(Originally posted at www.tkatthemovies.com)
Curiosity killed the cat, or in the case of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, it kills nearly every character. This Cold War-era film noir is fraught with paranoia, with most of its characters and even the audience blind to what they’re getting themselves into. This film keeps us in the dark, both with its shadowy imagery and its persistence in withholding information.
Film opens on the bare feet of Christina (an incredibly young Cloris Leachman), running on a darkened highway. Naked except for a trench coat, she ultimately catches the attention of Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), a private investigator specializing in infidelity. One thing leads to another: She’s tortured to death, and he’s left for dead in a staged car accident. Instead of heeding the constant warnings, Mike makes it his business to find out why Christina died, why she was a supposed “fugitive from a laughing house” and why he appears to be next on the hit list.
If classical Hollywood cinema is best known for efficiently and effectively conveying information about plot and character, Kiss Me Deadly breaks from the mold by obscuring and misdirecting. Even when Mike and Christina first meet, the audience is unaware of who they are for several minutes; this sense of unfamiliarity continues throughout the film. In particular, what makes this film so effective is its utter refusal to disclose the object of Mike’s search until the last 15 minutes or so. As his partner Velda (Maxine Cooper) puts it, he is in pursuit of the “great whatsit,” an unknown MacGuffin that turns out to be more destructive than any of the characters could have possibly imagined.
Aldrich achieves this in many ways, including a repeated focus on feet. Throughout the film, shots of feet are used to indicate a looming presence while obscuring an identity. As Mike lies barely conscious on the floor as Christina is killed, he sees her lifeless legs and the shoes of her torturers. When a harmless mechanic meets his doom while working under a car, the audience only sees the feet of the murderer. This is a deceptively simple motif, and yet it effectively conveys Mike’s uphill battle in pursuit of the truth.
The low key, high contrast lighting typical of film noir also contributes to the paranoia of Kiss Me Deadly. With characters constantly being followed and hunted, shadows hide criminal cronies and sometimes suggest stalkers when there’s no one there. Pursuing a lead connected to a letter sent by Christina, Mike turns on the light in his own home to reveal two men waiting for him, at first visible to the audience but hidden from the protagonist. It’s a brief moment, a matter of seconds, in which we know something Mike doesn’t know. Most of the time though, we are just as clueless as he is, constantly searching the dark for those out to get him.
With The Maltese Falcon, it always seems that Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is fully in control of the situation. He doesn’t always know what’s going on, but there is little doubt that he can take care of himself. Kiss Me Deadly’s Mike is far from being in control. He reminds me more of Jack Nicholson’s JJ. Gittes in Chinatown, a darker New Hollywood twist on film noir conventions. This points to how Aldrich’s film is at once incredibly ahead of its time and yet obviously of its time. The constant fear and anxiety feels true to the height of the Cold War, but the brutal honesty and the admission of hopelessness are startling even today.
Also unexpected is the implicit sexual frustration or ambivalence of this film. Film noir characters usually get the girl or at least bed them before losing them or turning them in. Here, Mike either seems too disinterested or distracted to care. The mostly naked Christina dies before anything happens, he sends Velda off to work when she tries to make a move, and he simply leaves Christina’s terrified ex-roommate (Gaby Rodgers) alone in his home. There are passionate kisses to be sure, but otherwise this apparently sexless (as I remember) film puts our protagonist in a perpetual state of foreplay. Perhaps the film’s conclusion comes as a relief?
Revisiting Kiss Me Deadly is probably a must, with its sophisticated plotting and visual storytelling, but it seems such an uncomfortable, unsatisfying place to return to. I should be clear that this is far from a bad thing. Kiss Me Deadly is a haunting nightmare of the 1950s, one where some characters die simply because they want to help their friends. The tragedies that unfold are not the result of an appetite for violence but of a prideful need to know. It’s a cynical trip that suggests self-destructiveness is the most natural of human instincts.