Some unforgettable private dicks have graced cinema through the years, many of them played by remarkable actors with varied takes on their tough-talking, hard-drinking, darkly shaded PIs. From the star-studded stabs at Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould) to Bogart’s iconic turn as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) to a wide gallery of gumshoes (Edward Arnold in Meet Nero Wolf, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, and the various incarnations of Charlie Chan), big-screen shamuses make for intriguing, complex and exciting entertainment — big-time.
But even with all of these terrific tailers to choose from, for my money (and money means a lot when dealing with such sleuths) the greatest hunk o’ hard-boiled heaviness was Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s super-stylized, brilliant Kiss Me Deadly (which I rhapsodized about, opening shots alone, here). With his sleazy cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, his swaggering, selfish, slaphappy demeanor, and his eye (though not heart) for the ladies, Meeker (so extraordinary and different in Something Wild – a movie I’ll discuss in the near future) was such a hard Hammer that he oozed single-minded contempt. And you kind of love the shit-heel. I do anyway.
Within Aldrich’s wild, fatalistic noir, a noir that becomes so apocalyptic that it borders on science fiction, Hammer should be a smug SOB, a self-indulgent man who, as the hysterial Cloris Leachman says to him, “thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard.” And he’s not going to disagree. Meeker’s Hammer isn’t below threatening to chuck poor, tragic Leachman off a cliff, even if he just picked her up in his speedy little Jaguar for possibly something else. It’s that woman — a hitchhiking psychiatric-ward escapee — who leads Hammer to his craziest, deadliest mystery and when she’s murdered, Hammer’s off to investigate her death.
But he does a lot more. In the course of his investigation he will make out with his hot-to-trot secretary, slam a guy’s hand in a drawer, smash another man’s head in a wall and swap barbs with maybe the most important person in his life — his overly excitable car mechanic (“va va voom!”). And that’s just the half of it. When he’s dealing with a glowing, radioactive suitcase (hat-tipped in both Repo Man and Pulp Fiction), the cool, sordid “bedroom dick” turns out to be a man contending with the end of the world (with two endings). Which in Meeker’s hands means that…my lord, Robert Aldrich really was cynical. What a perfect pair.