If Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) self-consciously signaled the end of film noir’s brazen first act—before the genre’s conventions were absorbed into just about every other genre of film—it does so by subverting and upending what noir had been serving up for over a decade; in the process, it made the film noir dark and dangerous once again, paving the way for such category-defying and convention-breaking films as Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955, six months after Deadly’s release) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
Kiss Me Deadly takes film noir’s tropes to the breaking point: consider the opening focus on the fleeing gams of a woman (they belong to Cloris Leachman, in her film debut). And much like it was in Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945), D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté, 1950), and Cornell Woolrich’s novel I Married a Dead Man, this establishes panic as the defining atmosphere. But whereas those stories were infused with slivers of empathetic melancholy and followed their openings with a flashback to a more innocent moment along the character’s path, Deadly has Leachman’s Christina Bailey, clothed only in a trench coat, explode onto the screen, “an inaugural symbol of panic” (Heath 1), never to look—or flash—back. The film is a propulsive ride forward from there, becoming bleaker and more bewildering as it careens toward its finale, and it doesn’t feel like any of the characters have ever had a more innocent moment. Of course, to highlight the often absurd, nihilistic coincidences that are flecked throughout noir, it’s fait accompli that the girl will end up in the way of private detective Mike Hammer’s (Ralph Meeker) car.
And what about Hammer’s place in the pantheon of anti-heroic, semi-crusading sleuths? If you crossed Bogart’s myriad of cinematic dicks with Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), minus the kid gloves with women and…well, charm and intelligence, mostly, then you’d have Meeker’s Hammer. Bogart’s Sam Spade and the countless screen portrayals of Philip Marlowe point to a damaged soul underneath the hard-boiled shell, sure, yet some of them are apt to go gunless, or at least not consciously and overtly seek violence unless it’s in defense of self. Here, Hammer knows how to hurt and does so without ever having to assign it as a last resort—he breaks fingers, slaps men young and old, beats heads against cement walls, and occasionally delivers a mystical judo chop that completely incapacitates his opponent (the blows, doled out twice, are never shown on screen). He revels in violence rather than use it strategically. There are allusions to just how brutally egocentric Hammer is, too: Christina has him pegged immediately when she describes him as a guy that takes care of one thing…himself. Hammer’s pal Nick Va Va Voom (Nick Dennis) is asked by his garage assistant what Hammer gets out of giving up his new car to Nick, implying how dangerously self-centered he is to be simply doing it out of generosity of spirit. “Trouble…” the assistant mutters. Hammer’s narcissism blinds him, too; indeed, “Mike’s inability to grasp the truth reveals a crippling limited perspective, personifying an extreme form of vicious masculinity that seems destined for a grave” (Heath 1).
No matter how you interpret the ending—eradication by a near sentient nuclear source, a supernatural or alien presence (the opening of the case, with its accompanying eerie chanting and white-light destruction hints at the decade’s fertile cinematic sci-fi), or the end of film noir itself—there is no way out. When Sam Spade acknowledges the inconsequentiality and infuriating existentialism of the bird statue at the close of The Maltese Falcon, the audience takes solace in that his adventures will continue. In Deadly’s finale, a gut-shot Hammer wades into the inky darkness of the crashing shoreline waves, a reminder that we’ll all eventually be consumed and washed away.
Heath, Glenn, Jr. “Kiss Me Deadly.” Slant Magazine. N.p., 20 June 2011. Web. 31 July 2014.