Sometimes, in a mean world, it's good to be cruel. Mike Hammer might tell you that, at least the version of Hammer who appears in 1955's Kiss Me Deadly who was supposedly more sadistic than author of the source material, Mickey Spillane, approved of for a portrayal of his private detective hero. But what the film really does is make plainer the subtext of the noir detective hero and the morally murkier world that results is one of the film version's strengths. Culminating in an unexpected--and effective--Science Fiction climax, the film is about compulsions to power and control.
The movie begins with the first of several beautiful women Hammer encounters--Cloris Leachman, in her first role, naked except for a trench coat, on a desolate road at night stops Hammer's car by standing in front of it.
She tells him doctors at the asylum took her clothes so she couldn't leave--those doctors turn out to be organised crime. The woman's name is Christina and she says she's named after Christina Rossetti whose sonnet called "Remember" is featured prominently in the film.
by Christina Rossetti
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
The poem emphasises the stakes of the game Hammer eventually finds himself caught up in--played by a young and beefy Ralph Meeker, Christina remarks on the vanity that compels him to keep in shape. His own gratification often seeming to be his primary motive, he goes after the mobsters at first mainly for revenge after they put him unconscious with Christina's murdered body in his car and push it off a cliff.
But he has his secretary with benefits, Velda (Maxine Cooper), to help him recuperate. He flirts with a lot of other women in the movie, including a foggy eyed blonde named Lily (Gaby Rodgers) who also shows up naked but for a trench coat.
The other thing Hammer likes to do is get tough with goons and reticent informants. It starts to look like Hammer's a wrecking ball in soft world but the world shows itself to be a whole lot worse than Hammer. There's a thrilling liberation in Hammer's lack of shame but it can't outpace the fundamental sadness and doom reflected in the lines of the Rossetti poem which hovers over the film like the ghosts of the dead.