Saturday, June 2, 2012

Pandora's Box

Film: Kiss Me Deadly
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

If you ask me why I like film noir as much as I do, I’m not sure I could give you an answer specifically. There are too many aspects of noir that work for me. I like the visual style of a good noir, and the use of light and shadow. I like the fact that films noir tend to be morally murky at best. I like the idea of the femme fatale as a concept and often as a character. I like whipcrack dialogue and sudden bursts of unexpected violence. I like plots that are complex without being complicated. Naturally, I’ve watched a good deal of the noir on The List, but not quite all of it. I didn’t quite know what to expect from Kiss Me Deadly except noir-y goodness. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m really not sure what I got.

We start as private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) nearly runs down a woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman) on the road. It’s evident that she is wearing only her trenchcoat and she soon reveals that she has just escaped from an insane asylum. She tells Hammer to remember her if she doesn’t make it to her final destination. She doesn’t; we see her twitching legs and her her being tortured moments later while Hammer lies unconscious nearby. Hammer is put into a car with her body and pushed down a hill, but he survives the wreck and wakes up in a hospital.

Inspired and enraged by these events, Hammer goes on a quest to discover exactly what is going on. We meet Velda (Maxine Cooper) who is Hammer’s secretary, assistant, part-time lover, and woman he uses to seduce men during those times he works on divorce cases. We also meet Lily Carver (sort of, and played by Gaby Rodgers), who was Christina’s roommate. She asks for Hammer’s protection, and seems more than willing to offer the femme fatale’s favorite weapon—sex—as a reward.

There’s also a McGuffin floating around, a “great whatsit” that seems to be what a series of police, government officials, and various bad guys are looking for. Hammer goes looking, gets in a few scrapes, and eventually manages to find it. And here’s where we take a hard and fast turn for the weird. The McGuffin is a box, and inside the box is a glowing thing that makes a loud screeching noise. To put it in more modern terms, it’s a cross between the thing in the trunk from Repo Man and the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

Naturally, it can’t ever be that simple. Velda gets kidnapped, Lily Carver turns out to be something very different than she has portrayed herself, and all hell eventually breaks loose. In this case, I mean that pretty much literally. I’ll leave you to imagine what’s in the case, but it glows, causes severe burns, and the film was made at the height of the Cold War. It’s not that difficult to put something in the box that makes sense on all of those fronts.

What makes this film very interesting is that our hero, Mike Hammer, is completely despicable. He’s a womanizer, a jerk, self-interested, callous, and crude. Frequently, he is not merely violent to get what he wants but extremely cruel physically and emotionally. Hammer is the only thing we have to latch onto as a hero in the film, but he does not act in any way like what we expect of a film hero. It’s actually difficult to root for the guy because he’s such a complete creep throughout. And yet, true to its Mickey Spillane roots, Hammer is also relentlessly attractive to every woman in the film. The man is greeted with a kiss by woman after woman, frequently upon a first meeting.

This is a style-rich film, and one that is fascinating on that front. Robert Aldrich makes consistent use of skewed camera angles both to imply the confusion of the characters as well as to keep us in the audience from ever being settled anywhere. We are constantly kept off balance as the story continues, with new twists turning up at a constant clip.

The problem is that once we discover what is in the box, the film becomes something different from a noir, both more and less. It edges pretty firmly into the realm of science fiction, and without the buy-in from the start, it ends up being pretty silly. It’s also hard to follow. There are simply too many players to keep straight, and too many names. Many of these names are tossed off to us as characters pop up for a scene or two and then disappear, never to be seen again or mentioned again. Complex is fine for noir—noirs should be twisted and turning paths, but this one is merely complicated.

Friend Squish at the Film Vituperatum mentions in his review that this film contains more than a soupcon of man-on-man face slapping, and that it does, much of it in the last half hour when Mike Hammer seems to be nothing but a bitch-slapping machine. He couldn’t throw a punch in there somewhere?

Anyway, Kiss Me Deadly had its atomic heart in the right place, but it does too many things that prevent it from being taken seriously. With film noir, that’s perhaps the biggest sin possible.

Why to watch Kiss Me Deadly: Because it’s film noir at the end of the era.
Why not to watch: Ultimately, it’s kind of dippy.


  1. "more than a soupçon" :P
    "Bitch-slapping machie"

    Dippy is right, but i think I best enjoyed that Hammer was despicable, not that there was much else to appreciate.

    1. There isn't anything here that I didn't love more in a lot of other films.

  2. I thought Hammer's answering machine was cool, possibly the earliest example I've seen in film. I agree that once the box shows up the movie goes off the rails. I pretty much hated it after that.

    I like your reviews (what I've read so far) and that you look for a "moral center" to root for. Perhaps that's not the term you would choose, but it's the best I can do off-the-cuff.

    1. I often find it difficult to care when I actively dislike or can't connect with the people in a film. I need to feel like I have something at stake in how it all turns out. "Moral center" is as good a term as I can think of.

  3. Excellent review again – I enjoy reading them, your summaries are spot on and you make some great observations. So, I watched Kiss Me Deadly last night. Guess it was almost a year ago you watched it yourself, but I'm going to add my two cents anyway: I agree that it started out as noir and then gradually became something else, something akin to horror or science fiction, but I really liked that about it! I didn’t see it coming (thought it would be some kind of mafia-prostitution plot with the abducted ladies haha), which made the discovery of Pandora’s box really spooky (I wonder if this was the first film to use the ‘glowing box’ gimmick?). Also, I see what you’re saying about Hammer being a creep, but don’t completely agree – seemed to me there were little hints that there was more to him than hardboiled egotism (and anyway, the characters without a moral center usually bother me less than heroes/heroines that are too virtuous!).

    Its really interesting to compare the previous movie on The List, Bob le flambeur (which I’d just watched the night before) to Kiss Me Deadly. They are both like you said “film noir at the end of the era”, but in totally opposite ways – particularly as regards the hero and the ending! I sometimes wonder what criteria the editors use in ordering the movies within each given year... it may be random, but it seems to me once in a while movies are placed side by side to invite comparison.

    1. I can see the love for this one. I just don't have it myself. The sudden jump into the Atomic Age didn't work for me without being led down that path from the beginning. It would be like watching a murder mystery that plays it straight until the last half hour to discover it was an alien invasion the whole time. I see how that could work (and really work well), but Kiss Me Deadly doesn't get me there.

      I also think you're absolutely right about how the list is ordered. Peeping Tom and Psycho are separated by a single film, for example. There are spots they could do it better, though. Blue and Red came out in consecutive years and could be consecutive, but aren't.