At a certain point I threw every well-regarded noir on my list, and now they’re showing up in dribs and drabs. This one was directed by Robert Aldrich, who at this point had done Apache and Vera Cruz, and would go on to do What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Dirty Dozen, and Flight of the Phoenix. And as I watched the first half I thought “This is clearly one of the best noirs of all time!” But then, in the second half… well, if I said it all went a little Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, would you know what I meant?
We open with a woman clad in only a raincoat running along a California coastal highway at night. She stands in the center of the highway until she forces a car off the road. This, of course, is Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane’s recurring hero, played here by Ralph Meeker. He’s pissed at her for forcing his car off the road, but of course gives her a lift anyway. They drive for a long time without speaking as the credits roll down from the from the top, meant to be read UP, so the title appears as you see it in the picture below. While this is going on we hear a moody song by Nat King Cole, and the woman’s gasping to catch her breath. And we think “A noir that is self-consciously arty! Thank you, Jesus!”
The woman, by the way, is Cloris Leachman in her first role. Hammer, still pissed, asks her if she often goes around without clothes and says “Let me guess. You were out with some guy who thought ‘no’ was a three-letter word.” They stop at a gas station, where the woman gives the strangely menacing, sexually aggressive attendant a letter to drop in the mail for her. As they drive away the woman, Cristina, says that she escaped from an asylum where “they” put her, and that if she told Hammer what she knew, “You’d be afraid like I’m afraid.” They drive, in long takes. She starts to pick apart his character, saying he’s the type that’s vain and selfish. She says if they make it to the bus station [“We’ll make it,” he says] he can forget her, but if they don’t make it [“We’ll make it,” he repeats] “Remember me.” Then, after the movie has lulled us with long takes of them just driving, a car suddenly pulls out in front of them!
Here’s where I said to myself “Holy shit, this movie ain’t kidding,” as we see Cristina’s naked feet hanging, and hear her screaming. And screaming. And SCREAMING. Hammer is groggy and rolls off a mattress. Our villains are introduced via their shoes [stolen from Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train], and the violence of the scene is upped by seeing these quite evil-looking pliers in the hand of one of the thugs. It seems that Cristina was getting a little unlicensed dental work. Once she’s dead, the baddies put her and Hammer back in his car, and drive it over a cliff. See? You shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers.
Hammer wakes up in the hospital, where he is waited over by Velda, his assistant, and Pat, police guy that looks a lot like Anderson Cooper. It takes a few days before he is on his feet, whereupon the police take him in for questioning, only Hammer keeps saying he knows nothing. The cops give us some background on Hammer: he’s a “bedroom dick” who sends Velda in to seduce husbands. Hammer himself seduces the wives, and eventually they get enough dirt on both to play them off each other—for money. So Velda is both his assistant and his prostitute, and he is essentially her pimp. On the way out Pat gives him a speech about how it’s wrong of him to keep what he knows from the police, but when asked why he won’t help the police, Hammer says “What’s in it for me?” So he’s keeping his info, and going to follow the case himself, thinking he’ll come into some kind of payout at the end.
So let’s talk about Hammer. Meeker here is a big guy who looks handsome from some angles, and like a goon from most. He’s big and aggressive and single-mindedly selfish, and exudes brutal sexuality. In short, he’s a really interesting noir hero—rather than the sad-sack tough guy with a heart of gold that we usually get, this guy is a genuine low-life bastard who is just out for himself. It’s quite refreshing, and Meeker embodies him perfectly. It made me wish for a number of Hammer movies with him in the role.
Hammer goes to home to his swank 50s pad, which is kind of awesome, and where he turns out to be an early adopter of a telephone answering machine—and apparently answering machines of the time were 24”X24” affairs with reel-to-reel tapes! It’s amazing [see below]. Velda comes over and they kiss, then Pat comes in, and tells Hammer he has revoked his investigative license and his gun license.
Hammer goes to look around the Cristina’s rented room, and is met at the door by the landlord and his wife. The wife is barking a lot of static at the husband, when Hammer tells him “Tell her to shut up.” The man looks at his wife and says “Shut up.” Women are treated as throwaways with such nonchalance that it’s a little funny here, as this film [at 1955 it’s a little late for the genre] is such a distillation of noir clichés these things can be looked at from the distance of genre convention. And good thing, because if they weren’t, this would be incredibly offensive to women. So Hammer goes and searches Cristina’s room, switching the radio on. Here we have the second big musical sequence of the film, as we get an uninterrupted minute of Schubert’s Eighth Symphony [Unfinished] as Hammer searches the place. He finds a book of Cristina Rossetti’s poetry, and takes it. When he gets home, the bad guys have called and offered to bury the hatchet—they’ll replace Hammer’s slick convertible. In the morning, the car is there, and Nick, Mike’s trusty Greek mechanic, is about to take it on a spin around the block when Mike stops him. They find a bomb attached to the ignition, then take it into the shop, where they find an additional bomb meant to go off should the first one fail. Though this may be a bit cliché by now, one can see how it would have worked at the time—and because of that, still works.
Hammer goes over to Velda’s, where she is exercising in dance tights, and at times twirling around a pole. They have a neat relationship—kind of a Bond/Moneypenny flirtation amped up a few notches and definitely a few degrees more crazy. Velda obviously burns with a crazy flame for Mike, and her dialogue with him is filled with innuendo—note their discussion of “big” things as she twirls around the pole—and he cares for her, as much as he cares about anyone who isn’t him. Note how Hammer walks into the next room and picks up the phone. Velda follows, snuggles close and kisses his neck and ear. A second later it becomes apparent that, as far as Hammer is concerned, she may as well be in the next state over. It’s funny, and again, although by now this kind of relationship is a bit old hat, here it still works, and seems vital and vivid.
SPOILERS > > >
Now this woman Lily shows up, who claims to be the sister of Carl, the big gangster, and she has the hots for Hammer right away. No, I mean RIGHT away. In here, Nick gets killed. Hammer goes to Velda, who is in the midst of seducing a doctor to get Hammer more information—even though after what happened to Nick, it’s abundantly clear that Velda might die like him one day. Hammer knows this too, but, what can he do? He’s a heel. He goes to a bar and gets blind drunk. A man comes in and tells him that they picked up Velda. Hammer finds out that the letter Cristina sent before she died was sent to HIM! It again simply says “Remember Me.” But the bad guys are there, and kidnap Hammer and take him to this beach house, where we finally meet the big baddie, again introduced via his shoes.
There they tie him face-down on the bed and give him “truth serum.” He blathers all night but doesn’t say anything, and finally escapes. This may sound like the movie is meandering—and it kind of is—but it’s working to give the sense that Hammer really doesn’t know what he’s doing and where all of this might go. He is also, recall, doing this just for the hope of a payoff at the end—how he might be paid if left to speculation—and now that Nick’s dead and Velda is gone, he has to really do some soul-searching—in what little soul he has to search.
So it occurs to him that Cristina swallowed something before dying, and goes to see the man who performed the autopsy. He did indeed find something in her stomach—a key—but he wants half of whatever Hammer gets to hand it over. You have to love it, as you’re sitting there saying “Doesn’t he realize that Hammer is just going to beat him?” Which is precisely what happens. Turns out the key is to a locker at a health club—something another little heavy violence against a person not quite used to it easily takes care of and—here’s where the movie, for me, drops gently off the rails, and keeps going.
He finds the locker! In it is a box! In the box—is a box! And it’s WARM. He opens it a bit, and sees a brilliant light inside. In the next scene we see that it has burned his wrist. This is where you start to say “Oh no, it’s not going to be something atomic, is it?” He returns home to find out the woman he thought was Lily—isn’t Lily! And now the box is gone!
Through a roundabout way, Hammer finds himself back at the beach house, where Lily—her real name is Gabrielle—is there with Soberin, the real bad guy. She doesn’t know what’s in the box—he begs her not to open it—but decides it must be pretty valuable, and shoots Soberin over it! Then she opens it, screams as she looks into the white light [it’s very Raiders of the Lost Ark], and gets burned. Hammer bangs around the house until he finds Velda, and they both stumble out onto the beach as the house goes up in flames, and finally explodes. One thing I kind of do like about this ending is that the tough Hammer gets in way over his head and ends up with nothing, just lucky to get out alive.
But wait! There’s an alternate ending! And it’s the rare case where the alternate ending is considerably shorter than the original. Apparently what I described above was the original ending as filmed. However, sometime after it was released, over a minute was cut, and “The End” added to the footage—so what we see is Hammer and Velda going down the stairs, then a long shot of the house exploding, and “The End”—making it seem as though they both died! This ending is now discredited, but was the ending most people saw, and thus was tremendously influential, and helped people interpret the film as apocalyptic and nihilistic, with the atomic power killing our heroes seen as presaging the end of the world.
< < < SPOILERS END
For the first two-thirds, I was totally on board with this being one of the best noirs of all time—and I suppose it still is, but it was seriously derailed for me by the Crystal Skull ending. But until then it was just piling on hit after hit. It has the characterization of Hammer as a total, selfish, heartless bastard, which is a very refreshing change from the normal hardass-sad-sack-with-a-heart-of-gold heroes we get in most noirs. I also love the level of artsiness and the care with which the film is made… just in the opening few minutes, we have the lengthy shot of the couple driving used to lull us before the sudden cut-off of the emerging vehicle, then the long sequence of Cristina screaming, bringing the reality of torture and pain to a genre that usually deadens such extreme emotions under a layer of style [and, of course, the restrictions of the Hays code]. I also love the use of music and sound—we have just the moody Nat Cole song and Cristina’s gasping on the soundtrack during the credits, and there’s the minute of uninterrupted music as Hammer searches Cristina’s apartment. I also like the unusual nature of Hammer’s relationship with Velda, and the way each of the background figures are vivid characters on their own right. It is fitting that this came at the end of the noir period, as it smartly develops and comments on everything that came before.
I haven’t read the novel [although this movie made me order it and I’ll be reading it soon], but I understand that Hammer is not such a bastard in it and doesn’t make his living through such underhanded means. Nor is the whole espionage and atom-age ending in the novel, which is about a mafia conspiracy. There’s a note on the Wiki page for this film that says that Spillane ran into the screenwriter at a restaurant and was not at all happy about what was done with his story. Not having read the novel, I don’t know how the Hammer character was changed, but I really like the way he comes off in the film. As for the ending… it’s just a little hard to swallow—verging on ridiculous—based on what we now know about radioactive material. And really, what they should have known then. It also just doesn’t really work dramatically, and the film takes this left turn in the final moments that just leaves one bewildered. But up until then it was a total ten.
The bleakness and grim worldview of this film was apparently tremendously influential on Godard and Truffaut and the films of the French New Wave, which one can kind of see. Many find the end fitting, as it they see it as an extension and crystallization of the cynicism and bleakness of the genre. Okay, but for me, dramatically, it didn’t work. As a viewing experience, it is definitely worth seeing and is certainly among the most vital, essential noirs of all time—until that ending. It’s not awful, it’s just that the promise of the first four-fifths gets somewhat lost in the sheer bewilderment of its final moments.
Definitely, it’s among the best noirs of all time. Until that ending.