Analysis of Kiss Me Deadly

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Robert Aldritch’s masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly provides a culmination of themes of a noir taken to the best and nihilistic extremes. The film starts with a captivating scene where a semi-naked woman comes out sobbing hysterically from a car of a person she had pulled over in the midst of night. The film starts with a melancholic song playing on the background, ostensibly from the radio of the car. The film shows how social interactions influence characters of people, with a focus on lives of low-life gangsters, dames (femme fatales) and the effect of private eyes (investigators) in fiction. The film presents several themes associated with classic noirs where private eyes, femmes’ fatales and political corruption form the major themes. The classical noirs were characteristic of stylish Hollywood crime films, dramas emphasizing on sexual motivations and cynical attitudes (Spicer 16). The essay focuses on how the classical noir themes have been presented and culminated in the film Kiss me Deadly.

Kiss me Deadly focuses on the themes commonly presented in classical action movies with a unique style of presentation in terms of the narrations, visual styles and the creation of the cast (Kolker 32). The noirs were reminiscent of “black film” or “dark films” due to the nature of crimes associated with them. Noir films focus on low-key lighting as well as balanced compositions trying to fit the Hollywood mainstream films (Spicer 29). Kiss me Deadly exhibited those characteristics including the prevalence of private eye being the lead character who goes to the extreme psychologies (Owens 40). Mike Hammer acts as the private investigator taking up the lead role of the film. The character in Mike Hammer takes the film to the sleaziest level showing the culmination of the noir classical themes in the late 1050s. The film, Kiss me Deadly is often cited as the climax of the noir themes with Touch of Evil

(released in 1958) famed as the last noir of the classic era in Hollywood “black film” era (Copenhafer 13). From the climax of Hammer showing explosive private eye investigations-to land on an exploding atomic bomb- noir classics continued transforming.

The setting presents a film where sexual exploitation and erotic encounters are common. Etienne Chaumeton and Raymond Border in their book Panaroma of American Film Noir presented five attributes that described film noir including oneiric, cruel, ambivalent, erotic and strange (Breu 159; Spicer 19). The nuclear-powered nastiness film shows how an ultimate noir film in the classical era involved tough guys, physical engagements and investigative parts (Zinni 1). Hammer and the blonde hitchhiker lady are abducted by two thugs who later torture them to extremities, with the blonde dying and Hammer lying in a semi-conscious state. Hammer watches helplessly as the girl is tortured but escapes when the thugs’ car topples off a cliff, with Hammer being thrown out to safety. The film shows the cruelty where Hammer, a seasoned private investigator, is tortured while watching helplessly. The effect of toppling the car off a cliff was the only moment Hammer was saved from the situation, as he did not fight for his safety. The relentless violence depicted on the film was the climax of the noir genre in the classical era of late 1950s (Owens 39).

The paranoid mood of the film reflected the McCarthy era where characters/cast were moody and with negative attitudes. The cheap as well as sleazy, fascistic and contemptible private vigilante/investigator (Mike Hammer) was characterized by brutish violence during his vengeance after the kidnapping by thugs. He also shows how the end justifies the means with tough, speedy and ruthless actions geared towards the victims only to discover atomic bomb at the heart of explosion. The moody and negative character is at its peak when Hammer solely follows the white-hot apocalyptic object engulfed in a “Pandora’s box” in the film termed as “the great whatzit” only to lead him into a Malibu beach cottage. The ending of the film drew protests from some religious groups, notably the Catholic League of Decency where the endings were changed but in both verses ended cataclysmic (Rogin 14; Zinni 1).  

The film director, Robert Aldrich, had previously directed other films that depicting Western themes and one noir (World for Ransom). The preparation of the films prepared him to make the major noir of the classical era in Kiss me Deadly. The noirs were previously famous in German where Aldrich borrowed German expressionistic lighting as well as shadows. The film’s lighting and shadows resemble that of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a noir produced in 1920. The filming lighting with limited lighting and more of shadows was characteristic of the “black films” otherwise termed as noirs. The dim lighting allowed the theme of brutality and cruelty to thrive, instilling fear among the victims and viewers (Breu 160). The series of disconnected scenes were based on the thriller by Mickey Spillane of 1952 starring the notorious character of Mike Hammer, who was famed for his brutal but fast actions as a private investigator (Collins 23; Jaber 130).

The noir Kiss me Deadly starts with Hammer picking a blonde hitchhiker who is only dressed in a raincoat. The girl stirs the mind of Hammer into castigating him to think of sexual escapades. The destructive femme fatales and low-life gangsters are reminiscent of action and crime in the society (Jaber 141). Kiss me Deadly has series of symbolic allusions coupled with complex plot threats that instill Cold War fear as well as nuclear paranoia (Rogin 8; Belletto 233). Paradox occurs when Hammer pulls off rad and exclaims, “You almost wrecked my car. Well? Get in!” The exclamation marks the selfishness in the protagonist of the film and the negative feeling he had for other people. The two thugs sexually abuse Christina, the woman abducted together with Hammer as she screams loud with great pain. Noirs were also characterized by melancholic themes where Kiss me Deadly plays “remember me” on the background of the actions. Christina asks Hammer to “remember me” if she gets killed. The phrase “remember me” points towards the presence of previous scenes playing the song “remember me” that is associated with strong emotions.   

Mystery was common in noir films as Kiss me Deadly points to Mike Hammer following mysterious objects to later discover atomic bombs at the Malibu beach cottage. Hammer, while seeking vengeance, identifies persons behind the girls’ killing including the dead woman’s sexy roommate and the slimy gangster. Velda, Hammer’s secretary, describes the mysterious box as “Great Whatsit” while Hammer terms as “Pandora’s box” describing the mystery in the film. Velda and the box are also stolen by the villains leading to discoveries that the box had radioactive elements with awesome powers in it. Another form of mystery is explained at the end of the film when Hammer reaches the Malibu beach cottage and discovers the box has radioactive weapons. The audience is not sure whether explosions occurred next or what happened to the life of Hammer after they run to the ocean as the film ends in suspense. Mystery is also repeated in later films using the motif of the mysterious box especially in the films of Repo Man and Pulp Fiction released in 1984 and 1994 respectively (Bould 38; Belletto 233).       

Narrations and sounds are classical reflecting the culmination of the noir era. For instance, the near-hysterical, barely-clothed and panting woman rasps and breaths heavily through the highly-amplified soundtracks while trying to flag down passing cars. The soundtrack is such amplified that it causes fear among the viewers. The flashing cars and the shadows at night further create sounds pointing to terror and fear, one of the characteristic of noir at the late classical era. The sounds of the screeching brakes when the Jaguar sports car cum convertible, as well as the blinding high-beamed headlights fit the classification and characteristic of the noir of the late 1950s. Another directing effect characteristic of the noir era was the way Hammer pulled sharply off the road to avoid hitting the woman at the middle of the road standing on a crucifixion pose. The sounds of Christina, the woman later killed by thugs, further shows the noir feature of obliterating pain subjected to the victims.

Ambivalence was at its peak during the late era of the noir classical as shown by the film Kiss me Deadly. Ambivalence is exhibited when Hammer pulls off the road at the first scene taking Christina into his convertible Jaguar, and from that moment he does not know what to do with her, first thinking she had escaped from a mental institute or was chased by attackers (Collins 87). Lily Carver (the ex-roommate of Christina) is not sure whether to open the Pandora box which she thinks has fortune in it. The imposter Lily works with her boss, Dr. Soberin with whom they took Velda hostage, tied her up in a bedroom, not knowing exactly what to do with her. At the isolated Malibu beach cottage, the two fellows, imposter Lily (real name-Gabriele) and her boss, Soberin, discuss what to do with the box but with no finite agreement. More ambivalence is shown when the dying Soberin urges Gabrielle not to open the box as it is toxic and a threat to people around. Due to the state of ambivalence possessed by Gabriele, she shoots the box emitting bright light and the radionuclide reaching explosive criticality. Uncertainty also was viewed when the alternative ending showed that Velda and Hammer perished in the burning cottage.  

In conclusion, Kiss me Deadly shows how the noir before it were characterized by actions filled with brutality, cruelty, ambivalence and strange (mysterious) themes. Violence comes out in every scene of the film with victims dying from torture, gunshots and fire. The theme of ambivalence is characterized by the song “remember me” and other signs that were used in previous noir films like crucifixion signs. The focus on narrations and sounds show fear, terror and might where the victims are tortured to death or beyond recovery. It can thus be concluded that Kiss me Deadly was the culmination of the noir era in the classic period of films in America (Breu 161). The culmination was shown by the mode of alternating lighting, shadows, night settings and torture chambers in majority of the scenes. The film was described best in its class of noirs by film pundits.

Works Cited

Belletto, Steven. "Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture."         Journal of Beat Studies 5 (2017): 233.

Bould, Mark, and Freddy Riedenschneider. "The coy cult text: The Man Who Wasn’t There as          noir SF." Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as Cult Text 52    (2015): 38.

Breu, Christopher. "America Is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture            by Erik Dussere." MFS Modern Fiction Studies 62.1 (2016): 158-161.

Collins, Max Allan, and James L. Traylor. Mickey Spillane on Screen: A Complete Study of the     Television and Film Adaptations. McFarland, 2018.

Copenhafer, David. "Overhearing (in) Touch of Evil and The Conversation: from “real time”   surveillance to its recording." Sound Studies (2018): 1-17.

Jaber, Maysaa Husam. "Mickey Spillane’s Criminal Femmes Fatales and the Cold War            Vendetta." Criminal Femmes Fatales in American Hardboiled Crime Fiction. Palgrave          Macmillan, London, 2016. 129-156.

Kolker, Robert P. Film, form, and culture. Routledge, 2015.

Owens, Jennifer. "An Invited Threat, Just a Story, and Kiss Me Deadly." Journal of the            Canadian Health Libraries Association/Journal de l'Association des bibliothèques de la     santé du Canada 35.1 (2014): 39-40.

Rogin, Michael. "Kiss Me Deadly: Communism, Motherhood, and Cold War Movies."            Representations 6.6 (1984): 1-36.

Spicer, Andrew. Film noir. Routledge, 2016.

Zinni, Maurizio. "«Pandora's Box» American Cinema and Society in the Face of the Nuclear           Nightmare between the Second World War And The Korean War (1945-1953)." Nuova Rivista Storica 101.1 (2017).

September 25, 2023




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