Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of A Style

(Part Three)


Since this article first appeared twenty years ago, Kiss Me Deadly continues to be one of the classic period's most discussed films. In the "Postface" of a new printing of their text, a decade after Paul Schrader called it "the masterpiece of film noir,"2 Borde and Chaumeton wrote: "1955, the end of an epoch. Film Noir has fulfilled its role by creating a particular disquiet and providing a vehicle for social criticism in the United States. Robert Aldrich gives this happening a fascinating and shadowy conclusion, Kiss Me Deadly. It is the despairing opposite of the film which, fourteen years earlier, opened the noir cycle, The Maltese Falcon."3

One of the most discussed aspects of Kiss Me Deadly is its ending, which the filmmakers themselves referred to as "Let's go fission."4 Borde and Chaumeton were a bit more effusive when they spoke of "savage lyricism" and "nuclear apocalypse." Before going further, it should be noted that unfortunately both the 16mm prints and the video version of Kiss Me Deadly are missing scenes no. 305 and 307.5 As I mentioned in the third edition of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, some commentators most notably Jack Shadoian in Dreams and Dead Ends and J.P. Telotte in Voices in the Dark, have questioned whether Mike and Velda stumble into the surf. Shadoian even suggests that since many of Raymond Durgnat's recollections are wrong, so is his version of the ending.6 Telotte does not know "whether such accounts indicate the existence of an alternate ending for the film or simply represent the kind of creative recollection-prodded by wish fulfillment-that often marks film commentary."7 One might wonder why any commentator would "wish" for Velda and Hammer to survive. Certainly audience expectations might be for that survival; but in terms of narrative irony, it would seem most apt for Hammer to witness the apocalypse which he and others have wrought [see Aldrich's remarks below].

Even critics who accept the existence of this ending have further compounded the problem by such assertions as "the studio added a final shot still there in some prints showing Hammer and Velda standing amid the waves."8 Here Robin Wood suggests that Aldrich did not want these two cuts in the finished picture. In a more recent book Edward Gallafent asserts that a "gesture to the benign couple remains in some prints."9                                  

These shots should be in all the prints, and Aldrich never regarded them as any sort of gesture. While they had never seen a complete print, Edward Arnold and Eugene Miller asked Aldrich about the ending, and he replied, "I have never seen a print without, repeat, without Hammer and Velda stumbling in the surf. That's the way it was shot, that's the way it was released; the idea being that Mike was left alive long enough to see what havoc he had caused, though certainly he and Velda were both seriously contaminated."10 Viewers of the laser disc of Kiss Me Deadly can catch a glimpse in the theatrical trailer included at the end of the disc of one shot of Mike and Velda in the surf as the house explodes [or watch the GIF animation on the home page].

In comparing Kiss Me Deadly with Fritz Lang's The Big Heat, Robin Wood remarks that "the sledgehammer sensibility that is both the strength and weakness of Kiss Me Deadly prohibits any nuance."11 Even Andrew Sarris' early assessment suggests an uncontrolled atmosphere: "Aldrich's direction of his players generally creates a subtle frenzy on the screen, and his visual style suggests an unstable world full of awkward angles and harsh transitions."12 Wood's critique may reflect the same ambivalence towards Aldrich's authorial consciousness and/or political correctness as Raymond Borde had when he questioned Aldrich's beliefs in 1956: "We've been discouraged so often that we are wary of American liberals. Like most left of center Americans Aldrich can evidently deceive us from one day to the next."13 Borde's concern about being deceived did not diminish his enthusiasm for Kiss Me Deadly as expressed in Panorama du Film Noir Américain. In 1968 Sarris also believed that Kiss Me Deadly was a "most perplexing and revealing work...a testament to Aldrich's anarchic spirit."14

Whether Aldrich or A.I. Bezzerides were leftists, anarchists, or any other type of "ist" outside of the context of the films themselves seems less of a concern for more recent commentators. Perhaps this is because Kiss Me Deadly typifies those rare films which transcend critical modalities. Borde and Chaumeton, Schrader, Durgnat, Sarris, Wood, and scores of other critical writers all agree on the merits of the film. Structuralist, formalist, feminist, auteurist, and Marxist critics alike have all found something to admire in it. A quarter of century apart, Borde and Wood both remark on how Aldrich transformed Spillane's solipsistic and reactionary novel into something remarkable. Whether or not Kiss Me Deadly does anticipate the freeform narratives of the New Wave or, it could be argued, the self-conscious stylistic de-constructions of later Godard, it is undeniably multi-faceted and complex in attitude. 

For many observers the mixture of film noir, McCarthyism, and "va-va-voom" has, to use Sarris' celebrated analogy from The American Cinema, caused a confusion between the forest and the trees. Borde sensed it when he wrote that "on the extreme right, certain imbeciles have identified this thriller as the quest for the Grail."15 Shadouin may not have been aware of Borde's assertion but was reacting to my comment [see p. 212 above] when he wrote that "Hammer is the inheritor of a superfluous culture and a superfluous role, a modern, ironic Galahad whose quest leads him to a fire-breathing atomic box."16 Telotte takes up this issue and ultimately concludes that "like Perceval, Mike fails as a quester."

As I suggested twenty years ago, Kiss Me Deadly obviously is a quest for a noir grail. Whether or not Hammer "fails" as a quester is less important than the quest itself. From his name to his survival of the assault to his ability to overcome Evello's thugs, Hammer clearly has, as Shadouin notes, mythic qualities; but in myth some protagonists succeed and others fail. Aside from the question of "Subject/Object split and First Person Usage," which was a sub-head in the Film Comment article, my other context in originally writing that Hammer is not another Galahad but is a quester was Aldrich's World for Ransom.17 In that film Julian March, the principal antagonist, actually says to the white-suited hero Mike Callahan: "You shouldn't play Galahad. You're way out of character." Ignorant of more distant past behaviors to which March may be referring, the viewer has only seen Calahan shelter a woman who betrayed his love and risk his life for the good of society. The irony in Marsh's comment is that for Calahan "playing Galahad" is not "way out of character." Superficially, that same irony does not apply to Hammer and his "what's in it for me?" attitude in Kiss Me, Deadly. What is actually in play in Kiss Me Deadly is not a standard archetype but a part of process that social historian Mike Davis describes as "that great anti-myth usually known as noir."18 Hammer is indeed an "anti-Galahad" in search of his "great whatsit," a perfect colloquialism to stand in for and parody the fabled concept of a Grail. Wood calls Christina's perception of Hammer's narcissism at the beginning of Kiss Me Deadly "abrupt and rhetorical." But in an anti-mythic structure, a classic invocation of the epic hero, like Virgil's "Of arms and the man I sing" must be transformed into an antiheroic equivalent, something like: "You're the kind of person that has only one true love: you." This tension between myth and anti-myth, between hero and antihero, is one key to Kiss Me Deadly and the root of the complexity which Wood finds lacking. Hammer is a radically different character than many who preceded him in film noir and in Aldrich's work as well. For Aldrich, who often spoke of turning concepts on their heads, Hammer is the consummate anti-idealist.
Most recent commentaries beginning with Telotte have refocused on narrative issues. A simple example is a recent essay by R. Barton Palmer which consists mostly of plot summary (but, at least, he gets the ending right). Palmer's other comments, such as calling Hammer a "knight" because "he proves vulnerable to the desperation of ladies in distress" or saying "real not seem nightmarish,"19 are puzzling. Palmer does call Aldrich "perhaps the most political of noir directors."20 This runs slightly counter to Gallafent's assertions about Aldrich's intentions. Gallafent explores the history of Spillane's prose and the evolution of Aldrich's assessment of his work through interviews; but he never cites Aldrich's most direct statement on the film's "sex and violence."21 Gallafent characterizes "the release of massive physical violence"22 in the scene where Hammer beats up a pursuer as an expression of Hammer's sexual frustration. In fact, complete with obscure allusions to the work of Douglas Sirk, Gallefent tries to make the entire narrative revolve around sexual frustration. One hesitates to think what unprecedented orgasmic connotations Gallafent might derive from the final explosion.

Still other commentators have taken analysis of the components of sex and violence much further than Gallafent. For one critic Hammer's violent beating of that same pursuer is an example of his repressed homosexuality in a film full of masculinized women and phallic symbols that is ultimately "homophobic as well as misogynistic."23 Carol Flinn searches not for a great whatsit but for "feminine sexuality which displays itself so lavishly across this and other examples of film noir."24 In considering "aural signifiers" Flinn raises several points. For instance, her mention of Christina's labored breaths at the film's beginning being "closer than they ought to be" and creating "a break in cinematic verisimilitude"25 suggests one aural equivalent to the unusual visual elements in Kiss Me Deadly. Other subtle effects, such as dog barking outside Christina's house that seems to foreshadow Soberin's reference to "Cerberus barking with all his heads," understandably go unnoticed; but many obviously unusual sound elements, like Mist's loud snoring or Evello's literal expiration or even the growl of the box itself, are inexplicably overlooked amid discussions of dialogue and music.

Despite these wide-ranging critical excursions, one never gets the sense that the depths of Kiss Me Deadly have been fully probed. Certainly Kiss Me Deadly ranks with the most important examples of film noir by any director. It has the menace of Night and the City, the grim determinism of Out of the Past, the cynicism of Double Indemnity, the reckless energy of Gun Crazy, and the visual flourish of Touch of Evil. Its focus on the underlying sense of nuclear peril that haunted the end of the noir period could not have been more apt. If Kiss Me Deadly also reflects such contemporary issues as McCarthyism and moral decline, those, too, are part of the fabric of film noir.

As it happens, Aldrich's early career as assistant director and director coincides with the beginning and end of the classic period of film noir; and he would revisit many of the noir cycle's themes. sometimes accompanied by A.I. Bezzerides, in later films. But as a symbol of what film noir epitomized or of the powerful, malevolent forces lurking in the Aldrich/Bezzerides vision of the modern world, nothing would ever loom larger than a mushroom cloud over Malibu.



Copyright © 1975 by the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Film Comment). Reproduced by permission. New material for this Film Noir Reader version, Copyright © 1996 by Alain Silver.