man with X-Ray Eyes or a bloodthirsty Martian disguised as a sex goddess. The film is distinctly fantastical; while The Big Sleep slithers by with witty dialogue and lethal underbellies, Kiss Me Deadly seems to have more in common with Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. This shouldn't suggest that it's a shoddy film; it should suggest that it's in love with itself, fond of its penny dreadful exterior, and isn't afraid to push much of its mystery onto a strange box that kills every person who opens it.
When I watched Kiss Me Deadly for the first time, I didn't understand its critical acclaim. Yes, it's good, but what does it have to offer that other run-of-the-mill film noirs couldn't? Years later, my appreciation has risen by several miles. It isn't so much that Kiss Me Deadly is of superior quality; it's that it is just so, so, so ... otherworldly. Not otherworldly like the mansion Jesus probably lives in up in Heaven or Margot Robbie's beauty, but otherworldly like the realm you might find yourself in if a mirror was a door. The film is of scrumptious pulp quality, unmatched by its peers. Every scene looks like a comic book frame, every character is stock (but not quite). The poster promises "blood-red kisses!" and "white-hot thrills!" And with its campy priorities in mind, it delivers those promises with a wink and a healthy serving of idiosyncrasy.