For the month of
November Noirvember, I’ve decided to catch up with some classic pieces of film noir, the American 1940s-50s movement devoted to cynical fast talking anti-heroes, predatory femme fatales, smoky back rooms, “one last scores,” and dark shadowy pasts. From The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil, film noir has been an essential part of film history. Next up this month is Robert Aldrich’s dark adaptation of the Mickey Spillane novel Kiss Me Deadly.
Kiss Me Deadly truly is a quintessential film noir. Filled with Cold War paranoia and anxiety about masculinity, it makes good use of the classic film noir style to bring its characters and themes to life. I may have gotten lost in the plot for a while, but that happens with many of the best noirs, and by the time the end came around I couldn’t look away.
Kiss Me Deadly begins with a woman dressed only in a trench coat running barefoot down a highway in the middle of the night, trying desperately to flag a ride. Narrowly avoiding the woman and grudgingly welcoming her into his vehicle is private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). She says her name is Christina (Cloris Leachman), to take her to the nearest bus stop, and if she doesn’t make it, to “remember [her].” Needless to say, she doesn’t make it, and Hammer becomes obsessed with who tried to kill her and why. He and his associate Velda (Maxine Cooper) get drawn into a conspiracy involving a mysterious box and whatever could possibly be inside it.
This movie reminds me a bit of last year’s Inherent Vice, in that the plot is really hard to follow and doesn’t even seem to be the point of the movie. I feel that Kiss Me Deadly is deliberately trying to confuse you with its plot, to emphasize the atmosphere of conspiracy and paranoia its trying to create. For most of the film, Hammer’s goals are pretty unclear, other than that he’s trying to figure out what’s going on. We don’t even know the box exists until towards the end of the film, and though it is opened, we never explicitly know what’s inside. There is also one character who captures Hammer at one point, and his face is never shown until several scenes later. There are shots of his pant legs and shoes, and we hear his voice, but never see his face. One gets the sense that there several aspects of this film that the audience, and Hammer, are not supposed to know about. This is extremely effective in that it illustrates the type of Cold War paranoia the film is going for quite well, and evokes a particular element that is quite familiar for noir pictures.
Hammer as the central character is one of the most noir anti-heroes I’ve ever seen. He’s a terrible person, but he’s the only person we have to align ourselves with in this film. He’s pretty effective at beating people up, but that’s basically all he’s good for. He does manage to figure some things out along the way, but hardly the big picture that explains everything in the film. The film’s treatment of him in relationship to women is also pretty fascinating. Velda, his girlfriend of sorts, is his associate in divorce cases. When they are not tracking down mysterious boxes (which seems pretty rare), they basically just seduce people and blackmail them into getting divorces. In their conversations there’s a weird sense of satisfaction in what they do, as if he likes putting her with other men for some reason. Women are throwing themselves at him throughout the course of the film, Christina, Velda when he gets home, Christina’s roommate Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), some random girl by a pool… they’re just always around but he seems very weary of them after an initial attraction. What sparked this rumination for me was Christina’s condemnation of his masculinity at the beginning of the film. It’s very strange, because she doesn’t know him at all, but calls him out on his disregard for women, which over the course of the film seems more like fear.
The film is shot in classic noir style. In many ways, Kiss Me Deadly is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Ace in the Hole (my first Noirvember 2015 film). It not only uses high contrast and oppressive shadows rather than oppressive sunlight, but the detective-centric story is more traditionally noir. One thing I noticed with the lighting in this film is that the ceilings/tops of walls would often be completely blacked out with shadows, creating a very ominous and claustrophobic visual environment. Overall, Aldrich’s direction and Ernest Lazlo’s photography is very strong. I especially appreciated how varried the settings were, and how the actors were blocked during conversations to make things more visually interesting. It’s apparent they shot this on a very low budget, and didn’t always have enough time to get all the coverage they needed to make every cut work. However, these problems are few and far between, and the interesting lighting livens up some of the settings that aren’t dressed as well as others.
I really, really liked Kiss Me Deadly. I feel that it’s a very strong noir, even if it is a very by-the-book one I don’t really see any problems with that. It did lose me a bit in the middle, though that was partially my fault as I watched in multiple sittings. I definitely do look forward to rewatching this at some point in one piece! It’s definitely one of the best film noirs I’ve seen and well worth the watch.
“They’re the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
For Further Reading: