Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of A Style

(Part Two)

5. Depth of Field. The presence of depth in the medium close two shot of Hammer and Yeager permits a distracting rear ground which draws attention away or externalizes character emotion. A more "active" use of depth is found in the close two shot of Christina and the gas station attendant (7). Because his profile is present in the left foreground, he is not only more noticeable than the boxers in the gym but he severely restricts the amount of the frame in which she can move. As such he externalizes, even as he exchanges pleasant words with her, the pervasive sense of constriction which she experiences as a fugitive.

The depth of field in Hammer's first call on Carver situates him by the door while she reclines in the near ground holding a gun on him (20). Despite the potential for violence expressed by the gun, the angle (low) and the deep focus define a large field in which Hammer can move back and forth. Unlike other objects or clutter in the foreground, Carver's head and the three bars in the bed frame work against each other. The center bar separates her both from Hammer and from her gun, which she holds awkwardly. The left bar cuts into her head. The right bar completes a rectangle in which Hammer, posed comfortably with his hands in his pockets, is alone with the gun but not threatened by it. Lacking constriction, he can come forward out of the shadows to smile at Carver from the edge of the bed and establish his dominance over the scene.

Conversely, the lack of depth caused by a long focal length lens when Hammer is followed by an unidentified man (16) intensifies the sense of isolation and real danger implicit in the lonely street at night. Detached from the rear ground, which is both out of focus optically and blurred by the panning movement following him down the sidewalk, Hammer cannot flee into the surrounding decor but is held in the shallow plane of the lens and must turn to face his assailant who is photographed in that same plane.

6. Opticals. The most unusual optical device in Kiss Me Deadly is the title sequence. Over a shot of Hammer and Christina in his car, the main title ("DEADLY/KISS ME"), cast names, and technical credits all appear and move across the screen from top to bottom, stacked to be read bottom line first, like signs painted on the roadway (4). This inversion of conventional titles is gimmicky but also appropriate and evocative of the skewed events which will follow. The final explosion is accomplised by optical blending of an actual beach house with a realistic miniature (45).

Most of the transitions in Kiss Me Deadly are accomplished by fades or direct cuts. The dissolve from Hammer looking out the window of his apartment to him kissing Velda in the center of the room is unusual for two reasons: it overlays two shots taken from the same camera position, outside the window (15) which Hammer's POV reveals is on an upper floor; and it represents a kind of projection/wish fulfillment in which a character imagines or anticipates an event and the dissolve reveals what he was anticipating.

7. Camera Movement. Camera movement, both traveling and panning, figures in many of the sequences already discussed, such as the mirror shot of Hammer and Velda or the attack on Hammer in the street. Occasionally, the camera will move sideways "under" an establishing shot to introduce objects into the foreground and restrict the open area of the frame, for example, the bed post in Carver's room. At other times, as with the sequence shot of Hammer's interview with the truck driver, Wallace, the camera moves slowly inwards, reducing the dimensions of the frame around the characters and intensifying its "closure" or constriction (25) even as the duration of the shot adds tension. An even more dynamic usage is the boom down towards Nick as he is crushed, in which the viewer becomes an active participant in his murder, by literally being in the position of the car as it kills him.

8. Duration of Shot. Various aspects of the three sequence-shot interviews with Wallace, Eddie Yeager, and Carmen Trivago have already been mentioned. As discussed earlier, the withholding of a cut in each sequence introduces a tension between the viewer's expectation of a "normally" occurring cut and its absence, so that when the withheld cut finally arrives subconscious tension is released. Even shorter shots, as when Carver shoots Hammer and he slowly twists and falls (40), can be slightly "abnormal" as Aldrich holds the angle for a few extra beats.

In the scene with Trivago, sequence-shot tension is accentuated both by the literal violence of the events when Hammer breaks his record to extort information and the frenetic motion of the continuous traveling back and forth in his long, shallow room. Even while the shot is held, the image changes as characters reposition themselves; and clutter such as Trivago's clothes on a line (27) impinges and recedes in the foreground. In the scene with Yeager, the sequence shot binds together a number of "individual" shots (23, 24, 25) linked by traveling and panning and each affected by its respective framing, lighting, depth, etc.

9. Montage. As with duration of shot, montage is primarily a binding mechanism in Kiss Me Deadly, joining or opposing other elements of stylistic expression for a compound effect. A simple example that epitomizes the most basic power of montage as posited by Kuleshov is found in two shots from Hammer's questioning of the morgue attendant. As the man reaches down to put the key he found in Christina's body back into a desk, Hammer slams the drawer shut on his hand (51). The shot is powerfully violent in itself, even though neither man's head or shoulders is visible. Aldrich cuts to a close-up of Hammer grinning (52), and in a single shot captures all the sadistic impulses of Spillane's character. To the silent evocation of abstract meaning which Kuleshov defined, Aldrich adds the additional dimension of sound, so that Hammer grins not just at the sight of the morgue attendant's crushed hand but at his screams and whimpers as well. Later Aldrich combines an insert (42) and a sound effect to transform the "great whatsit" into a living, growling beast.

While angle creates the basic meaning in the shot of Carver aimed upwards over Hammer's shoulder (35), montage intensifies it when it is intercut with a shot of Hammer aimed down over Carver's shoulder (36). As in his interview with the federal men (12, 13); his discussion with Velda (32); and the other instances already described, in this latter shot Hammer looks away distractedly. This reverse not only reveals his expression but elaborates the force of Carver's dominance or direction of Hammer at that point in the film, a force which links the two separate shots. As an overlay (46) reveals, the shot of Pat Murphy over Hammer (39) is composed identically to that of Carver over Hammer. It defines a similarly dominant moment and is complemented by and intercut with another angled shot of Hammer over Murphy's shoulder.

There are many "normal" reverse shots in Kiss Me Deadly, such as the cut from Christina facing the oncoming headlights (1) to behind her (2), where the context is highly charged. At other times a shift of angle from high to low may merely accompany a simple change in camera position as with Hammer's interrogation (12, 13). Even more severe shifts in angle occur in the intercuts as Hammer discovers the "great whatsit" in a locker (37, 38) and as he and Carver hurry away from her building (29, 30). These extreme high/low shifts compel the viewer to reread the shot and create a visual undercurrent of rupture and instability.

As many of these examples demonstrate, the interaction of montage and angle, framing and staging, lighting and depth of field create a multiplicity of stylistic expressions. In the sequence shot in the gym, eight of the nine elements of style contribute towards the totality of literal and figurative meaning:

1. Angle: The sequence shot opens with an eye-level view of a man punching a bag, follows a figure who crosses the shot to a stairway, and then tilts down to a high medium shot of Hammer coming up. It levels off again as Hammer reaches the top of the stairs and remains at eye-level for the remainder of the shot (22). The angle shifts at the beginning to disorient the viewer, which in turn subtly connotes, even in broad daylight and in a large room full of other people, the instability and menace all around.

2. Framing: The framing adjusts to follow Hammer in the beginning, then is balanced in the two shot with Yeager (23). Hammer is on the left when he places a call later (24), so that the shadow of the bag can occupy the center of the shot. Hammer is the narrative center and mostly the visual center. But other people and objects distract from that and reduce his implicit control over past, present, and future events.

3. Mise-en-scene: Yeager begins the interview with a smile on his face and his cigar pointed upwards. His expression sours and the cigar drops down when Hammer mentions Evello's name. The presence of numerous others in the background raises the noise level and distracts visually from the principals who are static in the foreground (23). The subtle chaos again bespeaks an underlying instability and loss of control.

4. Lighting: Full light is used throughout the section with Yeager, but many dark areas and a bright spot formed by the street door below accompany the high angle of Hammer on the stairs (22). The full-lit background combines with mise-en-scene and depth of field to permit the distraction in the two shot (23). A separate key light casts the shadow on the wall during Hammer's phone call.

5. Depth of Field: There are three instances: in the high angle of Hammer (22) allowing him to be recognized while still near the bottom of the stairs; in the two shot (23) keeping the rear ground fairly well-defined; and in the phone conversation picking out sharp shadows on the wall behind.

6. Opticals: The fade which concludes the sequence shot is followed by a shot of Evello's pool, revealed when a woman in a black bathing suit walks away from the front of the camera.

7. Camera Movement: Tilting, panning, and traveling are used as Hammer moves up the stairs and into the gym. The shot remains static for some time as he speaks with Yeager, then a side-traveling follows him to the phone.

8. Duration of Shot: The sequence shot serves to concentrate and reinforce the tension and character interaction created by the other elements. This is particularly true given the amount of movement and re-framing and refocusing in the shot, all of which add to the difficulty of using one take for the entire sequence. Each element of movement works with the lack of a cut to enhance the tension.

9. Montage: None in this sequence shot, opened and closed by a fade.

Go to Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of A Style, Part Three