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video review by Gary Johnson

At long last, the complete ending of Robert Aldrich's film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly finally makes its debut on home video. Thanks to the work of Glenn Erickson and Alain Silver, a complete print of Kiss Me Deadly was uncovered earlier this year--Robert Aldrich's own print of the movie, donated to the Director's Guild of America after Aldrich's death in 1983. (For the complete story on the discovery of the movie's complete ending, see "The Kiss Me Mangled Mystery" by Glenn Erickson, [Images, issue #3].)

The complete ending had been missing for so long that some critics suspected it never existed. Jack Shadoian in Dreams and Dead Ends and J.P. Telotte in Voices in the Dark questioned whether Mike Hammer and Velda managed to escape the beach house at all. (For the complete story on the controversy, see "What's With the Ending of Kiss Me Deadly?" by Alain Silver [Images, issue #2].) But the choppy final moments of the edited version of the movie, suggested the print wasn't complete. Even the soundtrack jumped, as if a portion of film were missing. The evidence tantalized film noir lovers for decades. What weren't we seeing? Why was it gone? Were Mike Hammer and Velda killed in the beach house explosion? Or did they escape to the beach? Publicity stills showed them surviving, but publicity stills frequently lie.

Lovers of the movie argued about how to interpret the ending: even if Mike and Velda survived wouldn't they die from exposure to radiation? So what difference does it make?

Well, what a difference indeed! The restored footage is absolutely stunning. It's everything we could have hoped for and more. The movie wasn't just missing a few seconds of film, as was long believed. It was missing several elaborate camera shots that show Mike and Velda escaping the beach house--while the explosion churns and boils behind them, casting their shadows down the beach. The movie wasn't just missing a single camera shot. It was missing several stunning compositions that culminate with Mike and Velda caught in the surf, embracing as the tide surges around them and the beach house explosion lights up the night. The movie had been missing one of the most powerful, audacious pieces of filmmaking in film noir history.

Mike Hammer and Velda make their
escape in
Kiss Me Deadly.
(©1997 MGM/UA Home Video. All rights reserved.)

This video release by MGM/UA also includes the shortened ending of the movie so you can see what used to be passed off as the movie's ending. The differences between the two endings are stunning.

For the uninitiated, Kiss Me Deadly is based upon a Mickey Spillane thriller. The novel contains no references to an atomic device. That invention was the work of Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides. But that device becomes the great "whatzit" that private detective Mike Hammer pursues. He has a nose for money, and when he witnesses the torture of a young woman, he smells green: she knew something worth dying for. He drops all his other cases and begins an investigation. He isn't interested in bringing her killers to justice; his interests are purely mercenary. "I picked up a girl," he says. "If she hadn't a gotten in my way I wouldn't a stopped. She must be connected with something big." He has no idea what he's after. He only knows it's "something very valuable."

As portrayed by Ralph Meeker (one of the most underrated actors of the '50s), Hammer isn't the brutal playboy of the novel; he's an opportunistic thug who makes a living by blackmailing adulterous husbands and wives. "He's a bedroom dick," says a police detective, with contempt dripping from his lips. "All right. You got me convinced. I'm a real stinker," says Hammer. And when the police release him, the same police detective says "Somebody open a window!"

Robert Aldrich directing Gaby Rodgers and
Albert Dekker in
Kiss Me Deadly.
(©1997 MGM/UA. All rights reserved.)

Mike Hammer certainly isn't your run-of-the-mill hero. As one woman pegs him, he's "one of those self-indulgent males who thinks of nothing but his clothes, his car, his self." He keeps a bachelor pad with all the latest electronics, including a nifty reel-to-reel answering machine imbedded in the wall. (A rare sight for 1955.) His secretary, Velda (Maxine Cooper), is devoted to him, but he only keeps her around as date bait for potentially adulterous husbands. Velda doesn't like her job, but she tolerates it so she can be close to Hammer. Their relationship is sado-masochistic. Any love they share is purely animalistic. When he thinks about the audio tape of Velda with an adulterous husband, he grins: "That sure was . . . NICE."

Velda sees through him, but she can't help herself. Like most of the other women in this movie who come on to Hammer as soon as he steps into a room, Velda can't resist his animal magnetism. When one of Hammer's friends gets killed, she immediately recognizes Hammer's mercenary intentions: "You want to avenge the death of your dear friend. How touching. How Sweet. How nicely it justifies your quest for the great 'whatzit.'"

But almost everyone is corrupt in this movie: a police detective swills down vodka while he's on the job, the county coroner withholds evidence so he can put the bite on Hammer, and a doctor acts like an underworld kingpin.

These ingredients make Kiss Me Deadly one of the bleakest yet most thrilling movies ever made. And the restored ending provides the perfect culmination to the corruption and nihilism that permeates the movie. If you're never seen Kiss Me Deadly, do yourself a favor and check out this long-heralded, vicious celluloid masterpiece where director Robert Aldrich turns our expectations upside down. And if you've seen Kiss Me Deadly before . . . well, you haven't really experienced Kiss Me Deadly until you've seen the final scenes in all their chaotic glory. We owe a big thanks to Glenn Erickson and Alain Silver for tracking down the complete ending of this magnificent and brutal movie.


Related articles:

"The Kiss Me Mangled Mystery: Refurbishing a Film Noir"
Glenn Erickson reveals how the complete ending of Kiss Me Deadly was discovered (Images, issue #3).

"What's With the Ending of Kiss Me Deadly?"
Alain Silver examines the controversy about the ending of Kiss Me Deadly (Images, issue #2).


The restored version of Kiss Me Deadly is available from MGM/UA. Suggested retail price: $19.95.


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