Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style

by Alain Silver

At the core of Kiss Me Deadly are speed and violence. The adaptation of Mickey Spillane's novel takes Mike Hammer from New York to Los Angeles, where it situates him in a landscape of somber streets and decaying houses even less inviting than those stalked by Spade and Marlowe in the preceding decades of Depression and War years. Much like Hammer's fast cars, the movie swerves frenziedly through a series of disconnected and cataclysmic scenes. As such, it typifies the frenetic, post-Bomb L.A. with all its malignant undercurrents. It records the degenerative half life of an unstable universe as it moves towards critical mass. When it reaches the fission point, the graphic threat of machine-gun bullets traced in the door of a house on Laurel Canyon in The Big Sleep in the 40s is explosively superseded in the 50s as a beach cottage in Malibu becomes ground zero.

From the beginning, Kiss Me Deadly is a true sensory explosion. In the pre-credit sequence, a woman stumbles out of the pitch darkness, while her breathing fills the soundtrack with amplified, staccato gasps. Blurred metallic shapes flash by without stopping. She positions herself in the center of the roadway until oncoming headlights blind her with the harsh glare of their high beams. Brakes grab, tires scream across the asphalt, and a Jaguar spins off the highway in a swirl of dust. A close shot reveals Hammer behind the wheel: over the sounds of her panting and a jazz piano on the car radio, the ignition grinds repeatedly as he tries to restart the engine. Finally, he snarls at the woman, "You almost wrecked my car! Well? Get in!"

As in Aldrich's earlier World For Ransom, the shot selection and lighting provide immediate keys to the style, to film noir. But in Kiss Me Deadly, the opening dialogue between Hammer and Christina is the significant component in establishing another sort of hero: one that is sneering, sarcastic, and not really a hero at all.

Can I have my hand back now? (Pause.)
So, you're a fugitive from the laughing house.
They forced me to go there. They took away my clothes to make me stay. Below, Hammer (Ralph Meeker) and Christina (Cloris Leachman)
I wish I could tell you that. I have to tell someone. When people are in trouble, they need to talk. But you know the old saying.
"What I don't know can't hurt me"?
You're angry with me aren't you? Sorry I nearly wrecked your pretty little car.

Hammer just sneers.

I was just thinking how much you can tell about a person from such simple things. Your car, for instance.

Now what kind of message does it send you? CHRISTINA
You have only one real lasting love.

Now who could that be?

You. You're one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard.

You against good health or something?

I could tolerate flabby muscles in a man, if it'd make him more friendly. You're the kind of person who never gives in a relationship, who only takes. (sardonically) Ah, woman, the incomplete sex. And what does she need to complete her? (mockingly dreamy) One man, wonderful man!

All right, all right. Let it go

What kind of man is Mike Hammer? Kiss Me Deadly's opening dialogue types him quickly. Christina's direct accusation of narcissism merely confirms what the icons suggest about "how much you can tell about the person from such simple things": the sports car, the trench coat, the curled lip, the jazz on the radio. Aldrich and writer A.I. Bezzerides use the character of Christina to explain and reinforce what the images have already suggested, that this is not a modest or admirable man.

The dialogue also reveals that Hammer knows exactly who he is and the image he presents: "What kind of message does it send you?" It sends the one Hammer wants to send, a message which Christina, the "fugitive from the laughing house," can discuss directly. This is a first hint of what will be something of a role reversal in the way men and women speak. The older male characters, the Italian house mover and Dr. Soberin, will use figurative images and make mythical allusions, rather than speak directly about people and objects. The younger women, Christina, Velda, and even Carver, usually say what is on their minds.

               Above, Hammer with the old mover and "Mr. and Mrs. Super."

The dark highway of the opening is a kind of narrative limbo: the elements of the plot have not yet been brought into line, let alone focused. Certainly, contemporary viewers brought with them expectations about character and plot both from the underlying novel and from the conventions of film noir. The opening selectively underscores aspects of those expectations while withholding detail. Visually, the discussion of the "laughing house" and Hammer's materialism is shot entirely in a medium two shot of Christina and Hammer, either from the front or rear, in the cockpit of his car. The viewer is not distracted from the character interaction, in which Hammer "loses" the verbal sparring: he is effectively "put down" by Christina until he must tell her to "let it go." Kiss Me Deadly has no clearly defined landscape at this point to use as a textural reinforcement. The countryside and the rural gas station are all unidentified settings. They are open, shadowy, and, even within the fringes of the station's neon lights, menacing. Generically this last trait primes the viewer for Christina's murder under torture and Hammer's near death.

In terms of subject/object tension, the Aldrich/Bezzerides conception of Hammer is both more objective and "anti-Spillane." Spillane's use of first-person prose is certainly in the hard-boiled tradition.

All I saw was the dame standing there in the glare of the headlights waving her arms like a huge puppet and the curse I spit out filled the car and my own ears. I wrenched the car over, felt the rear end start to slide, brought it out with a splash of power and almost ran up the side of the cliff as the car fishtailed. The brakes bit in, gouging a furrow in the shoulder, then jumped to the pavement and held. Somehow I had managed a sweeping curve around the babe.

This offhanded objectification of women is in play from the novel's first paragraph. This attitude along with Spillane's lurid sadomasochism and his rabid anti-Communism in the shadow of McCarthy are legendary. From the opening Aldrich and Bezzerides take the events and little else. Spillane's recurring protagonist, Hammer, provides the predetermined viewpoint of the narratives. Hammer's deprecations and wisecracks in the novel are not detached or objective descriptions of people and events and are part of his "color." Aldrich and Bezzerides abandon most of this also or rather, in Aldrich's preferred method, they "stand it on its head."

Of the opening dialogue only one line-"They forced make me stay."-is from the novel. But much more is changed than just the words. In terms of plot, elements such as the Rossetti poem or the radioactive "great whatsit" are inventions of the filmmakers. Among the characters, Nick the mechanic is wholly original. In terms of attitude, Hammer becomes a grinning predator, the antithesis of Chandler's urban knight and with survival instincts sharper even than Sam Spade's. Even Spillane's Hammer has some glimmer of sympathy for a "damn-fool crazy Viking dame with holes in her head" and follows the trail of those who tried to kill him, out of simpleminded outrage at their misdeeds: "I wouldn't need to look at their faces to know I was killing the right ones. The bastards, the dirty, lousy bastards!" The film Hammer is incorporated into a more sophisticated system that combines the undertone of film noir with Aldrich's moral determinism. While Hammer wants to know "what's in it for me," all around him crime breeds counter-crime, while thieves and murderers fashion the implements of their own destruction.

For Spillane, Hammer's very name revealed all: a hard, heavy, unrelenting object pounding away mindlessly at social outcasts like two penny nails. The filmmakers refine this archetype slightly: Hammer does think, mostly about how to turn a buck. Christina is arguably the most conventionally "sensitive" of the picture's characters. She reads poetry and, although mockingly, lyricizes her own predicament. It is not without irony that she is the "loony," the one institutionalized by society, yet quickest to penetrate Hammer's tough-guy pose. In that first scene, she helps to reveal that the hero of the film Kiss Me Deadly is closer to other characters in Aldrich's work than to Spillane's. He inherits the cynical greed of Joe Erin in Vera Cruz and anticipates the transcendent egomania of Zarkan in The Legend of Lylah Clare. As Ralph Meeker's interpretation propels Hammer beyond the smugness and self-satisfaction of the novel into a blacker, more sardonic disdain for the world in general, the character becomes a cipher for all the unsavory denizens of the noir underworld.

The informal inquiry into Christina's death by the unidentified government agents expositionally establishes that Hammer's professional as well as personal conduct is unscrupulously self-seeking: "Who do you sic on the wives, Mr. Hammer?" Throughout much of the scene, Hammer is framed in the shot's foreground, sullenly staring at a blank wall off camera, ignoring the baiting remarks. His snide retort-"All right. You've got me convinced: I'm a real stinker."-is effectively true. Because the committee members have made more than a few gibes about Hammer, his response does not yet alienate the viewer. But a dichotomy between audience and the "hero's" viewpoint is building, is creating a subject/object spilt which runs counter to the first person elements of the novel. Hammer first asks, "What's in it for me?" as he speaks to Pat Murphy in the corridor after the inquiry. That utterance completes the character composite: Hammer is certainly not like Callahan in World for Ransom, not another selfless "Galahad" as he begins a quest for "something big," for the private eye's grail.

Left, an homme fatale, Hammer with Velda.

Hammer is a quester. He is not an outsider in the noir underworld or any equivalent of a mythic "other world." If this is a foreign or alien milieu, Hammer is at home there. For Hammer, the dark streets and ramshackle buildings are a questing ground which is conspicuously detached from the commonplace material world. Deception is the key to this world. Deception not detection is Hammer's trade. His livelihood depends on the divorce frame-up and the generally shady deal. Deception is Lily Carver's game also, from the false name she assumes to the vulnerable pitch of her voice to the pathetic way she brings her hand up against her face like a wing of Christina's dead canary. Failure to deceive is what costs Christina and others their lives.

This deception and uncertainty, as in most noir films, lay the groundwork for Kiss Me Deadly's melodramatic tension. The plot-line has all the stability of one of Nick's "Va-va-voom's," so inversion becomes a constant; and subsurface values become central concerns. In this milieu, the first "torpedo" set to go off when a car key is turned necessarily posits a second rigged to explode at a higher speed. From the viewer's objective vantage, the shift from one level of appearances to another is occasionally discernible. An early example is the transformation of the sensual Carver, first framed behind a bed post and swinging a hip up to expose more of her leg through the fold of the terry cloth robe, then becoming shrill and waif-like for Hammer's benefit. Usually, though, the viewer is also deceived.

For those on a quest in the noir underworld, instability is the overriding factor and disjunction is the rule. The sensational elements in Kiss Me Deadly follow this rule. The craning down and the hiss of the hydraulic jack as the screaming Nick is crushed under the weight of a car; the pillar of fire that consumes Lily Carver; the eerie growl of the black box; even a simple "Pretty pow!" as Nick jams a fist into his open palm-these random acts have no organizing principles. They transcend context to deliver a shock that is purely sensory. Still they fit homogeneously into the generic fabric and the subversive whole of the narrative.

Most of Kiss Me Deadly's visual devices are derivations from the generic styles of Aldrich's prior work in World For Ransom or Vera Cruz: high and low angles, depth of field, constriction of the frame through foreground clutter. The long take or sequence shot, however, is used more extensively and more specifically than before. There are four examples of it in Kiss Me Deadly, all of which might be classed as interrogation scenes: Pat Murphy's first visit to Hammer's apartment, and Hammer's questionings of Harvey Wallace, Carmen Trivago, and Eddie Yeager. The specifics of the shots vary, from the slow traveling into close shot during the brief discussion with the truck driver, Wallace, to the elaborate tracking and panning in Hammer's apartment, shifting characters front to back and left to right in an uneasy search for equilibrium. In no sequence shot does Hammer get answers to everything he asks; yet each takes him to the brink of some discovery.

More than anything else these shots serve as a sort of punctuation in the narrative line. In the scenes with Trivago and Yeager especially, the sustained camera seems to externalize a reflective pause. Hammer only half listens in these scenes, wandering about and sampling Trivago's wine and spaghetti or, with Yeager, glancing over at the sparring match. They also create visual pauses at odd intervals. While they diminish tension on the one hand by preserving a level of stasis or consistency, barring the cut and the extreme angle, they reinforce it on the other, playing first with the viewer's expectancy of the cut and then with the interior movements of the camera. As the possibility of a change in angle is removed only for a set period that cannot exceed the length of the sequence, so the pause is a baited one, barely allowing Hammer and/or the audience time to "catch their breath."

As in World for Ransom, the trap is a part of Kiss Me Deadly's figurative scheme. Again, its constructs are primarily visual. But the elaborate "capture" of Callahan in the earlier picture is distilled down to single shots in Kiss Me Deadly. For example, in the high angle long shot of Hammer outside Lily Carver's room, the dark foreground of stairway and balustrades are arrayed concentrically about Hammer's figure and seem to enclose him. Usages such as this contribute to Kiss Me Deadly's figurative continuity of instability or inversion and the lurking menace, all set up in the opening sequences.

What most distinguishes Kiss Me Deadly's figurative usage from that of earlier and many later Aldrich films is the added dimension of an explicit, aural fabric of allusions and metaphor. The Christina Rossetti poem, "Remember Me," is a recurrent example. Other background sounds are keyed to character. The Caruso recording with which Carmen Trivago sings is the Flotow opera, Martha. Another classical piece plays on the radio in Christina's room as the manager remarks, "She was always listening to that station." A prize fight is being broadcast in the background when Evello and Sugar Smallhouse are killed.

While these sounds may not be as fully incorporated into the narrative structure as the poem is, all provide immediate textural contrast if not subsidiary meaning. The sibilant tone of Evello's gasp as he is killed echoes the hiss of the car jack in Nick's murder. As tropes both recall in turn the equation of vitality with a "deep breath" made by the old mover. The play of sounds and meaning can create other anomalies. For instance, at one point Velda approaches Mike asking, "But under any other name, would you be as sweet?" and he, not paying attention to her, says, "Kowalski." On one level, all these can be appreciated as textural noise or non sequiturs. On another, they are conscious metaphors and puns.

As with Callahan, "chance" is a factor. As Hammer says, "If she hadn't gotten in my way, I wouldn't have stopped." Velda's statements about the "great whatsit" and "the nameless ones who kill people" reinforce the sense that the vagaries of chance or destiny, a word which the mythically-minded Dr. Soberin would likely have preferred, are an underlying constant. Soberin himself is one of the most consciously allusive characters in Aldrich's films. He brings up the notion of rising from the dead after Christina expires: "Do you know what that would be? That would be resurrection." He mentions Lazarus again during a conversation with Hammer. The old moving man also speaks of "the house of my body" that can only be left once. These concepts run parallel to Hammer's own search for meaning in the cryptic pentameter of the Rossetti poem: "But when the darkness and corruption leave/A vestige of the thoughts that once we had."

Myth becomes a surface value entirely in the case of the "great whatsit." What Pat Murphy utters-a "few, harmless words...just a bunch of letters scrambled together, but their meaning is very important.... Manhattan project. Los Alamos. Trinity."-are as much words to conjure with as Soberin's pedantic analogies. Soberin's references to Lot's wife and "cerberus barking with all his heads" are too archaic and unfrightening to keep Gabrielle/Lily Carver from opening her own Pandora's box. In the final analysis, the "great whatsit" contains pure phlogiston. The quest for it becomes the quest for the cleansing, combustible element, for the spark of the purifying fire that reduces the nether world of Kiss Me Deadly to radioactive ash.

As modern myth, as anti-myth (discussed in more detail in the Addendum), and/or as film noir, Kiss Me Deadly's narrative outlook is equally somber. "A savage lyricism hurls us into a world in full decomposition, ruled by the dissolute and the cruel," wrote Borde and Chaumeton in Panorama du Film Noir Américain, then "to these savage and corrupted intrigues, Aldrich brings the most radical of solutions: nuclear apocalypse."1 Kiss Me Deadly is also a key to the development of Aldrich's visual style. In this "apocalyptic" context, the choices of angle, framing, staging, lighting, and all the other elements which constitute a visual style are all in play in a particularly expressive way.

Nine Elements of Style in Kiss Me Deadly

[Based on an outline developed with Janey Place. Frames are displayed in numerical order. A Cross-link indicates a frame enlargement on another page. Click on the Frame Enlargement to return to the text. Otherwise you must scroll up or down to the Frame.]

1. Angle. A low angle point-of-view shot, such as that of the feet of Hammer's captors (see Frame 9), also functions to withhold critical information-the faces of the men-and to have the viewer co-experience Hammer's mental note-taking of his only clue: the style of Soberin's shoes. Framing works with the choice of angle in that, objectively, both the fact of the viewer empathy with Christina, who the dialogue reveals has just been tortured to death, and the position of her white, lifeless legs in the center of the frame draw attention away from the aspect of the dark shoes in the surrounding foreground.

This low angle is "motivated," that is, the camera is placed on the floor to simulate Hammer's semiconscious sprawl. In contrast, the ground level medium shot when Sugar interrupts Hammer's examination of the shoes in Evello's bathhouse (26) represents a director's and not a character's point-of-view. That angle similarly restricts the visual information which the viewer receives (how Hammer renders Sugar unconscious remains an off-screen mystery), while the tilt upward combines with a shorter focal length lens to distort perspective and exaggerate the magnitude of Sugar's fall.

The tilted angles in the hospital room (10, 11) alternate between directorial and character point of view. As a disembodied voice calls Mike's name, the sequence begins with an optical device used over a shot of Velda and the nurse. A rippling effect through an image from the character's point of view is a convention for awakening from a dream or returning to consciousness. The tilting off from horizontal approximates the imbalance which Hammer experiences as he comes to; but that tilting is carried over into a shot which includes Hammer (10). The shift between "first person" and "third person"-the scene ends in the former mode(11)-serves to objectify the unusual angle. As first-person usage and its conventions are undercut, the split between Hammer's viewpoint and that of the narrative is accentuated.

The use of an extreme high angle or overhead, as in Hammer's first visit to Carver's apartment (19), even more significantly restricts the reading or denotation of a shot. Because it shifts away from connotations of either dominant force or point of view, which may be present in a low or eye-level setup, such a shot moves towards an omniscient perspective. By association, by interaction with the shot's material content, this shift can cause the viewer to sense, subconsciously at least, that he or she is looking down on the scene from a deific or deterministic vantage.

The most frequent use of other than eye-level camera placement in Kiss Me Deadly is the slight high and low angles which clarify interpersonal relationships. In certain medium close two shots, the camera aiming down at Nick (14) or at the morgue attendant over Hammer's shoulder implies that he intimidates or controls them to some degree. When Velda comes to Mike's apartment, the more extreme angle over him down at her (47) is appropriate to the degree in which he dominates her. Even as he looks away from Velda in her own bedroom (32), Hammer still dominates. Conversely, the very similar shots aimed upwards at Carver (35) or Pat Murphy (39) or over Carver at Hammer (34) all reverse that effect to suggest a weaker position on his part. Angle combines with framing and/or cutting for enhanced effect.

2. Framing. The recurrent use of objects and faces in the foreground of various shots, either as indeterminate shapes or held in focus by depth of field, creates a visual tension. These elements both conceal a portion of the rear ground and compete with more "significant" content for viewer attention, as with Christina's legs, mentioned above (9). Conversely, the severe cropping in a close shot of a battered Ray Diker (17) at his front door or a medium shot of Carver aflame in the beach house (44) concentrate viewer attention by forming a kind of natural iris. The first shot of Hammer (3) framed off center against the night sky anticipates more severe manipulations.

On a connotative level, the foreground clutter of the stairs, banisters, and corridors present in high angle long shots of both Hammer alone (19) and later with Carver (28) occupies a larger portion of the frame relative to the smaller human figures. Rather than forming simple black wedges, they have a textural presence made up of highlights and a confusion of angular shapes. The characters at frame center thus appear caught in a tangible vortex or enclosed in a trap.

The shot of Hammer at Soberin's feet (48) is a telling transliteration of the novel which relies on framing, decor, mise-en-scene, and the association of sound and image for its full effect. Spillane wrote. "They had left me on the floor.... Something moved and a pair of shoes shuffled into sight so I knew I wasn't alone." In the film, Hammer is unconscious and in the shot, so that it cannot be subjective. Instead of being on the floor he lies on a bare set of bed springs suggestive of a cold, metallic decay. The shoes are below. While Soberin's stentorian voice drones on about resurrection, the springs cast a maze of shadows enmeshing his feet and Hammer's face in the same tangled web.

3. Mise-en-scene. The staging of the elements in a shot or the mise-en-scene combines with framing and depth of field to further define Hammer's relationship to his environment and other characters. He has a tendency to stare off towards a point outside the frame. Instances vary from the three shot in the morgue to the interview by federal investigators after the accident (12, 13) or when he awakens Velda after learning of Nick's death (32). All suggest a high degree of alienation. His inability to look at people at critical times contrasts with his professional but manic interest in examining the fixtures of a strange room, as when he goes to Christina's (18) or interviews Carmen Trivago (27), pausing in the latter instance to sample wine and sniff spaghetti but seldom glancing at the other person in the shot. Hammer is not only estranged from his environment but alienates others with his deportment, as in Velda's emotional outburst about the "great whatsit" when he tells her of Nick's death then sits sipping milk on her couch.

The choice of setting and the use of real locations reinforce this sense of alienation. The general decay of the city coupled with specific usages such as the flashing street lights and isolated gas station (6) create, as mentioned earlier, an overtone of lingering menace. The pan up from the street lights is to Ray Diker's decrepit Victorian house perched on a dark hill. The departure from the gas station leads to death for Christina.

Other usages comment metaphorically on the confusion of identities. The mirrors and panning movement when Hammer visits Velda in her exercise room create a complex of confusing doppelgängers. As the shot opens, the viewer sees two sets of figures as Hammer steps into the room. The pan reveals that neither set was "real" and displaces them with the actual people reflected in still another mirror (21). Even as Velda elaborates figuratively on the possible consequences of his investigation and speaks of a "thread" leading to a "rope" by which he might well "hang," she spins around on the pole. The mise-en-scene, her action and the setting, actively undercuts the surrounding reality.

At least one identity-transfer, that of Hammer and Christina, which is suggested narratively by their interaction in the first scenes, is elaborated upon by the staging. Specifically, the X-shaped pose which Christina assumes as she flags down Hammer's car (1, 2) is recalled in the painted figure seen on the wall of her room when Hammer examines it (18). That figure, bisected by the lamplight, is reflected in turn in the later image of Hammer tied to bed at Soberin's beach house (33).

Hammer's answering machine, which was a very unusual device in 1955, is part of his dissembling lifestyle. When he first listens to playback from the wall-mounted, reel-to-reel tape recorder, Hammer stands leaning against the living room wall (49). He and the machine are on the right and left of a medium shot with his shadow between them. The machine becomes a second shadow, another self, an embodiment of the mechanistic, emotionless aspect of Hammer's psyche. The framing and mise-en-scene reinforce this relationship. In a later scene, when Murphy comes to Hammer's apartment, Hammer is in the left background in front of the machine. (50). With his coat off, the gray tone of Hammer's shirt and the device behind him blend, so that it appears perched on his shoulder or even growing out of it.

On a less symbolic level, much of the mise-en-scene simply adds a layer of distracting action behind that in the foreground. The use of depth of field to keep the sparring and shadow boxing in the background in relative focus as Hammer interviews Eddie Yeager (24) injects a constant, unsettling motion into the shot which could reflect the inner disturbance of both men, just as the sudden droop of Yeager's cigar conveys his dismay at the mention of Evello's name. When Hammer walks over to the side of the gym to make a call, the shadow of a large bag swaying on a rear wall in the center of the shot (25) perpetuates the distraction.

4. Lighting. All the shadows, whether in the gym, more obviously in the shot of Soberin's shoes, or more subtly in the shadow cast over Hammer's face when he stops at the roadblock (5), are stylistic corroborations of Velda's sense of impending danger. Other elements of lighting function similarly. The low light on Hammer and Christina conform to a convention of visual expression which associates shadows cast upward of the face (8) with the unnatural and ominous, the ritual opposite of sunlight. The low light when Carver opens the box of radioactive material (43) is, most appropriately at that moment in the film, hellish. Her demonic aspect as she screams anticipates her immolation by Soberin's "brimstone."

Side light is used conventionally to reflect character ambivalence. For example, in the low angle medium close shot of Hammer looking down at Nick's body (31). Framed against a night sky, Hammer is both literally and figuratively isolated in surrounding darkness. The half of his face cast in shadow is emblematic of an impulse to abandon the search generated by the sudden death of his friend, an impulse which accounts for the sense of loss and indecision that he manifests in the remainder of the film.

Lighting combines with framing to create the constricting wedges and trap-like arrays of foreground material mentioned above. In the hard shadow line which cuts across the top of the frame and obscures Hammer's face in his first visit to Carver's apartment (20), it functions independently of framing to instill a sense of peril and comment on the interaction of characters and objects. The lamps which form a dark triangle behind Carver, as she prepares to open the "great whatsit" (41), define visual geometry that is deterministic in implication: i.e., her head is "directed" to align itself with the apex of the triangle.

Go to Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of A Style, Part Two