What is the dynamic, figural logic of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly? I am struck by the prodigious inventiveness and zaniness of this movie – as was Charles Bitsch back in 1955, reaching for the formal ways in which Aldrich could count as "the first filmmaker of the atomic age":
Kiss Me Deadly is the most superficial film in the world – and yet it is also truly bottomless. One can endlessly pick out patterns, motifs, clues, compulsive repetitions. Will Straw has referred to the film's "lurid depth" – not the moral depth of sombre, well-meant social issues, nor the psychological depth of naturalistically drawn characters, but the sort of depth long associated with the pulp arts, where credits shoot out at the viewer or recede steeply into the background, where everything is sharp, severe angles and trajectories along which things can leap out and poke you in the eye. (2) It's not a deep film in the conventional way but, nonetheless, things just keep coming at you in every scene. What that lovestruck fan François Truffaut once said was, in its slightly mystical way, true: in Kiss Me Deadly "it is not unusual to encounter a new idea with each shot". (3)
What things come at you from Kiss Me Deadly if you're looking to interpret or decode it? All those references to strings and threads and mazes for starters – invoking the labyrinth-narratives characteristic of film noir. Then the unusual highbrow references in the film, covering mythology and fine art – Rossetti, Pandora, Cerberus, among others. All our favourite gender images and fixations are there: women as bombs and bombshells, men as irresistible slouches getting forever conked over the head and passing out in strange rooms. Or the lowbrow references, like the comic strip and cartoon strand of the film – not just our friendly Greek mechanic Nick (Nick Dennis) who talks like someone in a Lichtenstein painting ("Va va voom! Pow!"), but also the allusion by Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers) to the mythic origin of Daffy Duck: daffy, you understand, because once he was riding on a merry-go-round that broke down and kept spinning faster and faster.
But, at least for me, no pattern or thread in the film is more insistent than the odd things that are done to bodies in virtually every scene. Let me point out, firstly, that bodies are quite an obsession of this film, in even its smallest, sidelong details. Velda (Maxine Cooper) reads a magazine called Physical Culture. The charming old guy carrying his trunk up the stairs announces his philosophy of life as a matter of checking in and checking out of one's body, as if it were a hotel. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) says to Christina (Cloris Leachman), in reference to her car-flagging technique: "A thumb isn't good enough for you, you gotta use your whole body!" A woman out of nowhere starts kissing Hammer and remarks, "Um, I haven't tasted you before".
But these details are really only the start, only the icing on the cake. From scene to scene, Kiss Me Deadly builds a particularly varied and monstrous apparatus of the human body. In an important article, Caryl Flinn began the inventory of such corporeal deformations in the film. (4) These deformations come via the framing (or deframing, all those luridly skewed angles), via the editing, and via peculiar plot situations. Wounds figure prominently: from Hammer's head wound, the gash above his eye that is gruesomely emphasised in a bizarre close-up camera movement, to radioactive burn marks.
At every turn voices are torn away from bodies, somehow separated from mouths and lips and flesh. Hammer's ability as a ventriloquist figures obscurely in the plot at one point. America's first telephone answering machines are prominently displayed as a cool design and lifestyle feature, allowing other kinds of floating, disembodied voices.
Spoken words on the soundtrack are often overlaid on unusual body parts. Think of the menacing but suave Dr Soberin (Albert Dekker), mainly identified on screen by his snazzy shoes. Christina is a strange creature, cinema-wise: she is all heavy breathing (post-dubbed in a disconcerting, quasi-pornographic sonority) during the credits, and then ear piercing, microphone distorting screams in the torture sequence – that is, until her legs (which is all you see in this scene) stop kicking in spasms of pain. Gabrielle gets disfigured or transfigured in an even more radical way: after she opens the deadly, secret box, her horror-movie screams become merged with the white wall of noise seeping out of the lid, and then this double sound of hell goes around and around in a tape loop. Even when words are attached to the lips that speak them, the join doesn't always help: Hammer himself, when filled with truth serum, merely slurs something entirely incomprehensible.
It all reminds me of a Gothic song called "Witchenkopf" wailed in the dark ages of the early 1980s by the Melbourne band Plays With Marionettes, containing this refrain: "The head has no handle, and the body has no head".
All of us who know Kiss Me Deadly know that it moves towards the apocalypse – or at least something closely enough resembling an apocalypse for the sake of a pulpy noir B movie, no matter which slightly different ending of the film you have seen. But, in a way, I wonder if the apocalypse hasn't already happened before the movie's action even starts. Kiss Me Deadly is one of those extreme noir films – like Edgar Ulmer's Detour (1945), Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1975) or Lost Highway (1997) – where the plot, no matter how labyrinth or circuitous it gets, never really goes or progresses anywhere. It turns more like a bad dream, recovering and then re-losing, over and over, the image and sound traces of some absolutely horrifying and unspeakable trauma.
Kiss Me Deadly is not really a mystery story in the mode of Chinatown (1974), where the plot and mise en scène move towards the acknowledgment or recognition of some tragedy, some terrible truth, some primal scene – something to make us pity the human condition, or lament the social conditions that occasionally throw up a few monsters, tyrants and fools. Kiss Me Deadly is not really a lament for any class of victim – it's well beyond such pity. It's one of the first post-human films of the modern, post World War Two era, and that's why it speaks to us so directly today.
Aldrich, first filmmaker of the atomic age. But this isn't just a movie about the Cold War terror of potential nuclear devastation; there's something more chillingly existential about all the business that gets transacted here. All is lost before it even starts: it's as if, from the word go, all we have left are the dislocated remains, ruins of places and spaces, bits and pieces of bodies and voices, flashes of character and insight. But the action is only ever moving backwards, back to the suppressed point of origin, back to the big bang.
And now another phrase from the early '80s, from a melancholic, autobiographical testament by the Situationist philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord, comes back to me. It's the title of a film, a Latin palindrome, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, and it translates: we turn in circles in the night and are consumed by fire.
© Adrian Martin January 2000
1. Quoted in Jean Douchet, French New Wave (New York: D.A.P., 1999), p. 29. back
2. Will Straw, "Ornament, Entrance and the Theme Song", in Cinesonic: The World of Sound in Film, ed. Philip Brophy (Sydney: Australian Film, Television and Radio School, 1999), p. 222. back
3. François Truffaut, The Films in My Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 94. back