Brimstone and Ash: Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and The End of History

Kiss Me Deadly | MGM Home Entertainment

A box slowly opens. Inside there is nothing but blinding light. A woman screams, and suddenly the world is engulfed in flames. So ends Robert Aldrich’s schizophrenic noir, Kiss Me Deadly, whose convoluted plot revolves around the search for a “Great Whatsit” and ends in an apocalyptic ball of fire.

The image is both startlingly unexpected and horrifyingly familiar—Aldrich’s images have left their mark on several generations of filmmakers, resurfacing in disparate films like a bad recurring dream. These films point back to Kiss Me Deadly as some missing link in cinematic evolution. As the fire cackles and the house collapses, it’s hard to escape the feeling that one is watching film history itself unspooling in real time, and parallel to it, a pivotal scene in the history of the American psyche: the dawning of a new and awful realization, a sense of pure nihilistic dread, and a sinking, sickening doubt that the future would ever come.

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Kiss Me Deadly, as its title suggests, is a film defined by paradoxes. Despite being based on one of the decade’s best-selling books, it was shot on a budget of little more than $400,000—hardly an A picture, let alone a prestige film. Its screenwriter, A.I. Bezzerides, would later say, “I wrote it fast because I had contempt for it.” Aldrich himself called the main character, private investigator Mike Hammer, “a cynical fascist.” The original author, Mickey Spillane, famously hated the film, allegedly saying later, “They didn’t read the book.”

Its production was as schizophrenic as the film itself, made by filmmakers who mocked the source material, who were ignored by Hollywood only to be embraced abroad. After all, it was the French that took Aldrich in, nicknaming him “le gros Bob.” It was Godard who gave Aldrich a cameo in Pierrot Le Fou, while back home Aldrich and Bezzerides’ friends and fellow travelers fell victim to McCarthyism.

Bezzerides would later write, “the A-bomb…McCarthyism…These things were in the air at the time and I put them in. There was a lot of talk about nuclear war at the time, and it was the foremost fear in people’s minds.” And yet it’s more than fear that manifests itself within Kiss Me Deadly. The climactic fire is a great reckoning, representative of nothing less than a complete, societal collapse.

The opening scene is infamous for its credits, which roll slowly backward, suggesting time itself has broken down. From the first moment we see the title on screen, nothing makes sense. Everything is out of whack and out of order. As the titles pass over a highway, we’re reminded that by 1955, noir was no longer restricted to slick city streets or dark alleyways. Its violence had spilled out into the open, occupying the arteries of American life—the highways—and disrupting their basic function. Later, after Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) encounters the first of three femmes fatales (in another break from tradition, one blonde and one brunette is no longer enough), her death is rendered in the abstract: the squeak of wheels, the crash of a car.

Kiss Me Deadly's iconic credits

Narrative action in Kiss Me Deadly is fractured, broken up with quick editing and diegetic sounds that bleed across cuts. There’s a low angle shot of feet. A scream. A match cut to Christina’s legs dangling and Hammer’s unconscious body laid across a bed frame. As the camera cuts in on his face, we see another temporal disjunction as Hammer is unceremoniously kicked to the floor, Christina’s feet appearing in deep focus in the background but not writhing as the sound design would suggest, as though the violence of this world has escaped the confines of time and space.

Temporal and spatial disjunctions only compound as the film progresses, each act of violence further fracturing an already off-kilter world. They are complimented by a script that depicts a society on the brink of collapse. Tellingly, in a departure from the novel, Mike Hammer here specializes in divorce cases. Both his home life and the people he investigates act as though the very fabric of domesticity has been torn. His home might be a Playboy-esque castle, yet the film directly confronts the limitations of this lifestyle. A reliance on technology doesn’t insulate him from harm—later Hammer finds not one but two bombs in his car, one of which is attached to the speedometer (as though to suggest that going too fast will get you killed). His assistant, Velda (Maxine Cooper) occupies an apartment that is somewhere between office and dance studio. Domestic touches are nowhere to be seen. When Hammer visits her at home, we see him approach Velda, who’s practicing her ballet moves, before the camera swivels and, in a moment of cinematic sleight of hand, reveals the scene we just saw was nothing more than a reflection in a mirror. The real action was happening across the room; our sense of geography has become confused as well.

Aesthetically disjointed, the narrative itself is propelled by a very simple theme. As Aldrich would later write, “It did have a basic significance in our political framework that we thought rather important in those McCarthy times: that the ends did not justify the means.” As Lt. Murphy (Wesley Addy) later tells Hammer, “Too many men like you have contempt for the law. You’d like to take it into your own hands. But when you do that you might as well be living in the jungle.” Between private detectives like Hammer, G-men like Murphy, and gangsters like the film’s villain Dr. Soberin, what all fail to realize is that, by 1955, the world was already a jungle, populated only by other predators.

A woman is murdered, her death pulling Mike Hammer into a convoluted web of violence. And for what? To what end? As Velda later tells him, “First you find a little thread. The thread leads you to a string. The string leads you to a rope. And from the rope you hang by the neck.” Violence in noir often only begets more violence. Kiss Me Deadly is no exception—and yet that violence remains fundamentally empty. The forces at work remain anonymous, unknown to their victims. Who are the bad guys anyway, Velda later tells Mike, “They? A wonderful word. And who are they? They’re the nameless ones who kill people for the Great Whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?”

As Mike Hammer descends into a world of killers, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the real antagonists of the film are two groups of suits—one federal, the other private—who differ only by a matter of degree. The “They” Velda refers to are differentiated from the agents of the Interstate Crime Commission (which, in turn, is loosely based on the very real surveillance programs the government was conducting in the 1950s) only by their lack of a badge. In that sense, they might be more closely aligned with Mike Hammer than he would like to believe. They kill because they can, because they have money and privilege (the antagonistic They hang out in a mansion surrounded by beautiful women, and are associated with art dealers and clubs). “What do we seek?” their leader, Dr. G.E. Soberin (Albert Dekker) asks Hammer. “Diamonds? Rubies? Gold? Perhaps narcotics? How civilized this earth used to be. But as the world becomes more primitive its treasures become more fabulous.” The rules that used to define the world have broken down, and in place of them has arisen a singular need to be the strongest predator in the jungle, a nihilistic drive to power at any cost.

By the time the film culminates in a scorching ball of fire, there seems little other choice. In effect, that parting shot represents the inevitable terminus for Hammer’s deranged ride. “You should have been named Pandora,” Soberin tells “Carver,” who is revealed to be Gabrielle in a another moment of disjunction—Christina’s roommate and accomplice to Them. “She had a curiosity about a box and opened it, and let loose all the evil in the world…Did you ever hear of Lot’s wife?…She was changed into a pillar of salt.” Mixed metaphors, allusions, and allegories—biblical or Greek, on the eve of nuclear annihilation, who cares, especially Gabrielle, who demands a kiss from Hammer even as she pulls the trigger and shoots him.

Gabrielle opens the “The Great Whatsit,” whose power overwhelms her

Although there are two different cuts of Kiss Me Deadly, with two different final scenes—one which sees Velda and Hammer make it to the ocean, the house collapsing in the background, and another which sees them perish inside—both contain a similar nihilistic message. While the burning house echoes the climactic inferno in The Woman on the Beach (which Aldrich had worked on with Jean Renoir) that fire had come from an intensely personal place. In Woman on the Beach, a painter, fed up with his life, burns his life’s work and determines to begin again. In Kiss Me Deadly, the fire is almost senseless. Whether Velda and Hammer make it out or not, it’s clear that something irrevocable has occurred—that after the opening of Pandora’s box, there is no more home to return to.

This, says Aldrich, is storytelling in the atomic age. This is the new realism, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is the all-too-plausible ending any movie, about anything, could easily have. Hammer and his friends might be under investigation, McCarthy-like paranoia might run rampant, home is no longer a safe refuge, suits both official and criminal conspire against the everyday man, but as Gabrielle opens the box, none of that matters. A world that only values violence and the primacy of the strong over the weak inevitably leads to one conclusion.

And Hammer, the American hero, whose books sit on the shelves of millions of homes, who beats up people and smiles while doing it, who fucks whoever he wants with no consequences, is too stupid to realize it, too caught up in the way the world used to work to understand everything has changed, to realize that all it takes is one instant for the world to disappear.

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The truth is, that terror is still with us. The class anxieties and domestic woes, the senseless and brutal violence, the lone male figure leaving bodies in his wake, unafraid and unaware of the toll his actions take— viewed through the lens of 2018, Kiss Me Deadly is decidedly modern in its depiction of an America on the brink. And yet underneath the surface there remains an inescapable fear. Its disjunctions are not merely aesthetically expressionistic; they also express an earnest belief that we have passed the point of no return. That morality and time and space and all the things that tenuously hold the world together have already begun to collapse. That we have yet to escape the horrifying truth that, with the mere touch of a button, the world can end.

David Lynch, the contemporary chronicler of suburban anhedonia, once described his childhood as “elegant old homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass. Cherry trees. It was a dream world,” before immediately undercutting the image: “But on the cherry tree, there’s this pitch oozing out—some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there’s always red ants underneath.”

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Kiss Me Deadly brings those red ants right out into the open. Is it any wonder, then, that Lynch would borrow so much from it?

Lynch’s own nuclear anxieties have been well documented. Lost Highway updates the anxiety-inducing opening sequence of Kiss Me Deadly, while also borrowing the iconic image of the burning house and the whooshing noise that emanates from the box. No wonder, then, that Lynch has continually repurposed it—most recently in Twin Peaks: The Return—as an embodiment of spectral forces. Indeed one need only think of Episode 8, a cosmological origin story for his twisted world, set into motion by the Manhattan Project and the dropping of the bomb. The whooshing that accompanies Gabrielle’s screams as she opens the “Great Whatsit” is like the noises that emanate from the Black Lodge—eerie, unplaceable, indicative of some power beyond our control. In Kiss Me Deadly it is never clear where this eerie voice is coming from. It is acousmatic, a shriek, echoing Christina’s at the beginning of the film, that seemingly rips through time and space. It is the sound of some great trauma that has always been there, underneath the veneer of respectable, everyday life, unleashed by this final transgression.

Watching Kiss Me Deadly for the first time, I imagined a tortuous family tree that stretches from Jean Renoir in 1947, to his pupil Aldrich in 1955, all the way to Lynch in 1997. Three vastly different filmmakers, all employing the same image—a burning house surrounded by sand—to vastly different effect. Despite the apocalyptic finality of its final explosion, Kiss Me Deadly has lived on, its fragments reappearing again and again in surprising places. People always dabble with forces beyond their understanding, and in 1955, Robert Aldrich found its ideal vessel: an object of everyday plainness that leads to a climactic reckoning, in the end unleashing destructive powers that threaten to consume the world—this, at least has remained constant in the intervening years. The opening sequence of headlights heading down a highway appears again in the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. “The Great Whatsit,” a box that contains unimaginable power, has appeared again and again in cinema. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Repo Man and Pulp Fiction, it always embodies some otherworldly force, be it the power of God, an alien invader, or greed itself.

In this, Kiss Me Deadly was not only ahead of its time, but our time as well. Its sonic structure and editing were formal innovations that predicted films like Breathless, but Kiss Me Deadly’s experimentation is anything but formalistic. It uses sound design and erratic cuts to convey something that standard cinematic grammar could not describe—the breakdown of societal norms caused (and ended) by, the blast of the atom bomb. And yet despite its apocalyptic conclusion, its firm commitment to an essential cinematic nihilism, the images it produced continue to haunt the present, informing a future that Aldrich feared might not even happen.

Once called the “thriller of tomorrow” there’s some hope, then, maybe, that tomorrow has yet to come.