Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind the scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. 2020 has been as apocalyptic a year as most of us can remember, and I know its impending demise has us at Nightmare on Film Street feeling extra jolly this holiday season. That’s why we’re celebrating apocalypse movies all month long for End of Days Month! Which naturally means we had to take a detour here at Silver Screams into Film Noir.
Yes, as unexpected a genre mash-up as ever there was, Kiss Me Deadly (1955) combined sci-fi, nuclear paranoia, and hard boiled detective tropes to create a masterpiece of noir. Kiss Me Deadly changed the game just as the genre was reaching the end of its initial cinematic reign. Noir would see an eventual French New Wave and new Hollywood revival, thanks in part to the French directors who were specifically inspired by the film in question. It’s a nihilistic, mean, and shocking movie that blows the noir genre apart like an atomic bomb, bringing the distantly related genres of noir, horror, and sci-fi together for good and straight into the lineup here at Silver Screams.
I’d Rather Have the Blues Than What I’ve Got
In a way, film noir has always been apocalyptic. The elusively defined crime genre was inexorably linked to the crisis of World War II and was overwhelmingly bleak and pessimistic. While the films that we now identify as noir were called crime films or melodramas in their day, they all shared two linking features — a visual style influenced by German expressionism, and a focus on corrupt, ugly, morally questionable, and irredeemable examples of humanity.
Both the subjects and mood of noir are connected to the second World War, and it’s difficult to imagine the genre would have emerged without it. The influx of German filmmakers escaping Nazism and landing in Hollywood brought German expressionism to American studios. And the horrors of the war itself forced the world to face violence, terror, and a sobering look at the limitless nature of human cruelty. Many Hollywood films of the 1940s painted an optimistic, uplifting picture to help get Americans through the war. But simmering beneath the surface, detectives, criminals, and femme fatales of film noir existed in a world where moral decay, disregard for human life, and bitter anti-heroes reigned.
Yet by the 1950s, as the classic period of film noir began to wane, a truly unique masterpiece of the genre emerged. Kiss Me Deadly was a late enough entry to the genre to be self-aware and consciously subversive. It went so far in on the pessimism of noir to be almost vile, and then quite literally blew the genre apart by the end.
The Great Whatsit
Kiss Me Deadly begins daringly, with a shot of a woman’s bare feet tearing down an empty highway, with nothing but her labored breathing to accompany them on the soundtrack. She throws herself in front of a car to haul a ride, and the sleek Jaguar screeches to a halt. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) begrudgingly lets the woman (Cloris Leachman) in his passenger seat. He switches on the radio, to a melancholy recording of Nat King Cole singing “I’d Rather Have the Blues Than What I’ve Got,” a bleak jazz song that mixes with the continued sound of the hitchhiker’s gasping breathing and panicked sobs to form the only soundtrack for the opening credits. The credits themselves move across the screen backwards, further signaling to the viewer that this is a different sort of crime film.
The woman introduces herself to Mike as Christina Bailey, and asks that he drive her to the nearest bus stop and then forget he ever met her. But she makes him promise, after several anxious glances behind the car and a distracted detour at a gas station, that should they not make that bus stop, “Remember me.”
Christina’s fears become reality as a mysterious car runs Mike’s Jaguar off the road. Through his hazy consciousness Mike hears Christina being tortured to death by unknown assailants, who then put him and her corpse in his car and push them both off a cliff. Mike survives, but he vows to use his private investigator skills to discover what the events of the evening were all about.
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It’s an intriguing opening, yet it could well be the setup for a more conventional noir. In fact, the 1952 novel by Mickey Spillane on which the film is based, shared the basic premise, yet it revolves around a mafia plot and stolen drugs. But in producer, director, and writer Robert Aldrich’s version, the story transformed into a twisty, paranoid work of subtle sci-fi. The plot leads Mike from one sleazy corner of Los Angeles to the next, as a conspiracy of the mysterious, powerful criminals referred to as “they” ruthlessly pursue what Mike‘s girl Velda (Maxine Copper) names “the Great Whatsit.” As the web of conspiracy expands, it leads to gangsters, a cagey, paranoid woman (Gaby Rodgers), a failed opera singer (Furtunio Bonanova), a terrified science columnist (Mort Marshall), and more. All the while, Aldrich was criticizing the culture from which the novel emerged, one that he saw could lead America to a path of nuclear destruction.
As the World Becomes More Primitive
Mickey Spillane was a conservative author in every sense. He despised Communism and supported a philosophy that in the fight against leftists, the ends always justified the means. He created noir heroes who acted as vigilante enforcers of the patriarchal, capitalistic masculinity that Spillane saw as the true American way. His detectives were violent and often misogynistic, but portrayed as justified since their enemies were criminals and communists.
Director Robert Aldrich was essentially the opposite of everything Spillane represented in his books. He was a liberal who foresaw a dangerous path for America emerging from McCarthyism and the Cold War. In adapting Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich worked with screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides, a fellow leftist who, like Aldrich, miraculously avoided being named in the Hollywood blacklist. Emerging from the witch hunt with their careers somehow still intact, Aldrich and Bezzerides crafted a subversive noir that bitingly transformed a piece of macho American fiction.
Kiss Me Deadly is one of the most cynical of all film noir — itself a famously cynical genre. As our protagonist, Mike cannot be called a hero. When Christina hops into his car, she reads him like a book, recognizing him for a materialistic man child who only cares for his car. In fact, he’s a sleazy private investigator who specializes in divorce cases. He pimps out his secretary and lover Velda to get dirt on the husbands in his cases. He’s self-centered in every sense, making him the last man you’d want at the center of a world-shattering mystery. Yet, that’s really the point.
“[…] film noir has always been apocalyptic. The elusively defined crime genre was inexorably linked to the crisis of World War II and was overwhelmingly bleak and pessimistic.“
After getting his first small glimpse at the screaming, blinding light in the mysterious suitcase at the center of the case, it’s clear to the audience and even to Mike that he’s utterly out of his depth. When an actual investigator on the case, tired of trying to keep Mike from getting involved, finally confronts him with the clues “Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity,” our confident private eye suddenly displays helpless overwhelmed terror, sputtering “I didn’t know.” “You didn’t know,” sneers the investigator in disgust. “Do you think you’d have done any different if you had known?”
It’s clear that Aldrich is laying bare the ugliness of American toxic masculinity and then tossing it headfirst into the violent, frightening, apocalyptic reality of the Atomic age, a reading he himself confirmed as intentional. He referred to Mike as a “cynical fascist” and stated that the overall point of the film was that “justice is not to be found in a self-anointed, one-man vigilante.” In the face of the overwhelming threats of the cold war, the ineffective and dangerous specter of toxic masculinity shrinks away. It can’t handle the unfathomable power created by its own hubris.
There’s a New Type of Art in the World
Kiss Me Deadly’s visual deconstruction of film noir is apparent in its rich, realist use of actual Los Angeles locations juxtaposed with its borderline abstract noir cinematography and lighting. The influence of German Expressionism comes all the way back around in the film, as if the eye of early Fritz Lang was focused on the sleazy apartment buildings and alleyways of 1950s LA. Mike’s American materialism is demonstrated in his almost futuristic apartment, with a sleek car parked outside and an early, analog answering machine on the wall.
In contrast, the film takes us to a variety of gritty corners of LA, some that no longer exist, making its celluloid a vital bit of historical preservation. We see famous sites like Angels Flight but focus instead on the back alleys behind it. We visit an actual jazz club, where a singer reprises the number from the opening “I’d Rather Have the Blues Than What I’ve Got.” The hotels, boarding houses, and mansions of the winding plot are all an actual snapshot of the city at the time.
On top of this grittiness there is a surprisingly mythic aura throughout Kiss Me Deadly, subtly pointing to the apocalyptic stakes at play. Art collectors seek out “the new type of art in the world,” villains reference Greek mythology and the bible, and a 19th century poem provides a key clue. By the end, when the famous box is finally opened, releasing its screaming, blinding destruction, we realize why the stakes were so high all along.
“[Kiss Me Deadly] went so far in on the pessimism of noir to be almost vile, and then quite literally blew the genre apart by the end.”
As brilliant a film as could be born out of the Cold War, Kiss Me Deadly was nonetheless dismissed as B-movie trash at the time of its release. Most major publications didn’t bother to review it, and it was even presented as evidence at the 1955 Kefauver hearings on juvenile delinquency as an example of media corrupting American youth. But overseas in France, it was recognized by up and coming filmmakers of the French New Wave, who saw its bold post-noir vision for what it was. Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard both named Kiss Me Deadly as the single greatest American influence on the French New Wave.
In the U.S. the film gained cult status among film fans on the midnight movie rounds, elevating the glowing suitcase as one of the greatest McGuffins of all time, with homages in films from Pulp Fiction (1994) to Repo Man (1984).
It’s shocking ending is equally iconic, though ironically it was only seen in a misleading, truncated version until 1997. In the unrestored ending, the beach house where the suitcase is opened is engulfed in atomic flame, with The End superimposed over it. This led most viewers to conclude that Mike and Velda were killed and that the world may have ended. But after a print was found in the vaults of the Director’s Guild, the original ending was restored.
The opening of the suitcase still engulfs the femme fatale who has opened it, along with the house, in flames, but the scene is more drawn out, with terrifying sounds and flashing lights as Mike finds Velda and the two escape out to the beach and into the sea. Stumbling into the water, they look back at the house and the frightening atomic force emanating from within. This ending leaves open the possibility that Mike and Velda survive, at least for now. They certainly were exposed to a massive load of radiation, and the explosion is still ongoing by the actual conclusion. The fate of the world is still looking grim.
Today the American Government that maligned Kiss Me Deadly at release has chosen it as worthy of preservation in the National Film Archives. You can watch it on Blu Ray or DVD from The Criterion Collection. Frustratingly, the film is unavailable to stream or even buy digitally anywhere. It’s unfortunate, but a reminder of how it’s still extremely worthwhile to pick up your favorite films on physical media.
Should you choose to seek out Kiss Me Deadly, you won’t be disappointed. It’s a brilliant blend of noir and sci fi that is stylish enough to be entertaining, fatalistic and bleak enough to be as impactful as ever. Like the central clue that sets off the whole story, Kiss Me Deadly will linger in your memory long after the credits roll.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy of those Silver Screams. Share your thoughts on Kiss Me Deadly with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix.