The Hellish Majesty of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly
From the downward-scrolling opening credits onward, everything is going south in Robert Aldrich’s extraordinary screen adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly. Indeed, those bizarre credits give the viewer an early indication that they aren’t in the stately John Huston-era of film noir anymore. Made in 1955, a mere half-decade after Huston’s darkly majestic The Asphalt Jungle, Kiss Me Deadly makes like that movie’s punk half-brother – a screeching, disreputable, amoral and finally apocalyptic scrape through the gutter, where the death of honour and morality are allied to something far more universally sinister.
The first ancestor the film thumbs its grubby nose at is none other than Spillane himself. Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, who described his feelings towards the material as ‘contempt’, wrote P.I. Mike Hammer as a sadistic bullying misogynist and pimp – a more grotesque take on the character than Spillane had explicitly outlined. Moreover, Bezzerides added a completely new element to the screenplay – a mysterious suitcase with a lethal secret – which takes the film from being an unusually tough noir into altogether stranger territory (Spillane’s response to the film, according to Bezzerides, was not a happy one).
Differences from the more established noirs of the period are immediately obvious through a series of audacious technical manoeuvres on Aldrich’s part. Camera angles are ‘dutched’, shots float much looser that the straight framing of earlier works like Jacques Tourneur ‘s Out Of The Past and Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, and most surprisingly cameras are perilously mounted to real cars, unlike the back-projection driving we so strongly associate with the Hollywood of that period. In a sense this risky last technique is closely tied to the atmosphere of the film – this is dangerous noir, freed from the moral dilemmas of Humphrey Bogart and Sterling Hayden, and Ralph Meeker’s portrayal of Hammer creates an anti-hero in the truest sense, a man not so much immoral as operating on his own personal distorted plane of ethics. The portrayal of violence is absolutely astonishing for a film of the time – the shot of Cloris Leachman’s writhing naked legs as she is tortured at the beginning of the film proved too much for the British censor, who trimmed several minutes from the print. A later scene in which Hammer interrogates a corrupt coroner allows the audience to anticipate some imminent trouble through the coroner’s refusal to hand over a key found on a dead body. When Hammer inevitably resorts to violence – smashing the coroner’s fingers in a desk drawer – the audience is doubly horrified to see several inserted shots of Hammer’s grinning face as he indulges in his favourite pastime. The ethical complexity of Bogart’s closing speech in The Maltese Falcon feels like something from a different planet, let alone the previous decade.
All of these elements make the film feel noticeably more contemporary than many other noirs of the period – indeed the mobility of the camera seems to prefigure the Nouvelle Vague techniques of Truffaut and Godard that would presently dominate cinema. In fact, Kiss Me Deadly has proved surprisingly influential as the years have passed. The most obvious comparison to make is the direct homage (practically an in-joke) paid by Tarantino with Pulp Fiction’s glowing suitcase, but the film’s techniques and imagery have also been referenced by Alex Cox, Steven Spielberg and David Lynch (the beginning and ending of Lost Highway contain shots of a rushing highway and an exploding beach-house that are startlingly similar).
While the majority of the film follows the traditional noir plot template – a death followed by a convoluted search for a mysterious MacGuffin – it is in the final twenty minutes of Kiss Me Deadly (specifically the new material added for the adaptation) where the film leaves reality behind and becomes something truly special. Hammer finally locates his strange suitcase in a locker. The box is hot to the touch and when partially opened emits a blinding light and a deeply unnerving guttural noise. The contents of the box are later indirectly referred to as radioactive material by a secondary character, and this has remained the received opinion when the film is discussed, and while the second world war is never explicitly referenced, there seems to be a sense in which Aldrich and Bezzerides suggest that the horrors of the box are closely allied to it (the piece of music playing shortly before the climactic opening of the box is Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude – allegedly the last piece of music played on free Polish radio before the Nazi invasion). However, both director and screenwriter are clearly far too canny to allow this to remain simply a Cold-War era nuclear reference. Indeed, the contents of the box appear ultimately to embody the hell that the characters have been circling for the majority of the film’s running time. The visual and sound design of the contents of the box suggest that Aldrich was interested in far more than a ‘nuclear panic’. The disturbing noise that accompanies the light sounds like a series of tape loops of white noise and human voices. Biblical and mythological references (Pandora and Lot’s wife among them) litter the second half of the film. When Spielberg melted a bunch of high-ranking Nazis at the climax of Raiders Of The Lost Ark a quarter of a century later, the visuals and sound effects employed to depict metaphysical wrath were strikingly similar. The fate of those who open the box is closely tied to an implied judgement on their belief that it has some kind of financial value, and constitutes old-testament punishment in the most grandiose style.
Inevitably, in the final scene the box is fully opened – by Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) – and the blinding light and fire engulfs everything. In the original version of the film, Hammer and his secretary Velda were not seen to escape and the final shot was of the beach house containing the box exploding – the implication being that everybody died in the apocalypse. A recently found full ending (from Aldrich’s own collection) actually shows the couple escaping into the sea and watching, purgatorially half-submerged, as the house burns. This uneasy, unsettling ending – that deliberately allows its characters to dodge judgement while leaving precisely nothing resolved – feels much more apt for this horrible, amoral world, a conclusion as iconoclastic as everything that has preceded it in this brilliant, infernal film.
David Hering is the editor of Consider David Foster Wallace, released by Sideshow Media Group on August 30 2010.