Kiss Me Deadly, released in 1955, is one of the last great classic period film noirs, but it wasn’t often acknowledged as such originally. It was fought by politicians and “moral” figures at the time of its release, seen as the kind of film dangerous teenage types went to see in hopes of engendering social subversion. And this concern, about the danger it posed to accepted, conservative social mores, was valid: not only is this a lurid and exploitative film, but it has the gall to elevate these forms to high art and use them to reflect on the luridness and exploitation of human nature.
In particular, it takes film noir and barrels the trappings of the genre straight to the molten core of the Earth, passing through layers of muck and grit, and coming out the other end with a viewpoint that, deep down, we’re all the same. And our shared qualities are anything but moral. This is exactly the opposite of what the suburban moral elite wanted for media-crazed teenagers circa the beginning of the Cold War; this is a message film about how we’re all, Cold War or not, rotten to the core, and how the only good the conflict can do is wipe us off the planet. Kiss Me Deadly is not a film for those rightfully opposed to nihilism – it wears its cynicism like a mile-wide grin.
Robert Aldrich’s film is not a nuanced one, nor is it per-se thoughtful. In a conventional sense, it is deeply flawed, with an aimless narrative that lurches forward uneasily and all manner of wasted scenes. But it elevates messiness to new heights as it is proudly willing to delve head-first into the unknown. It is armed to the teeth with a giddy rough-around-the-edges exterior, a slap-dash sensibility that speaks to the film’s rejection of standards of filmmaking professionalism. Politicians were right to be scared of this film, and their fear, furthermore, is really just a reflection of their realization of how powerful and potent the finished product was, not only because it posited a scary vision of the world, but because it flew in the face of the standards of acceptable, safe, filmmaking style. Aldrich would go on to make other outsider films later in his career, giving us scrappy works such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the Dirty Dozen, but Kiss Me Deadly has a special cathartic, alien quality to it, a kind equaled by few films.
At the film’s core lie many characters, all of whom are self-centered. They ain’t nice, least of all Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), a tough-as-nails and mean-spirited private eye who delights in divorce cases because they allow him to make a quick buck. We get the sense throughout the film though that they allow him something else: an opportunity to abuse women, for instance his secretary who he gets to seduce clients, or the plaintiffs themselves, if they are women, or the women who are accused by men and who Meeker gets to “look” into and seek revenge on. When something special comes his way, a murdered female victim, he uses it as an opportunity for money and finds himself up to the neck in the muck he was already part of. The specifics of the plot, about a search for a Macguffin object, is less important than the fact that everyone searching for it wants to use it for self-centered human decay.
Hammer is not the least bit sympathetic. Then again, neither is anyone else in the film. They’re depicted here like mythic waxworks of wrong-doing, with angular, distorted faces that look like the skin is literally crawling off of their faces. And Mike isn’t out to break the chain –he’s the core of the whole affair, even when he doesn’t know it. His masculine abuse and power grabs drive him as crazy as everyone else in the film, and they also center the film’s critical gaze onto the masculine-dominant world of film noir. Here, we have all manner of femme fatales, but they’re not succubae who tempt men for the intrinsic joy of the act. They’re victims to male desires, cogs in the machine of a society that defines success in terms of how many victims you leave in your wake.
Kiss Me Deadly is a film of pure atomic energy, taking gleeful delight in seeing noir conventions to their extreme just for the hell of it – the film’s sense of menace is ever-present, and it permeates all. Like an experiment, it pushes its characters and noir logic to their limit just to see how far they will go before bending back in on themselves. And the film takes joy in it too. It’s as if it’s saying to the Cold War powers, which the film’s characters approximate in their single-minded approach to self-centered success: “so this is what you want? Well we’re gonna give it to you”.
Thus, if Kiss Me Deadly is subversive in content, it also marries it to a grimy, grueling, beaten-down, stretched-thin form of pure anguish. This is a sublimely dirty film – dirty in character and in its formalism. Witness for instance the gleefully perverse deformed expressionist melted-face imagery melded through light and shadow laid over anyone who opens the box to look at the film’s atomic MacGuffin – they are ghouls propped up by an unseen puppet-master, constructed out of wax and selfish prayer, not flesh and bone. The film realizes their scary, distorted worldviews in their raw, physical beings. Each of them spends the entire film looking for the mystery box, revealed to contain nothing except that which reveals their deepest insecurities and obsessions, and that which will destroy them. And in grand-standing, swaggering fashion, the film poses with a scary hint and a wink, that after all, it is nuclear meltdown that provides the only true answer for us all. For the film, total and complete human destruction, and only total and complete human destruction, will not only be the undoing of mankind, but will be the only thing capable of truly bringing a moral order to the universe again by putting mankind in its place.