- Directors: Robert Aldrich
- Producers: Robert Aldrich
- Writers: Story, Mickey Spillane, Screenplay, A I Bezzerides
- Genres: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir, Thriller
- Actors: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Cloris Leachman
Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, a tough Los Angeles private eye who is almost as brutal and corrupt as the crooks he chases. Mike, and his assistant/secretary/lover, Velda(Maxine Cooper), usually work on “penny-ante divorce cases”.
One evening on a lonely country road, Hammer gives a ride to Christina (Cloris Leachman), an attractive hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat. She has escaped from a nearby mental institution. Thugs waylay them and force his car to crash. Hammer regains consciousness in some unknown location where he hears Christina screaming and being tortured to death. Hammer next awakens in a hospital with Velda by his bedside. He decides to pursue the case, both for vengeance and because, “She (Christina) must be connected with something big” behind it all.
The twisting plot takes Hammer to the apartment of Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), a sexy, waif-like blond who is posing as Christina’s ex-room mate. Lily tells Hammer she has gone into hiding and asks Hammer to protect her. It turns out that she is after a mysterious box that, she believes, has contents worth a fortune.
“The great whatsit”, as Velda calls it, at the center of Hammer’s quest is a small, mysterious valise that is hot to the touch and contains a dangerous, shining substance. It comes to represent the 1950s Cold War fear and nuclear paranoia about the atomic bomb that permeated American culture.
The original American release of the film shows Hammer and Velda escaping from the burning house at the end, running into the ocean as the words “The End” come over them on the screen. Sometime after its first release, the ending was crudely altered on the film’s original negative, removing over a minute’s worth of shots where Hammer and Velda escape and superimposing the words “The End” over the burning house. This implied that Hammer and Velda perished in the atomic blaze, and was often interpreted to represent the apocalypse. In 1997, the original conclusion was restored. The DVD release has the correct original ending, and offers the now-discredited truncated ending as an extra. The movie is described as “the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time – at the close of the classic noir period.”