Calling Kiss Me Deadly one of the darkest detective thrillers ever made, or the ultimate film noir, doesn’t do it justice. Director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides’s 1955 version of Mickey Spillane’s novel—in which our thug hero chases a mysterious, all-powerful “Great Whatsit” in pursuit of fortune and glory—doesn’t merely exemplify those two genres and identify the places where they overlap. It defines the difference between cynicism and nihilism, then throws down with the nihilists, if for no other reason than to show you what it means to live in a world where nothing matters. Cynics expect the worst of humanity and are rarely disappointed, but in their hearts, they hope for some evidence that humans are innately kind and that morality is more than a sucker’s game. Cynicism is pre-emptive disappointment; you can’t be let down by anyone or anything unless you secretly nurse a kernel of hope. A nihilist, on the other hand, knows that the difference between cynicism and optimism is a matter of degrees. Like Neo in The Matrix blocking the agents’ bullets and then suddenly understanding, truly and deeply, that the world he’s long accepted as “real” is just an intellectual prison built of ones and zeroes, the true nihilist has had his moment of cosmic disillusionment, and his accompanying realization that democracy, religion, equality—hell, the Golden Rule itself—are all just scam jobs sold to sheep by wolves; that everybody’s mainly concerned with playing the angles and getting ahead in the here and now, even if they pretend otherwise. After realizing that morality and ethics, religion and philosophy, good and evil are illusions of various sorts, and that there’s no percentage in decency, guilt and shame vanish and life becomes a present-tense proposition, a zero-sum game played by beasts that wear suits and drive cars.
Aldrich’s protagonist, Mike Hammer, has a suit and car, plus the power of speech, but that’s about all that separates him from any other randy carnivore that ever walked the earth. He is a nihilist’s nihilist—a brute who asks a lot of specific questions in the course of his job as a private detective, but mentally translates them into more general and immediate queries: “Can I take this asshole in a fight?” “How long till I fuck this broad?” and “When do I get paid?” The Mike Hammer of Spillane’s bestselling fiction wasn’t completely irredeemable; like a lowbrow cousin of Dashell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, he was a consummate bastard with ice water for blood, but deep down, he had a moral code and an Old Testament sense of justice; in his own twisted way, Hammer exemplified Chandler’s description of his own detective hero as a “knight errant” stalking the mean streets of 20th Century America, righting injustice by subterfuge and force. Other movie and TV Hammers retained at least a trace of Spillane’s righteous thuggery. Check out the 1980s CBS version starring Stacy Keach as Hammer, or Armand Assante’s psychologically rich rendition in 1982’s otherwise horrid I, The Jury; their Hammers were cynics, ass-kickers and male chauvinist pigs, but they had their standards, and they were still capable of being shocked, then roused into doing what was right (as opposed to what made them happy). Aldrich and Meeker’s version of Hammer has no such redeeming qualities. He’s a burly jackal who slams people’s fingers in drawers, deploys his loyal secretary and masochistic sex toy, Velda (Maxine Cooper), as bait in adultery cases, then uses the evidence he’s gathered as a springboard to blackmail. He’s an overgrown teenage stud, vain and petty, enamored with his own handsomeness and proud of his bitchin’ wheels; he’s such a brute that the film’s few concessions to “sophistication”—Hammer seems equally well-versed in boxing and opera—play like sick jokes on the notion of private-dick-as-Galahad.
But as Aldrich makes clear that Hammer’s exactly the sort of hero this shitty world deserves. Aldrich’s high-contrast, super-dark images and crazy Dutch angles push noir conventions to cartoon extremes; in earlier noirs, these visual affectations implied moral instability, but here their exaggeration signifies a moral vacuum bereft of ethical and spiritual moorings. The characters bob like lost ships in a tempest while buccaneers like Hammer jump from deck to deck, grabbing whatever they can. Aldrich’s justly celebrated opening sequence—which still feels shockingly contemporary despite a half-century ellipse—illustrates the director’s nihilistic pose through pictures and sounds rather than in words, conveying the idea of “no moorings” by denying the viewer the usual geographical markers: beneath opening credits (which roll backwards!) a barefoot, trenchcoated young woman named Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) stumbles out onto a highway, obviously terrified and disoriented, her frazzled outline temporarily obscured by the flash of cars whizzing by on a highway. Desperate for help, she flags down a car that just happens to be Hammer’s, and the dark odyssey begins, complete with flirty/predatory/expository/cryptic dialogue.
Christina Bailey: You have only one real lasting love.
Mike Hammer: Now who could that be?
Christina Bailey: 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.
Talk about in medias res: if you don’t know the source material or the plot of Kiss Me Deadly, you don’t know who this woman is, or who Hammer is, or where you are, or what’s at stake, or whether you’re watching a mystery or a horror movie. (The only recent American film I’ve seen with such a disorienting beginning is Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, which plunges the viewer into an opening nightclub raid before it has even revealed the heroes’ first names.) Shockingly but appropriately, Christina’s predictably ugly fate doesn’t jump-start Hammer’s moral awakening, as it would in almost any other private eye film; it just hips Hammer to a shot at making a lot of dough by tracking down the movie’s MacGuffin, a mysterious substance/ device/ something-or-other. “An ordinary little girl gets killed and it rings bells all the way to Washington,” Hammer muses, intrigued that Christina’s death drew government attention. “There’s gotta be a pitch… I picked up a girl. If she hadn’t gotten in my way, I wouldn’t have stopped. She must be connected with somethin’ big.”
The exact nature and purpose of “the Great Whatsit” is never satisfactorily explained, but its eventual appearance—accompanied by one of the greatest and most lovingly imitated Pandora’s Box images in film history (see the title object in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and the alien remains in Repo Man, which also apes Aldrich’s backwards credits)—makes for a perfect ending. Much has been made of the film’s supposed pretensions to Cold War allegory and its poetic allusion to death by nuclear hellfire; the Whatsit contains radioactive material, and the gigantic explosion that stops, rather than traditionally ends, the movie is shaped vaguely like a mushroom cloud. (There’s been some critical confusion over whether Hammer and Velda survive, thanks to a discrepancy in shot sequence between 35mm and 16mm prints of the movie—for details, see Alain Silver’s indispensible article, “So What’s With the Ending of Kiss Me Deadly?”—but in both versions, Aldrich’s apocalyptic intent is crystal clear.) Nevertheless, there’s more going on here than ripped-from-the-headlines fantasy. Beyond a pulp meditation on what it means to give humankind the capacity to exterminate itself (a theme he would revisit in 1977’s underrated Twilight’s Last Gleaming), Kiss Me Deadly is a generalized statement on the fragility of intellectual and philosophical structures that keep society from collapsing. In his typically backwards-ass and thus strikingly original way, Aldrich confirms the function and necessity of morality by showing us a Hobbesean universe without it.
In this sense, Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly ups Spillane’s ante and calls his bluff, foregrounding noir’s base appeal—the sexiness of being bad, of doing what you want and not giving a damn—and then shocks us to our senses by showing us what a world comprised of nothing but dark identification figures would look like. Aldrich’s universe is as foul as its protagonist; it could be snuffed like a candle without the rest of the universe caring, or even noticing. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” boasts a more sympathetic hero than Hammer, but the song’s final few lines could be his epitaph: “Nothing really matters/Anyone can see/Nothing really matters/Nothing really matters to me.”