In my head there is a holy trinity of American noir, each marking out its own territory like some ill-tempered alpha wolf prowling in the dark, as well as each displaying its own particular take on the well-worn motifs and themes of the genre. The Big Sleep does labyrinthine plotting, myth making and hats, Force of Evil does organised crime, corruption and doom and Kiss Me Deadly, based on Mickey Spillane’s 1952 novel, does plain old unforgiving meanness, it’s a nasty kidney-punch of a film, the kind of film where the ‘hero’ smiles in a Freudian manner as he slams a would-be troublemaker’s hand in a drawer.
The first two are Hollywoodclassicism in the best possible sense, Kiss Me Deadly sure as hell isn’t and it has no regrets for not being so. It distinguishes itself from the other two by its unapologetic pulpiness. Even though there are probably dozens of equally fine examples lost in the celluloid crypt, Kiss Me Deadly seems like a common ancestor of the drive-in, midnight movie, video-nasty culture that would explode over the following three decades, pushing to the forefront the seat-filling siblings of sex and violence, as well as a demented drive to genre mash, so loved by Corman and Troma. It is one of the cinematic culprits that smuggled the seed of pulp into the mainstream, so much so that we can barely separate it from what we now do deem ‘mainstream’
It was also, interestingly enough, chronologically the latest of these films. You see at the arse end of the noir golden age Kiss Me Deadly kicked out of the cul-de-sac the genre had created for itself, with one black eye looking mockingly backward and one blue eye staring into the future of sleaze and exploitation. Mickey Spillane knew all about noir, he knew what made it tick and although there’s an obvious love for all things tough, sharp tongued and be-hatted, he also lampoons the genre mercilessly. And Director Robert Aldrich knew how to cajole a taught little genre piece out of the B-movie basement, as he had done previously with a pair of sharp westerns (Apache and Vera Cruz) and a censor baiting espionage flick (A World for Ransom). So together they made Kiss Me Deadly very much a film of excessive psychology, in a genre not known for much subtlety in this area. Every facet of it can be drawn back to the characters’ mental state; emotion is extreme to the point of absurdity. Aware I think of its own preposterousness, Kiss Me Deadly seems to very much use it to mock its forefathers.
We can witness this from the film’s very beginning, because it starts (and continues in an upward trajectory) with distress. Christine, the doomed broad, is brought by coincidence, fate or a corrupt alignment of the stars, into the path of our hero, thug and sadist Mike Hammer, distraught and panicked. Screaming she throws herself into the path of his speeding car, he berates her, insults her, her sudden witty counters unbalance us, she jumps in and we speed away, no back projection needed, we’re very much nailed onto the back of Hammer’s car and like Lost Highway the white line unfurls out of the pitch dark. As the credits run upside down (David Fincher was probably watching) Christine pants breathlessly over the soft sounds of Nat King Cole. This early juxtaposition of soft and hard, light and dark makes me jump forward 15 years to Michael Corleone at the baptism of his nephew as his enemies are simultaneously slaughtered.
This isn’t the only time while watching the film that The Godfather springs to mind. Kiss Me Deadly is almost perfectly lit, darkness creeps in from the edge of scenes, constantly threatening, and it brings to mind Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather. With his genius balance of light and shade he reminds us that beneath the loyalty, the family ties, the sophistication and tradition, are always violence and exploitation. Kiss Me Deadly does not even have this reassuring surface layer, anything light appears as old paint flaking off a rotten wall, forcing us to confront the fact that darkness is merely the absence of light and everything solid in Kiss Me Deadly is just illuminated enough to pick it out of the darkness where it naturally resides.
Even more oppressive is that often anything that is illuminated takes on the form of bars caging the characters in the escalating mystery, behind characters on bed heads, in front of the them in banisters, surrounding them under piers, often shot from angles off balance or ones too high or low to give us a human reference on events.
These elements assimilate perfectly when Hammer, dragged into a mystery by Christine’s murder, visits her old flatmate. He climbs the stairs to her apartment barely visible in the dark and slung askew by the camera warping the straight lines of steps, shadow and banister. In Christine’s room, the light is hung low, obscuring Hammer’s face and flooding the top of the frame with darkness, their voices echo in the near bare room, the flatmate mutters her lines in a strangely staged and melodramatic fashion, simultaneously sounding needy and threatening. There is no soundtrack to fill the silences, to tell us how to feel, only the constant rumble of invisible trains (Michael Corleone again, this time eyes flicking between victims in a restaurant). The scene plays out like the film in miniature and closes with a strangely agitating shot. The flatmate lies down on her bed, her lines still being delivered, but her head from the shoulders up disappears behind a pile of boxes. It seems rough and unprofessional, but from the acute staging and synchronisation of the rest of the scene we know this is not true. Like a similar shot in Don’t Look Now where Donald Sutherland places a phone receiver down which obscures the face of his dead daughter, we know it is telling us something but we’re not sure we want to know what it is. All together it creates an oppressive aura of expectation and tension…nothing good will come of Hammer’s investigation into Christine’s death and only violence is waiting for him.
And what violence; it’s difficult to think of a more violent film released in America in the 50’s, while the Hay’s Code still held the industry in its vice-like grip. Christine is tortured, maybe to death, with pliers, in a region that Lars Von Trier has only recently dared to go, Hammer repeatedly smashes an attacker’s head against a wall before throwing him to his death (after the head injury it seems disturbingly as though Hammer even lets him up so he can continue the punishment), Hammer’s friend and informant is crushed under the car he is working on, a prone man is coolly stabbed in the back. Hammer gets his hands dirty more than most, his attack on a goon happens out of shot but the overt reaction by goon #2 to the violence implies this was no usual roughing up and is one of many events that suggest Hammer’s sadism. Nowhere more than Hammer’s relationship with women, he looks at every one of them with a predatory gaze, but very rarely follows through, he plays his assistant and sometimes lover Velda with a combination of strong-arming and flirtatiousness, but never to seems to find enjoyment in her attentions. He only seems to smile when causing pain.
About two-thirds of the way into the film it goes off into the deep end, to a place where no previous noir had dared to go. It’s a make or break point for the viewer, what had previously been a film that teetered on the edge of psychological and emotional ludicrousness, happily plunges off a cliff into a sea of nihilistic sci-fi horror. Hammer’s investigations lead him to the calculative king-pin of the mystery Dr Soberin and his search for a mysterious box that is hot to the touch and emits a deadly throbbing light when opened. ‘The great whatsit’ as Velda calls it is cold-war paranoia, a fear of apocalyptic nuclear attack; an idea that supports the theory is that after briefly opening it and scalding his hand Hammer spends the rest of the film dying from its effects. But it stretches further than this, the horrific noise emitted from it as it is opened causing a destructive inferno during the film’s climax washes all theories of its nature in a supernatural doubt, it is the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark granted MacGuffin status, it is an horrific mystery that emanates across rock’n’roll comic book, battered paperback, greaser, 70’s red blood, revenge fantasy cinematic history from Repo Man to Pulp Fiction. Where characters beat each other to a pulp after a cutting one liner, where men are cursed by their actions and doomed by their consequences, where they spout off about Lot, Pandora and Cerberus while totally aware of the mythology they’re creating.