Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenwriter: A.I. Bezzerides
By Roderick Heath
Robert Aldrich was one of Hollywood’s greatest directors and one of its most unclassifiable, his life and art stamped with fearsome individualism and replete with ironies. Chief amongst which is that for a director who usually made such gritty movies filled with violence and mania and living rage, Aldrich came from perhaps the most privileged background of any major American filmmaker. Aldrich was born in 1918 into a Rhode Island family with deep roots and deeper pockets. Aldrich counted amongst his ancestors Rhode Island Colony founder Roger Williams and Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene. The Aldrich family’s affluence was chiefly owed to his grandfather, a hugely successful inventor. Aldrich’s father was an influential newspaper publisher, and his aunt married into the Rockefellers, establishing a potent political clique. Aldrich himself was heir to the family fortune, but he broke with his family and stoically accepted complete disinheritance after a turn to leftist politics in college partly inspired by the spectacle of the Great Depression. He persuaded an uncle to get him a job on the lowest rung of the ladder at RKO Pictures, around the same time Orson Welles signed his contract with the studio, but unlike Welles Aldrich faced a long apprenticeship as a filmmaker.
After being rejected for service in World War II, Aldrich was nonetheless able to move quickly into working as an assistant director. Soon he went freelance and was in heavy demand. He worked with a swathe of major filmmakers including Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Lewis Milestone, William A. Wellman, Abraham Polonsky, and Joseph Losey, and made connections with many of his future, stalwart collaborators including cinematographer Joseph Biroc and composer Frank DeVol. Aldrich was left alone during the Red Scare, perhaps because of his relative youth and family background, but many of his friends and collaborators like Polonsky were targeted and blacklisted, and Aldrich remained their staunch supporter. With his growing directorial ambitions frustrated by a lack of offers to make features, he worked in television for a busy few years, which he described as a “director’s crash course” that taught him efficiency but also gave space to experiment. In between TV jobs, an established director recommended him to MGM, leading to him making his feature debut on the low-budget baseball film, Big Leaguer (1953). It wasn’t a success, but when he pieced together the action film World for Ransom (1954) with the cast and sets of a TV shows he regularly helmed, he gained the attention of Burt Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht, and was hired to make the Western Apache (1954). This proved a hit, and a follow-up, Vera Cruz, was even more successful.
Now fully established, Aldrich moved into producing as well as directing, founding his Associates and Aldrich company, commencing a lifelong effort to maintain as much control as possible over his movies. In an amazing spasm of work, he made eight films in the first three years of his career, including some of his very best work in Vera Cruz, Kiss Me Deadly, Autumn Leaves, and Attack, as well as the overcooked but fascinating Hollywood tale The Big Knife (1955). Unfortunately he also commenced another of his career habits, as that run of great works didn’t include enough hits, and he only made sporadic movies for time in a peripatetic career until Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) proved another, much-lauded success. This pattern would repeat as big hits like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Longest Yard (1974) punctuated more personal, edgy, and often unpopular works. Perhaps the fundamental concern of Aldrich’s cinema, beyond a compulsive interest in character forced to extremes of survival, was a preoccupation with characters consumed by a feeling they’re not in control of themselves or their lives, and being driven to extreme measures to earn a slice of agency and rescue themselves, writhing their way through hellish straits in an attempt to come to grips with their world and battle the emblems of their frustration, only to too often squander it or finish up in self-negation. Cool intelligence was the only trait Aldrich exalted, but also found it rare. Authority was inevitably treated with utmost scepticism.
Most often in Aldrich’s films this registered through emphasis on a certain brand of virile masculinity with outsider heroes put in a pressure cooker situation, particularly in his take on Mickey Spillane’s popular private eye character Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, the war-is-hell tales Attack and The Dirty Dozen, the disaster survival film The Flight of the Phoenix (1964), the Depression-era duel of bum and thug in Emperor of the North Pole, and the clash of jailers and jailed in The Longest Yard. But he also often articulated the same theme through a succession of fractured heroines, in the sullen melodrama of Autumn Leaves, the gothic furore of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), and the forlorn queerness of The Killing of Sister George (1968). When he took on Hollywood myth-making it came in the twinned, gendered portraiture of The Big Knife and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), both of which couch their arguments in portrayals of the anointed movie star as a creature possessed and puppeteered by the wills of others, including the audience. By the time he made films like The Grissom Gang (1970), Ulzana’s Raid (1972) and Hustle (1975), films that purely articulated his tragic-romantic streak in the context of brutally honest takes on the Gangster, Western, and cop thriller respectively, the zeitgeist and filmmaking fashion had caught up with him, even as his hit-and-miss habits continued until his death in 1983.
Aldrich also often presaged trends in Hollywood and the broader pop culture, his ahead-of-his-time stature particularly ironic given his only occasional synch with the popular audience. He anticipated the next generation of “Movie Brat” directors in trying to construct his own movie studio to escape the thralls of the system as much as possible, finally springboarding it off the success of The Dirty Dozen only to, like most of his followers, lay it waste in following his wont. Apache and Vera Cruz set the scene for the revisionist-themed Westerns of the 1960s and ‘70s, and the latter provided a crucial embarkation point for both Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Attack announced a new era of bitter, ambivalent war movies. His calculated use of the aging stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? found a new way to utilise the mystique of aging movie stars and their popular cachet, and helped usher in a camp sensibility in exploiting the disparity between their acting styles and air of pathos in ruined grandeur and a cruder new world, as well as Aldrich’s penchant for overheated behaviour. The Dirty Dozen, still his most famous and popular film, presented Aldrich with the perfect vehicle to articulate his obsessions and express his rebellious streak, even as it shaded into a uniquely fork-tongued tale where the nominally heroic rebels are mostly, ultimately revealed as viciously murderous lunatics and then killed in the name of greater good.
Kiss Me Deadly meanwhile would prove a source point not just for the next few decades’ worth of urban crime films but, in a way, a swathe of modern cinema. Whilst detectably influenced by the likes of Welles, John Huston, and Joseph H. Lewis, Kiss Me Deadly fused their examples and created something fresh and weird. Whilst it wasn’t much of a success at first in the US, it became a cult hit in France, and proved a major inspiration for the Nouvelle Vague cadre, in its dynamic use of location shooting and also the way it utilised genre film conventions to encompass a panoramic viewpoint on a time and place, crawling through the gut of 1955 Los Angeles in both the sweep of its settings and its survey of characters, and adding on new elements of encoded political commentary. Jean-Luc Godard assimilated its aesthetics deeply, as did Stanley Kubrick for The Killing (1956), Welles repaid the favour by taking some licence for his Touch of Evil (1958), John Boorman took it to it few more paces into the realm of the surreal with Point Blank (1967), and Arthur Penn would recontextualise it for Night Moves (1975). Decades later Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would take direct inspiration from its bizarre and grotesque open-the-Pandora’s-Box climax for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Walter Hill would nod to it with The Driver (1978), as would John Carpenter in The Fog (1980) and Prince of Darkness (1987), Alex Cox would subsume it for Repo Man (1984), and Quentin Tarantino would extrapolate its MacGuffin, “the Great Whatsit,” into an even more abstract distillation of narrative purpose and symbolism in Pulp Fiction (1994). A persuasive afterlife for a movie condemned by Estes Kefauver’s famous Senate committee on organised crime for trying to ruin American youth.
Kiss Me Deadly was written by A.I. Bezzerides, a screenwriter who specialised in tough noir films usually with a focus on working class heroes. He had penned the source novel for Raoul Walsh’s 1940 hit They Drive By Night, a title that echoes in the opening of Aldrich’s film. Aldrich’s daring and peculiar mix of headlong force and discursion manifests in his opening frames, which split the difference between actualising a kind of idle driving fantasy and the hangover from a troubling dream. A frantic woman dressed only in an overcoat (Cloris Leachman) runs down a stretch of lonely highway, and stands before an oncoming car to force it stop. The driver of the car proves to be Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), who grudgingly gives her a ride. Aldrich finally lets the credits roll but has them spool downwards, slanting towards the camera, as if nodding to the credit scenes of monster movies like It Came From Beneath The Sea (1953) but reversed, mimicking the roll of the road and suggesting something strange and untrustworthy about the story about to unfold, as if engaging in an act of devolution. This only emphasises the strange, punch-drunk nocturnal mood as the two burn down the road, drilling into vast darkness with headlights and a moody Nat King Cole ditty on the radio as an incidental, diegetic title theme.
A meeting of opposites: the frightened, forlorn, contemplative, poetry-loving woman needles the most insensate of tough guys, teasing his masculine vanity as she diagnoses his character via his convertible and general demeanour with an air of rueful knowing: “I bet you do push-ups every morning to keep your belly hard…You’re the kind of man who never gives in a relationship, only takes…” Meanwhile she invokes the Victorian English poet Christina Rossetti, grazing a world and sensibility about as alien to Hammer as any Martian language, as she explains she was named after the poet, and quotes the title of the poem “Remember” in a way that imbues it with totemic import that nags at Mike evermore for all his detached and mercenary postures. Christina’s wryly teasing meditation on such extremes of gendered values immediately cuts against the grain of Spillane’s mythos – the equivalent passage in the book sees Hammer telling his female passenger, there named Berga Torn, multiple times to shut up – and sets up Aldrich’s deconstruction of it. Christina comes cloaked in mystery, alluding to mysterious men who locked her up in a sanatorium and took away her clothes to force her to stay, and warning Hammer she can’t tell him why: “Because what I don’t know won’t hurt me?” Hammer suggests.
After a brief stop at a gas station, where Hammer gets an attendant (Robert Sherman) to pull out a branch jammed in a wheel from his swerve and for Christina to hurriedly hand the attendant a letter to stamp and mail, they continue their journey, only to be run off the road by a car waiting on the curb. Aldrich focuses only on the legs of the men getting out of the car as Christina begins to scream, and her screams continue as Aldrich dissolves to a shot of her bare legs dangling off a bed. She’s plainly being brutally tortured by the men, until she finally goes limp and silent and dead. Mike himself lies barely conscious on a mattress-less bed and is pushed off it onto the ground, where he can only see the legs of the captors, and hears a distinctive, ironically cultured voice commenting that the torturer who still hopes to revive her would have to raise the dead – “And just who do you think you are that you think you can raise the dead?” Mike and Christina’s corpse are placed back in Mike’s roadster and sent over a cliff, intended to be the end of the matter, only for Mike to wake up days later in a hospital.
Aldrich’s style in this long and fascinating opening announces a creative vision detaching itself from classical Hollywood method like a butterfly erupting from a chrysalis. This is apparent not just in the unusual way of interpolating the credits but in the jagged, nervous textures, which continue throughout the film. The way Aldrich shoots Meeker and Leachman in a real car on a real road. The sudden swerve from the deceptively quiet, quasi-romantic tension of the car ride to violence. The frenzy of Christina’s bloodcurdling screams and the ingenious way of skirting showing the horror of her torture whilst still conveying the cruelty and the ruthlessness of her tormenters. The way Aldrich obliquely portrays the thugs, bordering on a form of abstraction, close to disembodied agents of fate. In the novel Hammer gets in a few good socks at the attackers before he’s overwhelmed: here he’s rather easily blindsided and taken down, and only survives thanks to sheer luck and physical toughness. The ironically cultured voice belongs to Dr Soberin (Albert Dekker), who remains unseen save his shoes and trousers until the very last scene, but he pervades the drama as the ultimate master of corruption who nonetheless purveys civilised values as an educated aesthete and well of sardonic commentary, providing an intellectual’s auto-critique of the drama in repeatedly comparing its twists and turns to Greek and Biblical mythology.
After he recovers Mike faces down members of the Interstate Crime Commission who want answers about what happened to him and Christina. The cabal turn acidic disdain on his character and way of making a living as a private eye, which basically consists of alternating using himself and his secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) as honey traps to leverage divorce cases that come his way. “All right, you’ve got me convinced – I’m a real stinker,” Mike drawls, and all the interview accomplishes is to let Mike know that Christina’s death was part of something important enough to “set bells ringing all the way to Washington.” Mike is allowed to go on his way but Mike’s friend and nemesis on the force, Lt Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy), warns him off pursuing the case even as he knows the thought is wriggling like a worm in Mike’s brain. Mike repeatedly announces he expects to earn a big cut of whatever action lies behind Christina’s murder, and follows faint leads through Christina’s friends and acquaintances, starting with Ray Diker (Mort Marshall), a former newspaper science reporter. When Mike meets with Diker he finds the man has been badly beaten, but he still gives Mike Christina’s last name and address. In Christina’s apartment, which she shared with a roommate, Lily Carver, who has since fled the place, he finds a book of Rossetti poems and little else. An old caretaker in the building (Silvio Minciotti) tells him where Lily is staying, and Lily in turn tells Mike about how Christina “stepped on a carousel” and was consumed by fear. Diker calls up again and gives Mike more names from Christina’s circle of friends, who also died in seemingly random traffic accidents. As he digs, he connects their deaths with two hoods employed by big-time gangster Carl Evello (Paul Stewart).
Aldrich’s film was the second film to be based on a Spillane novel, following 1953’s interesting if cheap and relatively crude I, The Jury, directed by Harry Essex and with Biff Elliott playing Hammer. Spillane’s Hammer novels found fast and lasting popularity even as they offered a defiantly pulpy take on the detective story. Whereas Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler strove to invest the style with real literary sophistication and a muted, almost tragic sense of their lone wolf heroes exploring and battling criminals with a sense of them as mere extensions of a venal, on-the-make society, Spillane pitched his books as naked, near-delirious macho fantasies replete with lashings of sex and sadistic violence. In many ways Hammer was the American, low-rent equivalent of James Bond: Hammer was offered as an ideal projection figure for a generation of stymied post-war men acting out fantasies of unleashing brute force in a world portrayed as a Hobbesian hellhole where only a streetwise barbarian like Hammer can thrive. Spillane wryly but honestly described himself as having politics to the right of Genghis Khan. Spillane’s writing garnered little respect, and he certainly aimed for diamond-hard thrills, but there’s a sense of imagist intensity and brutish power to some of his prose, as in the startling climactic paragraphs of the novel of Kiss Me Deadly:
The smile never left her mouth and before it was on me I thumbed the lighter and in the moment of time before the scream blossoms into the wild cry of terror she was a mass of flame tumbling on the floor with the blue flames of alcohol turning the white of her hair into black char and her body convulsing under the agony of it. The flames were teeth that ate, ripping and tearing into scars of other flames and her voice the shrill sound of death on the loose.
Understandably, most filmmakers tackling Spillane felt uneasy with his books’ unregenerate, quasi-fascistic worldview and down-and-dirty servicing of their audience’s appetites, and set about partly dismantling his dingy mythos in varying ways. Essex cast Elliott as an amusingly luggish Hammer, with the aspect of a former footballer and the glazed eyes of a neurotic itching to punch everything that confounded his intelligence. Aldrich and Bezzerides, for their part, purvey the version of Hammer found in their version of Kiss Me Deadly as a bottom feeder and chauvinistic egotist who more than earns the disdain turned his way by cops, who causes death and destruction through his pig-headed determination and shallowness of outlook. Spillane himself would ultimately grow frustrated with such tweaks and play his own character, to less than galvanising effect, in the low-budget, British-produced The Girl Hunters (1963). Aldrich and Bezzerides keep Hammer at a certain distance, initially through Christina’s comments about him and then through Murphy, who keeps issuing warnings to him to keep out of the big kids’ business with a tone of schoolyard provocation, and then finally delivers scathing rebuke to him when his meddling puts Velda in mortal peril and screws up the police investigation. He’s also made a fool of by the cunning of Lily, who is actually named Gabrielle and is Soberin’s mistress and confederate: the game is only given away when Murphy tells Mike they fished the real Lily’s body out of the harbour days before.
Nonetheless Hammer was a perfect hero for Aldrich precisely because he is simultaneously a prickly, rebellious man in contention with society and one perfectly attuned to its secret appetites. As Christina correctly guesses right off the bat, he’s at once at extremely hardy and wily in his way, but also a sucking void of arrogance who doesn’t know what’s actually valuable to him until it’s taken from him. His battle with a mysterious, almost miasmic form of evil throughout the film is at once far beyond the compass of his primeval instincts but perhaps also only can be taken on by someone like him. As the world evolves into a strange, frightening new era charged with apocalyptic potential, Hammer, even more than Bond in his battles with supervillains, wields the primitive to take on the futuristic. Not that he’s anywhere near as successful as Bond: Aldrich’s Hammer is a damn fool as often as he’s an effective battering ram of results-getting, and he barely ever comes to grips with the machinations at work in the case. Meeker comes on with just the right affect for the character with his bulletproof forehead, pork roast chin, and sullen, rubbery grin he has the aspect of an overgrown high school bully, handsome in a blunt force trauma sort of way. Where in a traditional detective story the hero’s doggedness is their ultimate advantage and quality, Mike spends most of the film following a trail of corpses and nearly becomes one himself, ultimately putting Velda in danger after a career of pimping her out for gain.
Murphy revokes Mike’s PI licence and gun permit early in the film, forcing him to survive and make headway without either. The character was also removed from the New York he haunted in Spillane’s books and transplanted to Los Angeles. Whatever motivated this, it was a particularly consequential change for the way Aldrich renders the city a character unto itself throughout the film, exploiting its locations and also utilising its geography as a kind of moral and social map, reaching from seamy little apartments and hotel rooms to gleaming mansions, through which Hammer’s investigation takes him. “Why are you always trying to make a noise like a cop?” Velda asks at one point, in a story that patently refuses to indulge Mike’s pretentions to playing the lone vigilante avenger. Aldrich’s concept of Mike Hammer sees him as a man still with lingering glimmers of empathy for fellow proles even as he’s dedicated to making himself prosperous feeding on scraps falling from the tables of the rich and bored. He helps the old caretaker carry a weight, he maintains a genuinely warm friendship with hyperactive Greek motor mechanic Nick (Nick Dennis), nicknamed “Va Va Voom” because of his constant utterance of that phrase, who looks after Mike’s car and sometimes does errands for him. Mike hangs out in a jazz bar full of Black patrons where, ironically, he seems most at home and relaxed to get pie-eyed, on plainly intimate terms with the denizens including the bartender (Art Loggins) and lounge singer (Kitty White), who offer him commiserations for his pains. Despite his grouchy projections he also offers essentially decent turns of behaviour in helping Christina and “Lily” as they’re stalked by malevolent persons. Mike even has, in a technological wonder for 1955, his own answering machine service on a reel-to-reel recording device, a mechanism through which the voices of both allies and enemies are mediated with a weird, ghostly texture, again like harbingers of fate.
His investigation isn’t however the logical game of connect-the-dots. What leads Hammer gets come mostly from Diker, who keeps feeding him or Velda names, and he’s left to feel out their connections. Many players in the sordid little story are already dead, killed with ruthless efficiency by the enigmatic cabal comprising Soberin and Evello, a strange meeting of minds if ever there was, and their minions. Mike talks with Harvey Wallace (Strother Martin), a truck driver who hit and killed one man Diker mentions, a boxer named Kowalsky, who swears the man was thrown in front of his truck. He talks with Kowalsky’s trainer Eddie Yeager (Juano Hernandez), but Yeager tells him he was visited by the goons and allowed to keep breathing on the proviso he keep silent about Kowalsky. Mike meets with failed opera singer Carmen Trivago (Fortunio Bonanova), who was the friend of another dead man named by Diker, named Nicholas Raymondo. Mike learns, in the most consequential development, that Raymondo was a nuclear scientist beset by gnawing melancholia and who Trivago tells Mike was murdered by some men in search of some obscure object he possessed. Diker also puts Velda onto an art dealer named William Mist, who has connections with both Soberin and Evello. What really happened or how such a diverse group of personalities became enmeshed never becomes entirely clear, but the nature of the “Great Whatsit,” as Velda eventually, sarcastically describes the object of everybody’s search, wields diabolic power.
Mike’s ruthless streak is more than sufficiently illustrated when he’s followed by a knife-wielding heavy (Paul Richards), presumably sent by the cabal, down an appropriately mean street. Mike turns the tables by suddenly waylaying the goon and beating him until he goes tumbling down a long flight of stairs into oblivion, Mike watching him go with a sneer of satisfied pleasure. Later, he intimidates Trivago simply by plucking out one of his prized Caruso records and casually snapping it in half, immediately making the man talkative. When Mike goes to Evello’s mansion to stir up the ants, he encounters Evello’s sister Friday (Marian Carr) who’s eager to meet this big hunk of meat but also stirs Evello to set his two prize toughs, Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert) and Charlie Max (Jack Elam) on him, only for Mike to unleash a show of force that lays Sugar flat and sends Max scurrying away in fear. Aldrich wittily elides showing just what move Mike uses on Sugar, and later has Evello question just what he did, keeping some morsel of mystique to Mike, as if to confirm that yes, in a fair fight when he can see his foes coming, Mike Hammer is a truly effective dude. Trouble is, too often he can’t see them coming. Sugar and Charlie are indicated to the hands directly responsible for the spate of murders – Mike surveys and identifies their discarded shoes in Evello’s poolhouse – and Christina’s death in torture, but they’re just as human as Mike and touched with comedy, distant ancestors of Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent as a pair of dim, semi-competent hoods whose job just happens to be dishing out murder and threats on the behalf of Evello and whose chief advantage is their willingness to do it. After Mike easily flattens Sugar, demanding Sugar lift his game, the two heavies later waylay Mike in his office and Sugar knocks him out with a blackjack, proudly announcing, “I been taking lessons.” Aldrich soon undercuts this boast of evolution when he again cuts away as Sugar is attacked by Mike in a fraught moment and only Sugar’s mortal scream is heard.
From its surrounding hinterlands as glimpsed at night at the opening scenes to the stilt-riding beach house where the climax unfolds, Aldrich renders his mid-century LA area the ultimate expression of the modern world, a realm of sleek, fast cars and boxy domiciles, bright lights and abyssal dark, shiny newness concealing patches of blight and desperation, place of squalor hosting hints of some lost grandeur in the now rundown and seamy buildings of the town’s older quarters. Mike gazes down at the street outside his apartment with its crisp, rectilinear lines and flowing bright bubbles of traffic, skulks around tasteless insta-mansions and invades the Edward Hopper blankness of skid row rooms. Here people subsist with their small packages of culture and personality, like Christina’s flat crammed with books and Trivago with his records, whilst the people on the bottom of the heap work up their muscles and wits in boxers’ gymnasium under the indulgent eye of Yeager who, as Mike sourly goads him, always sells out his fighters for easy money in thrown bouts. This LA is ageless, ahistorical, vibrant on its roads, gleaming and featureless in most of its interiors, but where the hard edges and bright lights still somehow harbour shadows, illustrated most insistently in the scene where Mike first returns to his apartment after being released from hospital: Mike explores his seemingly obvious “home” with its clinical furnishings – the only sign of human habitation is an unfinished game of solitaire left on a table – with paranoid care and tentativeness, expecting a nasty surprise somewhere. When Mike ventures into the seamier parts of town he, and Aldrich’s camera, find islets of the baroque to latch onto – old wooden verandas and stained glass fanlights, cavernous foyers and the slow, slanting progress of the Angels Flight funicular.
Kiss Me Deadly wasn’t shot by Aldrich’s future regular cinematographer Joseph Biroc, but Ernest Laszlo, who aids Aldrich in mimicking Welles in his constant recourse to high and low camera angles to build his compositions and capture a constant sense of the vertiginous, wrenching both characters and viewers out of a settled sense of space (he also tips his hat to Welles more directly in casting Stewart and Bonanova, both from Citizen Kane, 1941). Mike’s fight with the knife-wielding killer offers an interlude of pure urban mystique with bare brick walls touched by inky shadow and whitewashed windows glowing seedily, before the thug’s endless tumble down the stairs into concrete jungle oblivions. Otherwise Aldrich is forced often to contend with the mercenary blankness of the utilitarian architecture and décor and find brutalist poetry in it all. Compositions are often built around doorways and corridors to provide frames within frames that often emphasise people separating and fragmenting, particularly in a pair of twinned shots late in the film in which Velda roams her apartment murmuring sleepily in her meditation on Mike’s obsession with the Great Whatsit and then retreating to bed in moral exhaustion after Mike commands her to seduce Mist. The lobby of Lily’s building becomes a trap of space and expressionist shadows as Aldrich gazes down from on high on Mike and Lily as the hero proposes to rescue the fearful waif from the darkness crushing in on her.
Mike and Velda’s relationship, a constant of the Spillane books, is moulded into a study in Aldrich’s near-compulsory fascination with folie-a-deux figurations, sporting people locked into a sadomasochistic bind through some dynamic of control and obedience, love and hate, and sometimes become fatefully entangled, whilst there are hints of something similar in Soberin and Gabrielle’s relationship too. Velda is used to offering her proofs of love in obeying Mike’s need for her to be professionally unfaithful. Aldrich had already mooted this obsessive refrain in The Big Knife in a manner both overt and embryonic in the theme of the movie star enthralled to the status of stardom as well as the domineering, blackmailing studio honcho, and even the two fast friends doomed to shoot it out to the death in Vera Cruz. Aldrich moved on to such variations as the heroic sergeant and cowardly colonel in Attack, the mutually loathing sisters of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, the mother and baby dyke of The Killing of Sister George and director and star in The Legend of Lylah Clare and even to an extent the prisoner-soldiers of The Dirty Dozen – people who need others to shock them into some sort of life ironically by goading them, wounding them, driving them to awful deeds, feeding off the perverse emotional energy sparked.
It could be grazing the zone of pop psychology to note that Aldrich’s preoccupation with this theme might have reflected his experience with his family, but it’s hard to doubt he gained intimate knowledge of a kind of conspiracy between oppressor and oppressed in that experience. Mike and Velda’s symbiotic project, as the ICC men diagnose initially, is one of calculated mutual exploitation that depends on basic hungers in other, eminently exploitable people. But it’s also marked by strange expressions of love, as Velda does what she does largely to please Mike, and Mike does what he does to please Mike too. “I’m gonna need all the rest I can get if I’m gonna have any strength to fight off my new-found – my bosom friend,” Velda murmurs wearily as she heads to bed after Mike has instructed her to seduce Mist, merely to find out more about the enigmatic doctor. Aldrich makes a recurring joke out of macho men too caught up in their obsessive pursuits to be interested in the lusty ladies clinging to them: Mike cannily exploits this in the case of Friday, but he himself is constantly distracted from Velda’s come-ons. Only, ironically, Soberin expresses any kind of gratitude to his odalisque-agent Gabrielle “for all the creature comforts you’ve given me,” but he still proposes to leave her behind as he presumably wings away to distant shores with the Great Whatsit as his treasure.
Meanwhile Soberin calls up Mike and delivers in velvet fashion a mix of warning to desist and a token of amity, which proves to be a flashy replacement for his smashed car, left park out the front of his building. The gift horse comes fitted with two bombs – one for finding, the other to actually do the job – and Mike narrowly intervenes to save Nick, who dives into the vehicle when he spots it and considers a little spin. Nick’s stalwart aid to Mike, which also sees him dispatched to look into whoever souped the car up on the promise that Mike will buy him his own sports car when the whole deal pays off, eventually proves fatal: Soberin, again identified by his signature shoes, enters Nick’s workshop whilst he’s labouring under a car and let the trolley jack down, crushing Nick to death. Nick’s death is charged with special, brutal irony as Aldrich offers a shot of Nick’s screaming face from the viewpoint of the car falling down on him, Nick’s passion for the automobile consummated in a strange, gruesome erotic rite, and the truest, worthiest sacrifice to the cult of the Great Whatsit. Not long after, whilst Mike gets plastered in the Black jazz bar, Velda also vanishes, and Nick is flushed out with the news. Mike however first drives back to the gas station where he and Christina stopped to try and learn from the attendant where the letter she wanted mail was addressed. When he finds it was sent to him, Mike dashes back to his office, but there is waylaid by Sugar and Charlie.
Mike is taken to a beachfront house which, although Mike doesn’t know this yet, belongs to Soberin. “For a couple of cannons you two sure are polite,” Mike comments as they deliver him to the house, only for Mike to try and make a break, the two hoods chasing him down and beating him senseless at the edge of the surging surf. This choice of location for the lair of villainy eventually proves by the film’s end to be one of Aldrich’s most effective choices, exploiting the air of gentle apocalypse to be found on the western edge of the American continent, the sunset place of a cultural and geopolitical realm, about to host a more fiery and spectacular equivalent. The punch-up in the surf also became after this something of a regulation cliché of LA noir films. Mike is tied to a bed face-down and injected by Soberin with sodium pentathol to make him more pliable, because they’re just as clueless as he is as to the location of the Great Whatsit. During the vigil that follows Mike recovers enough to wrench one hand free, and when he draws Evello in close on the pretext of spilling the beans, he overpowers the gangster. He then lures in Sugar, who unwittingly stabs Evello, as Mike’s tied him to the bed in his place. Mike kills Sugar and flees, leaving only the bewildered and lonely Charlie behind. For an added touch of wit, Aldrich has this scene accompanied not be music but by the buzz of a radio broadcaster commentating on a boxing bout in which one fighter suddenly turns the tables on his opponent.
Mike subsequently puzzles out the special sarcasm in Christina’s demand in both word and letter to “remember me,” as he gets “Lily” to read him the Rossetti poem and through it deduces Christina must have swallowed whatever it was she had that was valuable, which proves to be a key. He and “Lily” go to the morgue and Mike quickly deduces the morgue attendant, Doc Kennedy (Percy Helton), must have the key after performing her autopsy. Kennedy, no fool, assumes something valuable is attached to it, and demands a big payoff, and eventually Mike simply crushes the fool’s hand in his own desk drawer and retrieves the key himself. Here Mike finally encounters a character sleazier and blunter in his greed than he is, and he takes great, grinning delight in dishing out brutality to Kennedy. The key proves to fit a locker kept by Nicholas Raymondo at an athletic club, but when he bullies his way to the locker and opens it, he finds a strange case that’s disturbingly hot to the touch, and when he opens the lid a fraction he receives an awful burn on his wrist. Leaving the case put, he goes out and finds “Lily” has fled. Mike on the warpath is a hell of a thing, but he’s still a sap, because Gabrielle and Soberin return, kill the club attendant (Leonard Mudie), and take the case. Mike is finally forced to break into Mist’s apartment to seek out any kind of lead on Soberin’s whereabouts: Mist downs a bottle of sleeping pills to escape Mike’s coercive attentions, but Mike sees Soberin’s name on the prescription for the pills and uses his wiles to eventually learn that the beach house belongs to the doctor.
Kiss Me Deadly is crammed with superlative performances, most famously from Dennis as Nick, whose constant exclamation of “Vroom! Vroom! Pow!” describes a working class immigrant’s sheer delight in even getting to touch and anatomise the awesome new speed machines of his adopted land, a sort of pure worship for its creations that has a curiously innocent and unsullied quality that’s matched by Nick’s love of Mike and both of which are paid off in the ugliest manner possible. Dennis created an instant catchphrase and archetype. More subtle but just as good are vignettes like the way Hernandez’s Yeager beams with the cigar between his teeth tilted up at a high and proud angle as he boasts to Mike about his new fighter, only for the cigar to droop when Mike mentions Kowalski’s name. Neither Cooper nor Rodgers had notable careers after their parts here, but they both have a vital presence in the film, particularly Rodgers with her short-cut blonde hair and unnerving smile that later shifts, once “Lily” morphs Gabrielle, into a sweetly enticing but crazy-eyed and murderous antithesis of Mike, cooing to him as she describes mocks his embodiment of the macho lout, as Christina did but with pathos exchanged for a sick kind of empowerment. Cooper, making her feature debut and who would be a regular presence in Aldrich’s movies as well as a fierce anti-blacklist activist, makes a mark as Velda, whether it’s allowing a slyly insolent provocation into her tone as she swings around an exercise pole whilst talking with Mike, slick from stem to stern with sweat from keeping her money maker tight, or carefully laying a pillow against his thigh before taking up post lying against him as if playing inverted therapist. Both actresses, like the rest of the cast, have features brutalised by Laszlo’s lighting and photography, flaws in skin and physiognomy laid bare, but it’s precisely this palpable sense of physicality that’s part of Kiss Me Deadly’s unique form-as-function.
Meanwhile Addy affects the same elongated, sarcastic drawl as Lee Marvin’s character in The Dirty Dozen whilst dealing with a recalcitrant lout, suggest both actors might well be purposefully mimicking Aldrich himself. It’s Addy’s Murphy who finally has to clue Mike into what he’s been buzzing around the edge of throughout the story, as he’s stricken with contempt for his friend in his blunderings after Velda is kidnapped and Gabrielle’s deception is revealed, and Mike goads him back for the cops’ blundering attempt to keep Christina locked up to sweat the Great Whatsit’s location out of her. When he sees the burn from the case on Mike’s wrist and realises he’s been close to it, Murphy finally offers what he describes as “harmless words, just a bunch of letters scrambled together” but which have great import: “Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity.” Flirting with spilling state secrets is also a risk of blasphemy: the dark god of the Great Whatsit can only be invoked by describing the contours of its temples, the mystery of its nature. Here, at last, Aldrich gets to the centre of the maze, diagnosing the wellspring of a curious kind of madness starting to eat up the world. The terror of all the characters Mike has met through the movie isn’t just rooted in fear of some thugs but in the thing at the back of the drama, the mysterious and deadly box loaded up with Armageddon fuel. Murphy spots the burn on Mike’s wrist, a veritable mark of Cain for a new anti-Genesis.
“There’s a new art in the world and this doctor’s starting a collection,” one character reports to Mike, describing Soberin’s new, alarming hobby-cum-business, signalling the need for new aesthetics to go along with new reality. Soberin with his highfalutin’ reference points proclaims it Pandora’s Box and invests Gabrielle as Lot’s Wife turned to a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom, and likens himself to Cerberus guarding the gates of hell as he warns her not to open the case. Aldrich might well have cast Dekker as Soberin with recollection of his role playing the mad scientist of Dr. Cyclops (1940), who similarly monkeyed around with atomic stuff with sardonic pronouncements filled with mythical references. Kiss Me Deadly’s dark and febrile texture finds its logical endpoint in the brilliance that escapes the box when Mike fingers it open, Let There Be Light recontextualised as the harbinger of cataclysm. Soberin is both the conduit for the literary and intellectual pretences Aldrich and Bezzerides invested in the film and also an insta-lampoon of those pretences: even after he’s been shot in the gut he still won’t shut up with the mythopoeic references. Not at all coincidentally, a few years later when Aldrich would go to Italy to get in on the historical religious epic craze, he chose to make a film about Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) as Kiss Me Deadly’s woozy prequel.
Bezzerides later claimed he was chiefly driven by a desire to have fun when he was thrashing out the script given his contempt for Spillane and his writing. And yet there’s coherence to the film’s vision as a whole that becomes apparent as the last pieces of the story click together, and it becomes clear what the Great Whatsit is. In the book it was merely a shipment of dope: here, it’s a consignment of radioactive material purloined from some Promethean government experiment, the threat of the atomic age enclosed in a box and possessed with atavistic power that collapses all boundaries between past and present, myth and reality. Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) had already breached such territory as it concluded with its legendary vision of the last gangland musketeer consumed in an erupting fireball that looked awfully like an atomic bomb blast, the old school wild antihero laid waste by, and laying waste with, the power of a new age. Aldrich and Bezzerides went a step further in Kiss Me Deadly in making the nuclear age itself the ultimate plot device and also the negation of all other concerns.
Many critical interpretations were spun off from a slightly edited version of the climax circulated in Europe that made it seem as if Mike and Velda are consumed when Gabrielle finally does open the case, whilst the full version makes it plain our two antiheroes do escape, at least as far as the beach, barely reassuring as that is. The climax also finally resolves the gendered conflicts running throughout with a death’s head smirk appearing on Gabrielle’s face as, confronted by Mike after she’s already shot Soberin and claimed possession of the Great Whatsit, she entices/threatens Mike to advance to her: “Kiss me Mike – I want you to kiss me. The liar’s kiss that say ‘I love you,’ but means something else…You’re good at giving such kisses.” But the real “Deadly” Gabrielle wants to be kissed by is whatever is in the case, a need that overrides all caution and sense, so she shoots Mike in the gut and opens the case, the glowing pile within glimpsed with a creepy, sucking, whispering sound. The Great Whatsit immediately turns her to a pillar of flame, her wildly agonised and exultant screams echoing Christina’s. Mike has enough strength to get up off the floor, escape the fire, and save Velda from where she’s being held, and the two watch as the atomic hellfire burns out Soberin’s house up, a new star born and blazing on the coast, the surf lapping around their legs. This ending is scarcely more reassuring than the edited one, as Aldrich leaves the possibly dying Mike and Velda, last remnants of their kind, driven into the western sea. The logical end of the American dream.