Kiss Me Deadly

| May 4, 2001

In 1955, Robert Aldrich, a director whose career is filled with genre films, produced what is arguably the greatest example of American noir cinema. Film historian Steven Scheuer called Kiss Me Deadly “the apotheosis” of the classic film noir period. More than once, the film has been called the best film noir ever made. Certainly the film was decades ahead of its time.
Aldrich is best known as the director of the campy horror film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and the classic war film, The Dirty Dozen (1967). This is not to imply that Aldrich did not have a sense of film form or that his films did not have prevailing stylistic motifs. A look at Vera Cruz (1954), and The Big Knife (1956–his follow-up to Kiss Me Deadly), with their persistent use of heavy shadow as well as high and low angles, reveal a composition style ideally suited to film noir. So it comes as no surprise that he would produce one of the more most important contributions to genre filmmaking.
Based on Mickey Spillane’s novel of the same title, Kiss Me Deadly follows the hard-fisted exploits of Mike Hammer, a character with the dubious distinction of being the harshest, least sympathetic of the seminal hard-boiled detectives. In the film version of Kiss Me Deadly Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is searching for a mysterious box he knows nothing about, save for the fact that it contains something more valuable than anything he has ever chased in the past.
The film opens along a dark California highway. A young woman (Cloris Leachman), barefoot, clad only in an ill-fitted raincoat, scampers along the asphalt. She frantically tries to flag down a number of uncaring drivers. Desperate, she runs out in front of a handsome roadster. Mike Hammer is behind the wheel. He offers her a lift, but not before chastising her for nearly wrecking his car. She tells him her name is Christina Baily; she is named after the English Victorian poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti. They stop at a gas station and the woman mails an ambiguous letter (we later discover the letter is destined for Mike himself–Christina read his address off his automobile registration).
A police roadblock stops them. The cops ask Mike if he has seen a woman who fits Christina’s description. He doesn’t let on, pretending Christina is his wife. They drive on.
“If we don’t make that bus stop,” she tells him, “Remember me.”
Of course, they never get to the bus station. A black limousine runs them off the road. Faceless men in dark suits spirit them away to a secluded cabin. Mike is beaten senseless and left for dead. Christina is tortured to death with a pair of pliers.
So begins Mike’s quest for the great whatzit.
This is heavy stuff, even for a film produced amid the height—or depths—of the violent, amoral B-noir pictures of the 1950’s. And here we are only a few minutes into the film. From this point on, Mike and his smoldering assistant Velda (Maxine Cooper) are drawn into a convoluted network of murder, shadowy deceit and military conspiracy.
So what makes Kiss Me Deadly the paramount of the film noir tradition? Frankly, it’s got everything. The predominance of darkness and nighttime? Check. Morally ambiguous protagonists? Check. Existential underpinnings? Check. Dramatic compositions influenced by German Expressionist artists and filmmakers? Check, check, check.
If you’re looking for morally ambiguous characters, Kiss Me Deadly is the place to be. Everyone, right down to the most minor characters, have crippling character flaws. Mike and Velda run a private investigation service that specializes in divorce cases. More to the point, Mike seduces the wives while Velda seduces the husbands. Then they help the poorer of the two sue the other for adultery, taking a fat cut of the proceeds. It is almost as if the requisite femme fatale—of which, the film has many—is not enough for Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer himself is something of an homme fatale, leading desirous women, Velda included, into danger and ruin.
Beyond the two principal characters, there is the local policeman Pat Chambers (Wesley Addy), who is introduced as an amiable acquaintance of Mike and Velda. Brad turns out, however, to be a puppet for the FBI, who does nothing to help Velda when she is caught in the clutches of the same men who murdered Christina and countless others. Then there is Nick (Nick Dennis), Mike’s cartoonish Greek mechanic, whose material greed leads to a nasty demise. Even the clerk at the Hollywood Athletic Club is craven and pompous—and ends up dead.
The only redeemable character is Christina. She is educated, she has a progressive view of men and women as evidenced in her initial dialogue with Mike, and she possessed the ingenuity to escape her bullied incarceration. She also reads classical Victorian poetry; when Mike tours her apartment, he finds it is stocked wall-to-wall with similar volumes. But Christina does not survive past the opening moments of the film. Kiss Me Deadly seems to make the argument that only the cynical, the corrupt or the criminal can survive in the ethical wasteland of post-bomb L.A.
At the same time, it is a line from one of Rossetti’s sonnets that holds the muddled key to the mystery of the great whatzit. So the film has a thread of redemption—a sensitive, expressive work of art leads the way to truth. Yet as the film’s ending reveals, truth in turn leads only to destruction.
This is an appealing segue to the film’s existential theme. The way in which a film noir deals with its existential influences and similarities is always interesting. If an existentialist narrative can be summed up as dealing with characters that make up their own rules and live by them in a meaningless universe, then in a sticky situation, Mike Hammer would be Sartre’s investigator of choice. By this measure, Kiss Me Deadly makes an interesting example of existential film noir, as the characters do not appear to realize they inhabit an existential universe. Such a universe is not good or evil, it simply is. An individual must make his/her own set of laws and live by them. There is no objective truth.
But the great whatzit is clearly a symbol of truth. The idea that all will be revealed once it is found is each character’s fundamental motivation. Everyone is desperately fighting to find the mysterious box because it represents an answer to something they can’t explain, a desire for the ultimate; a divine explanation for everything. They have no idea that such an object is unattainable in an existential world. Each character, even Mike, who for most of the film does not even know what he’s looking for, rationalize the great whatzit into something they want or need. For Christina, it might have been truth or beauty. For Mike, it appears to be money, or perhaps redemption. For Dr. Soberin and the FBI agents, it is power. The only character that seems to realize such a “whatzit” is nothing more than a destructive myth is Velda, who muses:
“They. A wonderful word. And who are they? They are the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatzit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?”
So what is the great whatzit? The film implies its nature, but never makes the details explicitly clear. To do so would betray the film, especially a film in the noir tradition. The final “discovery” of the great whatzit inevitably leads not just to destruction of the central characters, but to a destruction so ferocious it threatens civilization itself. In the world of Kiss Me Deadly, the objective truth that the whazit represents is a wholly untenable concept.
Perhaps the most compelling fact of Kiss Me Deadly is that this is not the last we see of the great whatzit. A number of films that followed (notably Repo Man in 1984 and Pulp Fiction in 1994) use disarmingly similar objects as their pivotal motifs. Certainly, such films owe much to the mystifying whatzit’s original appearance in 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly.
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Note: Some editions of the film on video feature a slightly shortened, alternate ending. According to the film notes, the original release featured an even grimmer ending than the one intended by the screenwriter and director.

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