“The Great Whatsit”: Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)

Kiss Me Deadly doesn’t so much paint classic film noir into a generic cul-de-sac as blow it right out of the water, clearly intimating The End. (Only Touch of Evil [1958] remains to set a battered and charred headstone atop the genre’s grave.)

When the film’s opening credits unfurl backwards (a crawl that surely must have had some influence on one G. Lucas), the viewer should realize they’ve just been given fair warning: What follows won’t be toeing anybody’s party line.

Freely adapted by noir regular A. I. “Buzz” Bezzerides (Thieves’ Highway [Jules Dassin, 1949], On Dangerous Ground [Nicholas Ray, 1952]) from Mickey Spillane’s trashcan tome, the film preserves the novel’s structure more or less intact, but inverts the meaning: The “great whatsit” everyone’s so hot for–the Holy Grail awaiting its “pure fool” (pace Wagner…) to come along and snatch it up–has undergone something of a seismic shift. In the book, it’s just a valise full of narcotics (and the heavies are mobsters rather than dirty doctors/modern art aficionados). (The film’s fusion of psychosis, modern art and nuclear testing would be equally at home in the pages of some J. G. Ballard novel.) Bezzerides has an altogether different agenda: Tapping into the deepest, suppurating anxieties infecting the zeitgeist–rather than opting to duck and cover–it’s the Apocalypse Now and the era’s Pale Rider is a bob-haired pixie Pandora.

Slathering classical and biblical reference across the film’s explosive finale was surely the writer’s final thumbed nose to the determinedly lowbrow Spillane. But the ribbing sets in early: When the distraught Christina (Cloris Leachman in her film debut) asks Hammer (Ralph Meeker, oozing the charm of a particularly charismatic rodent), “Do you read poetry?” he shoots her a look dripping with contempt. Our Man Hammer has his passions–fast cars and faster dames–but they don’t include terza rima

So the less-than-enthusiastic response the film received from Spillane comes as little surprise. The author’s identification with his character was so complete, he even assayed the role himself in a film version of The Girl Hunters [1963], a nasty bit of celluloid worth seeing–as if lyrical gems like the line “I never hit dames…I always kick them!” weren’t reason enough–in order to develop a deeper appreciation for what Aldrich and Bezzerides handle just a bit differently. Telling, too, that little comma in the book’s title, absent in the film’s, that analogizes (and apostrophizes) Woman as Death.

Nevertheless, a common denominator between the two films (and the book) can be found: the crimson thread of Hammer’s casual sadism, whether it’s beating down would-be gunsels or crushing a coroner’s hand in a drawer. But with Spillane, even given Hammer’s penchant for handing out due-process-free justice (thus I, The Jury pretty much says it all), he still bears a resemblance (albeit distant) to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (with a trifle less emphasis on the whole “man of honor” bit and a little more on the “mean streets”). Aldrich and Bezzerides, for their part, portray Hammer as a venal, arrogant and amoral operator interested (as more than one character feels the need to remind him) only in himself. After Hammer leaves an interrogation room early in the film, the DA advises: “Open a window.”

He’s certainly not above pimping out his secretary Velda in exchange for information leading to the elusive object of everyone’s desire. So it’s entirely fitting that she’s given the film’s Cassandra role, trying to dissuade Hammer from his shabby quest. (On one level, the film works as a clever parody of quests chivalric, lampooning everything from the Arthurian to the Campbellian.)

Prone to paranoiac-critical assessments–replete with more than a soupcon of then-oh-so-fashionable existentialism–Velda gets to voice Bezzerides’ own squinty view: “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?” (When in the end the major characters converge on Soberin’s beach house to find out, they all wish they hadn’t.)

And then there’s Nick the mechanic (Nick Dennis, also seen in Aldrich’s acidic Odets adaptation The Big Knife), evangelist of “rods” and speed (or is that John the Baptist to J.C. Hammer…?). Nowhere to be found in Spillane’s .357 Magnum opus, he’s entirely Bezzerides’ concoction. (His Greek ethnicity mirrors Bezzerides’.) Nick doesn’t declaim so much as ejaculate his lines, each and every one punctuated with its very own “!”–“Va-va-voom!” his battle cry and his password a vouchsafed “3D Pow!” (An obvious jab at the newfangled craze sweeping the nation. Like other contagious diseases, these things tend to come in cycles…) Aldrich often shoots Nick in an odd, canted or decentered style–and none weirder than the moment where Nick, seen in profile, mutters in Hammerian admiration and sucks his teeth, as Sam the assistant gazes fondly on.

Aldrich favors some prototypical noir compositions–doorway arches often contain and constrain characters and there are frequent (and frequently canted) shots of long, forbidding staircases, as though the characters’ goal were far off and ultimately unobtainable. (Such is indeed the case.) Aldrich also indulges in location shooting–another noir specialty–and scenes set in the now defunct Bunker Hill neighborhood (demolished sometime in the 1960s) add an element of grungy authenticity.

The rightly renowned denouement is one of the most cataclysmic finales in all of film history–ending with the Big Bang that overshrieks humanity’s feeble whimper: Opening the Box, Gabrielle gazes upon the Medusa’s head and, rather than turn to stone, she’s reduced to ash and rubble. An abrupt and even bleaker (though more facile) ending, leaving Hammer and Velda’s fate entirely unresolved, tacked on somewhere along the line by an anonymous studio hack, played the circuit for years, but it entirely misses the point: The preferred ending shows Hammer and Velda pathetically clinging to each other, battered by the waist-deep surf, two would-be players reduced to cowering in fear, having barely avoided annihilation.

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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