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L.A. noir at its finest: “Kiss Me Deadly” on Criterion Blu-ray

L.A. noir at its finest: “Kiss Me Deadly” on Criterion Blu-ray (photo)

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“Kiss Me Deadly,” out today in a new Blu-ray and DVD edition from The Criterion Collection, is the ultimate film noir, an example of the form at its bleakest and blackest. Everything about it is extreme, from the amorality of its greedy, violent hero to the sexuality of its femme fatales, whose distinctly carnal heavy breathing provides the soundtrack to the opening credits.

Those credits made our list of the greatest opening titles in history. They begin with Mickey Spillaine’s famous private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) as he nearly runs over Cloris Leachman’s Christina Bailey, naked except for a man’s trenchcoat, on a deserted stretch of road outside Los Angeles. He gives her a lift and as she catches her breath (or has an orgasm; from the sound alone, it’s tough to say) the credits scroll on screen from top to bottom with the words arranged from bottom to top. When the title appears onscreen it reads “DEADLY KISS ME,” a picture starring the great “MEEKER RALPH” as Hammer. As our own R. Emmet Sweeney astutely observed in his piece on the “Deadly” opening titles, the effect is ominous and disorienting, the perfect prelude to Hammer’s journey into the L.A. underworld. Once this seemingly innocuous car ride introduces him to a criminal conspiracy of gamblers, cannons, and atomic secrets, Hammer can find no bottom and no escape.

His car ride with Christina ends with a mysterious beating, a staged car crash, and the death of the hitchhiker (all beats that will be mirrored in the film’s ultimate finale), but Hammer’s not motivated to solve her murder out of some sense of nobility or desire to bring her killers to justice. Rather Hammer realizes Christina’s involvement in some sort of mass coverup involving gangsters, scientists, and newspaper columnists could mean a big payday and a quick ticket out of the small time divorce cases that pay his living. Even after his snooping has yielded him an initial offer of some hush money from the men responsible, Hammer refuses it, thinking there’s a lot more to be found if he keeps digging. It’s a greedy impulse he will ultimately regret. It is interesting to note that the search for truth in “Kiss Me Deadly” isn’t a heroic pursuit; it’s a selfish, destructive act. Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides’ cynical screenplay doesn’t portray Hammer’s work as an investigation; this is a guy sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. And for his curiosity a whole bunch of people get a face full of fire.

This is film noir. You know what comes next: double crosses, fist fights, and seductive women, all washed down with two fingers of bourbon. That said, even as it provides all the requisite genre thrills of film noir, “Kiss Me Deadly” goes further, building to a climax that belongs more to the tradition of science-fiction than crime novels. Coming in 1955, at the tail end of the classic noir period, director Robert Aldrich’s film provides something bridge between the dark detective stories dramas made in the wake of World War II and the paranoid sci-fi allegories of the Cold War. The film’s insane and spectacular ending, with its gunfights, explosions, and apocalyptic overtones, is like the sick and twisted best of both worlds. No wonder its helped inspire so many films that followed, from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Pulp Fiction.”

If you’ve never seen “Kiss Me Deadly” before, you have to, and Criterion’s new edition of the film is a damn good way to make your introduction. The film looks beautiful, crisp yet gritty; those deep, sooty shadows have never look more sinister. The extras include an informative and conversational commentary between noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini and essays by Aldrich and critic J. Hoberman. My favorite supplement, though, is the photo and video tour of the film’s seedy Bunker Hill locations, “where film noir heroes routinely came to hide out or die,” by writer and historian Jim Dawson.

Here is my one critique of “Kiss Me Deadly:” it has the wrong ending. Watch the film with its original ending, then watch the alternate one included on the Criterion Blu-ray. That alternate finale, which was mistakenly placed onto prints of the film for decades, is much darker than the one Aldrich intended. But think about the movie, and the considerable darkness of the world it depicts. To me, there’s really only way it can end: with our sinful heroes in the embrace of the deadliest kiss of all.

Which “Kiss Me Deadly” ending do you prefer? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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