As a bachelor, I have never had any personal experience with divorce, although it does seem like the next best thing to never having married at all. My best friend, however, was not as lucky in love as I, so he ended up marrying his sweetheart in the year of our Lord 1967, with me as his best man.
“I don’t know how this is going to turn out,” he said to me three years later, “but it can’t go on.” He probably would never have left her, but one weekend she decided to spend a few days with her sister and brother-in-law, and it turned out to be a permanent separation. A few years after that, he decided to move away, and he suggested to her that she file for divorce before he left, in case she wanted to marry again. She cried, realized it was a good idea, got herself a lawyer, and filed for divorce.
After it was done, she told my friend that the judge wanted to know why she was seeking a divorce. So, she said, “I told the judge, ‘I came home from shopping one Saturday afternoon, and my husband and two of his friends [that’s me and another fellow] had made a mess of the apartment. They were sitting around, smoking cigarettes, drinking cokes, and watching a monster movie on television.’”
And that was all there was to it. The point of all this is that I did not appreciate at the time that in years past, getting a divorce was not that easy. Before no-fault divorce became widely accepted, a spouse would have to allege adultery, abandonment, cruelty, or some other reason sufficiently grave. In Frenzy (1972), a man is suspected of murdering his ex-wife because the divorce petition alleged “extreme mental and physical cruelty” and “depravity” as well. The ex-husband tries to explain:
It had to read that way, but there wasn’t a word of truth in it! The lawyers made it all up. We didn’t want to wait three years for a divorce based on desertion, so I allowed her to divorce me on the grounds of cruelty.
As a result of my naivete, when I saw those ads in the yellow pages for private detectives, and they used the phrase “peace of mind,” I took that as a way of saying, “Don’t think of hiring us as betraying a lack of faith in your spouse. You just need a little reassurance that he or she truly loves you.”
Perhaps I should have been suspicious. When I used to watch old movies featuring private detectives, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944), they mostly did missing-person cases. These private detectives in the movies never seemed to help anyone get that peace of mind.
Out of the Past (1947) starts out as a missing-person case, but when private detective Robert Mitchum finds himself having to hide out from gangster Kirk Douglas, he has to keep a low profile:
I opened an office in San Francisco. A cheap little rat hole that suited the work I did. Shabby jobs for whoever hired me. It was the bottom of the barrel, and I scraped it.
Looking back, I can see now that he was talking about divorce cases.
Had I seen Private Detective 62 (1933), that would have cleared things up for me. In that movie, a private detective agency frames innocent wives for adultery so that their husbands can divorce them and not have to pay any alimony. In a typical frame, a woman is given a knock-out drug, and then wakes up to find herself in a hotel room, in bed with some strange man, with photographs having been taken to document the deed. But I would not see that movie until years later.
And so it was that Kiss Me Deadly (1955) was the first movie I had ever seen where the private detective did divorce cases. And when I saw it, I was a little perplexed. But let me start at the beginning.
When the movie opens, we see Cloris Leachman running down the highway at night, wearing nothing but a trench coat. Desperate to have someone give her a ride, she stands in front of an oncoming Jaguar convertible that has to swerve off the road to avoid hitting her. The driver is Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). Disgusted, as he tries to get his car started again, he says, “Get in.” Her name is Christina, and Mike figures she was out on a date with a guy who thought “No” was a three-letter word. But when they come to a police blockade, he finds out she has escaped from an insane asylum. Mike has such disregard for the law that he pretends Christina is his wife. “So, you’re a fugitive from the laughing house,” he says as they drive away.
Apparently, Christina has gotten herself involved in something illegal and dangerous. She becomes mysterious, saying “they” took her clothes away to make her stay. Mike is curious as to who “they” are, but she doesn’t want to get him involved. When he stops at a filling station, Christina goes into the ladies’ room. When she comes out, she hands the attendant a letter and asks him to mail it for her.
As they drive down the road again, Christina begins psychoanalyzing Mike. Only Mike has been through this sort of thing before with women who presume to tell him all about himself, and he responds with sarcasm:
Christina: I was just thinking how much you can tell about a person from such simple things. Your car for instance.
Mike: What kind of message does it send you?
Christina: You have only one real, lasting love.
Mike: Now, who could that be?
Christina: You’re one of those self-indulgent males, who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself.
What we are learning from all this is that, unlike the private detectives of previous movies, who always seem to be just scraping by, Mike Hammer lives well and can easily afford to drive an expensive car and wear tailored suits.
Then she asks him if reads poetry. Mike just gives her a look that says, “Are you kidding?” She tells him about Christina Rossetti, whom she was named after, and who wrote love sonnets. And then she says that if they don’t make it to the bus stop, where he is to let her off, she asks him to “Remember me.”
Suddenly, a car pulls in front of them. Next, we see Mike, only partially conscious, lying on bedsprings, while three men are torturing Christina. We see them only from the waist down, one of whom is holding a pair of Channellock pliers, used to try to extract information from Christina before she died from the ordeal. The men put Christina’s corpse and Mike in his sportscar and push it off a cliff. Mike survives, but spends several weeks in a hospital. When he gets out, he is greeted by some kind of federal agent and is brought in for questioning. In a room with several agents, Mike tells them what he knows. The agent in charge decides to get down to some basic questions, only before Mike can answer them, a couple of other agents snidely answer the questions for him:
Agent in charge: Just what do you do for a living?
Second agent: According to our information, he calls himself a private investigator. His specialty is divorce cases.
Third agent: He’s a bedroom dick. He gets dirt on the wife, then does a deal with the wife to get dirt on the husband. Plays both ends against the middle.
Agent in charge: How do you achieve all this? You crawl under beds?
Second agent: Nothing so primitive.
Third agent: He has a secretary. At least, that’s what he calls her.
Agent in charge: What’s her name, Mr. Hammer?
Second agent: Velda Wickman. She’s a very attractive young woman.
Third agent: Real woo-bait. Lives like a princess. He sics her onto the husbands, and in no time he’s ready for the big squeeze.
Agent in charge: Who do you sic onto the wives, Mr. Hammer?
Second agent: That’s his department.
Well, it doesn’t look as though Mike’s clients find much peace of mind. Not only does he do divorce cases, but he often makes things worse than they already are, being the cause of the very infidelity he was hired to investigate.
Just as we earlier learned that Mike lives well, we find out that his “secretary” Velda is well paid herself. But it was that last part of the “interrogation” that really made me wonder. We can imagine Mike showing a wife pictures of her husband and Velda kissing in a parking lot or entering a hotel room. And later on in the movie, he tells Velda that the bedroom tape she made with lover-boy got lost, and that she will have to call him up, make a date, and try to get some more of that “honey talk” again. He smirks as he says all this, saying, “That tape sure was nice.”
But when the husband is the client, and the wife is Mike’s “department,” we have to imagine the following conversation:
Mike: I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. Jackson, but your wife is having an affair.
Mr. Jackson: Oh, my God!
Mike: We have some photographs, if you would like to see them.
Mr. Jackson: All right. [He looks at the pictures.] Wait a minute! That’s you!
But this is confusing only if you are still laboring under the peace-of-mind motive for hiring a private detective to check on your wife, unless it is the peace of mind that comes from getting a divorce and being single once again. Once you realize that when this movie was made, a man needed a serious reason to divorce his wife, it becomes clear that it wouldn’t have mattered to him if the private detective he hired was the one having an affair with his wife, just as long as it finally gets him out of the marriage that is making him miserable.
Anyway, after the federal agents finish interrogating Mike, he goes to his apartment. Now we really see how lucrative divorce cases must be. His apartment is big and swanky, unlike the cramped quarters of the typical movie private eye, or that of his spare office with a secretary he can just barely afford, if he has one at all. When I saw the answering machine he had, I had no idea such things existed. They would not become a common item in the average person’s home for at least two decades. At the time, I thought how wonderful it would be to find out who’s calling you before answering. In 1955, of all the stuff in Mike’s apartment, that was not only the greatest indication of how well off he was financially, but also that he had the latest technology in the private-detective business.
When Mike begins to figure that whatever Christina was involved in might be something big, he decides to pursue it himself, to see if he can get a cut of whatever it is. He tells Velda not to bother about trying to make another tape with lover-boy, saying he wants to forget about these “penny-ante divorce cases” for a while.
Velda is skeptical. She refers to whatever Mike is looking for as the “Great Whatsit.” As is well known, Alfred Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the thing the spies in a movie are after, but the audience doesn’t care. However, no one in a Hitchcock movie ever used the word “MacGuffin,” as in, “I sure hope we find the MacGuffin before the bad guys do,” or thought of what they were after in that dismissive way. In Kiss Me Deadly, however, not only is there a MacGuffin, but it is cynically regarded as such by Velda. She just has her own name for it. “Does it exist?” she asks. “Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in a fruitless search—for what?” We never do find out what part all the people involved played in inventing this Great Whatsit, stealing it, and hiding it, but I guess that doesn’t really matter either.
In particular, the thing the police, the federal agents, the gangsters, and Mike are all after is a small box with some kind of nuclear device in it that makes no sense technologically. It is nice and quiet as long as the lid is closed, but when it is opened, it begins glowing and hissing.
Lieutenant Pat Murphy, a detective with the police department, revokes Mike’s detective license and gun permit to keep him off the case. But Mike has no problem dealing out pain and death without either one, as when Mike punches some guy that was following him, bashes his head against the wall several times, and then throws him down two flights of concrete stairs.
But not all the pain he inflicts is physical. Mike gets a lead on some unemployed opera singer that might know something. He goes over to the man’s apartment, just as that man happens to be singing along with a recording of Martha. When Mike starts to question him, the man says he knows nothing. There is a vast collection of records in the room that the man treasures. Mike pulls a record out of an album, looks at it, and says, “Hey! Caruso’s Pagliacci. That’s a collector’s item.” The man agrees, smiling enthusiastically. Mike snaps the record in two.
It turns out that Christina, having seen the registration certificate in Mike’s car, which had his address on it, sent the letter she gave the filling-station attendant to Mike. In it, it has just two words enclosed in quotation marks: “Remember Me.” It turns out Mike is pretty good at interpreting poetry. He found a book of sonnets by Christina Rossetti in Christina’s apartment and took it with him. He figures out from reading the poem “Remember Me,” which speaks of “darkness and corruption,” that Christina must have swallowed something before she was killed. Accompanied by Gabrielle, a woman Mike believes to be Lily Carver, who was Christina’s roommate, he goes to see the coroner (Percy Helton), and gives him some money as a bribe. The coroner admits he found a key in Christina’s stomach when he performed an autopsy, but he tries to play cute by putting the key back in the drawer, indicating he wants more money. Mike rams the drawer on the coroner’s hand again and again, making him squeal with pain as Mike grins. Then he pushes him aside and takes the key.
The key is to a locker in an athletic club. Mike gets into the locker and finds the box. When he opens it just slightly, he gets a radiation burn on his wrist. He closes it back up. But when he gets back to his car, Gabrielle is gone.
Meanwhile, an art dealer tricks Velda into thinking he can give her information, but is actually part of a plot to kidnap her. He lives upstairs above his modern art gallery. When he hears Mike breaking in, he swallows a bunch of sleeping pills, trying to kill himself first, as Mike makes his way up the stairs past a bunch of ugly paintings.
Why a modern art dealer, you may be wondering. Mike has a cavalier attitude toward the fine arts throughout this movie. Christina loved poetry, which Mike sneered at. When Mike was in her apartment, he turned on the radio and found that it was tuned to a classical-music station. We see Velda doing ballet exercises, stretching one of her legs resting on her desk. Mike rotates her leg to the back of a chair so he can get by. After Mike snapped the Caruso record and got the information he wanted from the opera singer, he put the needle back on Martha and left, saying, “A lovely record.” And now we have a modern-art dealer mixed up in this story. Mike is indifferent to all this cultural refinement, except when he can use it to get what he is after.
Anyway, Mike tries to beat some information out of the art dealer, but the man passes out from the sleeping pills. Mike turns on the man’s radio. More classical music. He looks around the room. He sees the name of Dr. Soberin on the bottle of sleeping pills. Velda had mentioned that name. He calls Soberin’s answering service and finds out that he has a beach cottage. Mike realizes it’s probably the same place where Christina was tortured, and subsequently the place where the gangsters forcibly brought him later in order to find out what he knows, only Mike killed two of them and got away. Mike doesn’t bother to call an ambulance for the art dealer. He just leaves for the beach house, letting the man die of an overdose.
Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker) is, in fact, the chief villain, and Gabrielle is actually his lover. She told Soberin where the box was, and he now has it at his beach house, with Velda locked in one of the rooms. Gabrielle wants to know what is in the box. In the space of two minutes, Soberin alludes to Pandora’s box, Lot’s wife, and the head of Medusa.
Gabriele says she wants half of what is in the box, but Soberin says it can’t be shared. So, in that case, she says she wants it all, pulls out a revolver, and shoots him. He still has time for one last allusion, referring to Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of Hell, as he warns her not to open the box. Gabrielle doesn’t care about all those references to mythology or stories in the bible. She wants to know what’s in the box.
In any event, just after Gabrielle kills Soberin, Mike comes in through the door. She tells Mike to kiss her, saying it would be a “liar’s kiss,” referring to the way Mike treats women as sex objects, but only when he’s in the mood to bother with them at all. Perhaps he got a little off Gabrielle when she stayed at his apartment, and she felt used. Before he has a chance to do anything, however, she shoots him. Then she opens the box. It hisses and glows. She can’t help herself. She must keep opening the box, screaming as she becomes engulfed in flames. Don’t ask how anyone ever got that thing in the box to begin with.
There are two endings for this movie, in both of which the final scene is that of the beach house exploding in a fireball. In what is now called the “original ending,” the wounded Mike manages to get himself and Velda out of the house and into the surf, where they watch the house explode. Big deal. All this for a bomb that can blow up a house? That makes no sense. At the very least, we have to suppose this is an atomic bomb of sorts, one that will destroy Los Angeles. But in that case, seeing Mike and Velda escape from the house is pointless, for they will soon be incinerated.
What is sometimes called the “shortened ending” makes more sense. Mike finds the room where Velda has been locked up, but then we see the entire house exploding, presumably killing them both. So, now we can assume it is an atomic bomb, inasmuch as Mike and Velda will be dead anyway.
Or can we? By 1955, nuclear weapons were a commonplace. One more bomb would have been just one more bomb. And it would not have even been a danger to the United States, because Soberin told Gabrielle that he was leaving, and that it was not possible for him to take her with him. Presumably, he was leaving the country. For this reason, and perhaps because that glowing, hissing thing almost seems to be alive, some critics argue that this device is setting off a chain reaction that will continue to grow until it consumes the entire world. Not just Mike and Velda, not just the citizens of Los Angeles, but everyone on this planet will be killed.
Mike should have stuck to divorce cases.