“I don’t care what you do to me, Mike – just do it fast!”
An absolutely insane movie this, even considering social standards of the era, its astonishingly non-PC and perhaps a guilty pleasure because of it (even if one feels the need for a shower afterwards, as if the film makes a viewer unclean just watching it). A gutsy film noir that has been bred with a Cold War science fiction flick: welcome to the hi-octane Apocalypse, Mickey Spillane-style.
A terrified woman in just a trenchcoat staggers onto a deserted road at night, futilely tries to call out to passing traffic for help until a speeding motor approaches, almost losing control and wildly screeching off the road in an attempt to avoid her. The driver is tough-guy detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker, who repeatedly reminded me of the late, great Bill Paxton), who is less concerned by a near-naked woman abandoned in the road at night than he is restarting his car: indeed, he allows her a ride almost as a reluctant afterthought once he has the motor running. He drives her away, and over a breathless soundtrack of a woman’s panting breaths, likely deliberately sexually suggestive, the films titles work backwards down the screen, a puzzling almost arthouse choice that disorientates. Before Hammer can drop the woman, Christina (Cloris Leachman) off at the next bus station as she requests, they are run off the road by assailants unknown, Hammer incapacitated and knocked unconscious. The next scene is particularly grisly, with a naked Christina tortured to death only slightly off-screen (we see her flailing legs and hear her terrible screams- as usual, audience imagination filling in the horrible blanks). Its genuinely disturbing.
Soon after, Hammer’s car, with unconscious hero and dead victim back onboard, is pushed over the brink of a cliff-like ridge simulating a terrible crash. Somehow Hammer survives. We’re just ten minutes and a few scenes in and this film is clearly going to be a nasty and ugly piece of work. More than that, its actually something like genius- I was absolutely blown away by the sheer affront on my sensibilities that this film repeatedly took.
Even the nominal hero is a horrible, sadistic jerk. Hammer is a detective who does little detecting- instead he lets his associates, one of them his secretary, the other his car mechanic (!), risk their lives detecting for him. Hammer grins manically as he threatens an old man by smashing one of the old man’s priceless vinyl records, and later gleefully slams a drawer shut on an informers fingers, but is pretty much all instinct, no thought. A police confidant trying to warn Hammer whispers the words “Manhattan Project” revealing whats really going on, but Hammer only mutely, dumbly, stares back.
Hammer is a thug, and a predatory one where women are concerned (that said, they do have an odd predilection to throw themselves at him- through much of the film I had been genuinely curious regards what they saw in him, until I realised its all some kind of adolescent male fantasy from the books that is possibly, hopefully, being ridiculed here). One might shudder at how Connery’s Bond treats his women; Hammer is worse. One has to wonder what the noisy Youtube Warriors would make of it if they troubled to watch pre-millennium films.
Director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter AI Bezzerides clearly didn’t like Spillane, his books or his characters- in many ways this film is intent on destroying it all, ridiculing it, undermining it, twisting it into doom-laden satire. They cannily shift the location from New York to sunny Los Angeles but yet maintain many of noir’s visual tropes; some of the imagery is striking and locations impressively gritty and bleak. The drugs of the original book are replaced by a scientific mystery box that could destroy us all, and barring the doomed Christina, the women are sexual objects that objectify and lust over the sadistic Hammer, offering themselves as casually as offering a drink. The plot races by so quickly, throwing names and places and violence and death so relentlessly that it can leave us as confused and lost as Hammer (I really wonder if even a second viewing would make more sense of it for me, but on first viewing it frankly seemed an unfathomable riddle, almost exhausting).
The genuinely apocalyptic finale is an astonishing nightmare, in which Lily (Gaby Rodgers), a woman who dares cheat and defy Hammer meets a particularly horrible fiery end. The soundtrack becomes a frenzy of her screams accompanied by an air raid-like siren from the gates of Hell- literally, all Hell breaks loose as if we’re suddenly watching a Quatermass movie. And we’re pretty confident that Hammer still doesn’t know whats going on- indeed, having been shot by Lily and likely suffering a deadly radiation burn, he is dragged from the conflagration by his Secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) who he was supposed to save but who ends up saving him. Its a bit like the end of a Bond caper showing Bond being saved by Miss Moneypenny.
Its an ugly film, the irony is that it is so beautifully shot and crafted, with some brilliant imagery, but nonetheless an amoral and astonishing ride. Its such a strange thing, in that very little ever makes sense, but it is quite horribly brilliant for it. Its a film of chaos and confusion, a wild and crazy ride, and I’m sure utterly unforgettable.
“Kiss me, Mike. I want you to kiss me. Kiss me. The liar’s kiss that says I love you, and means something else.”