I’d be surprised if noirs get more badass than this? Robert Aldrich’s conception of 1950s Los Angeles is savage in its debauchery and unsparing in its nihilism. His film’s visual coarseness infiltrates almost all of the characterisations and every strand of his labyrinthine plot, resulting in an utterly bleak experience for the viewer. That bleakness is both the film’s greatest strength as well as it’s most insurmountable flaw imo: Kiss Me Deadly is probably the best exemplification of “noir” that there ever was, audacious in its ultra-stylistic exploration of the ideal’s extremities – and yet simultaneously it’s that pitch-perfect embodiment of the term that makes it such a grotesque and alienating experience.
Of course, that fact doesn’t prevent the film from being brilliant by any means. Aldrich is on delectably vicious form, grabbing the audience’s attention from the opening shot where Cloris Leachman frantically attempts to hitch a ride, causing a minor crash that’s emblematic of the film’s frenetic thirst for violence. It’s impossible to dispel that initial journey for it’s gruesome conclusion reverberates upon Aldrich’s much more troubling voyage through a post-war LA that’s dominated by its corruption: doctors and policemen are revealed to be as amoral as gangsters, whilst our protagonist isn’t even an anti-hero – he’s simply a plain cunt, through and through. Perhaps the only redeemable character is Christina, apparently LA’s most literate and thoughtful resident, but she doesn’t even survive beyond the first few scenes. There’s no place for her in Aldrich’s vision, not in a world that’s run by the materialistic tough-guys that she correctly typifies Mike Hammer as during the opening minutes.
Stylistically, there’s so much here that it blows my mind. It will surely take another viewing to properly digest the multiple facets of Aldrich’s visual assault upon the viewer, so unfortunately I can’t go into too much detail (maybe a more astute fan of the film would like to comment?) but there are a couple of things that I noted: the use of angles both low and high, not to mention the regular tilting of the frame; that staircase shot (woah!); an interesting use of light that emphasises the characters’ paleness against the night skies (opening shot); the initial credits that move top-to-bottom but demand to be read from bottom-to-top etc. etc. The quantity and quality of Aldrich’s visual manipulations create a disorienting experience for the viewer, perhaps reflecting the confusion of post-war urbania? Perhaps.
Either way, Aldrich saves his best stylistic flourish for last: a cataclysmic conclusion that is probably the only way to solve the mysteries that the poses. For almost the film’s entirety, Mike Hammer and his tormentors have been searcing for the so-called “great whatzit”, an unknown object that’s finally revealed to be some sort of radioactive substance. All are in the chase for personal gain – note how Mike’s investigation into Christina’s murder has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the fact that “she’s connected to something big!” Without getting too out of my depth, it’s clear that there are parallels to the myth of Pandora’s box, and the blind curiosity of Hammer and his tormentors unleashes a modern-day equivalent to the original evils: the realisation of all the Cold War paranoia in a nuclear apocalypse that will (presumably) destroy everyone and every thing that we’ve encountered. The finale is a startling solution for all the violence and materialism that Kiss Me Deadly criticises – it’s almost as if the film cannot handle any further demoralisation and implodes in itself as a result thereby causing a series of powerless flashes and explosion that memorably engulf Lily (our “Pandora”) before concluding with a shot of Mike and Velma hugging in the ocean, powerless against the ferocious consequences of their actions. An electrifyingly brutal outcome then, for a cold-hearted but nonetheless exemplary film.