Mike Hammer is as hard and thin as a railroad spike driven into concrete, seduced by mystery and a dark poem of remembrance. Director Robert Aldrich's debut is a brutish noir transformed by cloak and dagger thrills, an explosive algorithm of cold war ethics. Aldrich turns the genre upside-down like the opening credits (read from bottom to top!), a cinematic excursion where a femme fatale whispers a nuclear polemic.
Mike Hammer lives in the subconscious, the penumbra of the Id, always racing like a jaguar towards the fulfillment of his pleasure principle. He is the prototypical anti-hero, dressed to kill with a temper to match, seducing women with only a sideways glance. But Hammer is soon made impotent, victim of a faceless "they" who seek the great "what's it", his good deeds never seeming to go unpunished. He is forced to pick up a voluptuous hitchhiker and is soon embroiled in a thermonuclear winter of discontent and stalks the nightmarish truth for his own vengeful reasons, an ignoble purpose of National insecurities. A whispered epitaph becomes a steel key, a violent travelogue that leads to an irradiated treasure locked away, ashes and brimstone of the new atomic age.
Aldrich captures the film with skewed angles and a creeping malaise, as men in black consume the night with a biblical fury, summoned by a government bureaucracy to stand guard like demonic sentinels, harbingers of a world without hope: these are men who are much worse than the petty evils of Mike Hammer. Aldrich utilizes film noir gumshoe tropes but advances a scientific element, a Periodic Chart to fuel this explosive admixture. In this monochrome world, no one is pure but an amalgam of intents and desires, prostituting themselves to the highest bidder. The film ends as Hammer and his moll flee into the crashing surf while the world burns down.
Final Grade: (A)