Noir apocalypse and the neanderthal detective, "let him go to hell." It starts out in the highway at night with Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) damn near running over the mystery girl (Cloris Leachman), a naked runaway trembling under her coat and last seen as a pair of dangling, lifeless legs. Divorce cases are the specialty of the "bedroom dick," the strutting lunkhead who pimps out his girl Friday (Maxine Cooper) and doesn’t so much enter a scene as bulldoze into it -- Hammett’s Sam Spade adjusted to a seamy new era. His one gallant instinct is to honor the dead hitchhiker’s request ("Remember me"), which leads to a gallery of grotesques and a big metal box containing a century’s worth of anxieties in concentrated, radioactive form. "Keep away from the windows. Someone might... blow you a kiss." Robert Aldrich’s derangement of Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled hero is the derangement of an entire genre, pulp and mythology fused and exploded. The world is one of corkscrew staircases, disembodied screams and stitched-up mugs peering through curtains, Hammer makes himself at home in it: When he crushes the grasping hand of a crooked morgue attendant, the camera is there to pick up his gloating smile. Hoods and molls around a pool like reptiles by the pond, obsessive long takes in boxing gyms and art galleries punctuated by shock cuts and askew angles. (Fortunio Bonanova is there with an aria for the Welles connection.) The past of Rossetti and Chopin collides with the present of the Manhattan Project, the shadowy Mr. Big (Albert Dekker) namedrops Medusa and Cerberus only to be silenced by a perversely neurasthenic femme fatale (the indelible Gaby Rodgers). A hundred bizarre, brilliant tremors build to the revelation that the coveted, enchanted glow is really a mushroom cloud, pushing humanity back into the ocean. Aldrich’s annihilating masterpiece, one of the decade’s key works, and a vast influence on the Godard who would revive the deadly gamine and the truculent sleuth in Breathless and Alphaville. Cinematography by Ernest Laszlo. With Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Wesley Addy, Nick Dennis, Strother Martin, Jack Elam, Jack Lambert, and Percy Helton. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce