Robert Aldrich's low-budget overhaul of a Mickey Spillane avenger tale became one of the very few essential private-eye films. (The dreaded Mafia of the novel became a bigger dread: the Bomb. And the tough-guy hero became, in Ralph Meeker's toughly unsympathetic portrait, a total anti-hero if not non-hero.) Starting with a heavily panting highway pickup who's naked beneath her trenchcoat, a mellow Nat King Cole tune on the car radio, and a cryptic quotation from Christina Rossetti, the action unfolds as a murky nightmare journey through L.A.'s dark side. The zombified inhabitants seem to be acted by ventriloquist dummies. Their words are supplied by A.I. Bezzerides, in a spellcasting script with odd flights of grandiloquence: the villain's mythological allusions, the cop's spine-tingling recital of the cornerstones of the Atomic Age, and, best of all, the monologue by Mike Hammer's secretary, Velda, on the pursuit of "the Great Whatzit. " With Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Wesley Addy, Cloris Leachman. (1955) — Duncan Shepherd
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