For spectators who grew up during the postwar period and its aftermath, there existed an internalized movie whose characters circled warily around each other in a world of night clubs and truck stops, a backlit theater of memory where women’s faces disappeared in cigarette smoke and the world was erased by the blare of rumba bands. All men were named Steve and hadn’t shaved in three days, had been wounded in battle or betrayed in the bedroom, stopped off for coffee but couldn’t get that tune out of their heads, had been out of work since they got back from the war, took no satisfaction in anything but a grim, worn-out lucidity of purpose. The women were isolated, cynical, haunting, ruthless, frightened, doomed. Their intentions were crucial but definitively illegible. The rest of the world—cops, soda jerks, small-time hoods and con artists, rubes on the town flashing their wads, hatcheck girls dreaming of movie careers, cunning drunkards, eccentric night clerks—didn’t care anyway. The el rumbled by, indifferent to the lovers dying in its shadow.
As the Forties turned into the Fifties the smoke thinned out, the dense shadows got flatter and the camera setups more rigidly boxlike, the period slang and juicy poeticisms gave way to a more rudimentary Basic English (“Sergeant! Come here!”), the war vets and private eyes became cops and federal agents, the racketeers metamorphosed at times into Red agents, and the femmes fatales in the center of the frame withdrew, diminished, to its margins. Suddenly it was 1958, and the haunting movie of one’s dreams had become a television show, Dragnet or M Squad or 77 Sunset Strip, its central characters reduced to third-generation photocopies of the original mythic presences.
But the miracle of media culture is that nothing goes away. The movies—by now filed under the rubric film noir simply because a French critic was the first to take note of their common traits—were there to be rediscovered, and those of us born a little too late to have seen them the first time around experienced a sort of tribal rite of rebirth by steeping ourselves in Out of the Past and Criss Cross, Detour and The Lady from Shanghai, Force of Evil and They Live By Night. Not only were these our genuine classical heritage, the late-model, gum-chewing equivalents of The Revenger’s Tragedy or Un Ballo in Maschera, but they were new enough not have cooled off yet: here was the authentic poetry of a culture we still, just barely, inhabited. There was an energy in the movies that could still be appropriated.
In subsequent decades it certainly has been appropriated on a grand scale, fomenting an endless round of increasingly hackneyed remakes, spinoffs, homages, and retro modishness, and the wholesale plundering of stock characters and plot devices by everyone from student film makers to writers of the most abstruse metafiction—not to mention the mass production of academic books and articles on the significance of film noir. As the original period recedes, the fixation on its products seems less a matter of style or meaning than of the fetishizing of a particular moment in time. For whatever reason, the trappings of 1947 coalesce into a language of desire.
Media technology feeds the impulse by making it possible to resurrect a lost year to one’s exact specifications, selecting precisely the recorded music and filmed images that fit the fantasy. The past is culled, re-edited, and intensified to produce an alternate and more satisfying version. This uncanny survival after death informs any art to a degree. Before photography, when painting was still perceived as a recording device, the ruffles and antiquated hairstyles of a seventeenth-century painting—coupled with the almost tangible presence of the long dead model—doubtless exerted the same kind of haunted fascination, the beckoning presence of the vanished. Recent technology merely fine-tunes the illusion.
Perhaps out of a need to counteract the irrational power exerted by old movies, film critics and historians prefer to peg their assessments on something more solid and demonstrable than nostalgia and personal obsessions. For the chroniclers who have set about pigeonholing these movies of the late Forties and early Fifties, the films acquire significance essentially from their connection to a larger historical narrative. This anchors them to something that really happened; it also supposes that by watching the movies the film student gains privileged insights into the era when it was made. But a glance at some of the standard accounts indicates the peril of projecting movies back onto history: the past itself becomes a movie.
Film noir, we read, flourished in an era of “millions of disillusioned soldiers returning home with a harsher view of life, coupled with the new apocalyptic presence of the atom bomb” (Scott and Barbara Siegel, The Encyclopedia of Hollywood1 ); the films “carried postwar American pessimism to the point of nihilism by assuming the absolute and irredeemable corruption of society and of everyone in it” and “held up a dark mirror to postwar America and reflected its moral anarchy” (David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film2 ); they created an atmosphere of “tense nervousness” and focused on “cynical, disillusioned, and often insecure loners” (Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia3 ) or on “central figures…filled with existential bitterness,” constituting “a true cultural reflection of the mental dysfunction of a nation in uncertain transition” (Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style4 ).
Disillusionment, apocalypse, pessimism, nihilism, corruption, nervousness, bitterness, dysfunction: Are these really what most viewers of these movies have experienced, either in the 1940s or since? Even with the most luridly perverse and pessimistic melodramas—Out of the Past, Criss Cross, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers—it may well be asked whether spectators were any more devastated by the destinies of the doomed lovers and killers than viewers of Knots Landing or Dallas. They had come to the movies for excitement, and were more likely to be entertained than crushed by the spectacle of a comfortably vicarious emotional showdown. In the world of film noir, words like “dark” or “empty” or “desperate” refer not to real-life experiences but to movie experiences: they describe certain sub-varieties of spectatorial thrill. The movies’ actual effects might more accurately be described in terms of exhilaration, gaudy invention, tight and jaunty choreography, cocky self-assurance. They practice an aesthetic of flamboyant exhibition, reveling in exuberant sexuality and hip self-parody.
Noir might more realistically be considered not so much a “universe” or a “sensibility”—and certainly not the “movement” that one writer calls it—as a particular sheen, a slick new variety of packaging, faddish at the time and subsequently much prized by connoisseurs: a nexus of fashions in hair, fashions in lighting, fashions in interior decoration, fashions in repartee, fashions in motivation. What late-coming aficionados prize are the incidental graces that conclusively date the piece: the distinctive patinas achieved by cinematographers like Nicholas Musuraca, Joe MacDonald, John Alton, George Diskant; the theremin wails and minor chords of a Miklos Rozsa score; cameos by Elisha Cook, Jr., or Gloria Grahame.
And then there is the dialogue, a free-floating anthology of stylized vernacular, most of it still waiting to be transcribed. A crook’s moll, alluding to the clutter of perfume bottles on her dressing table: “I like to stink myself up.” A small-time gangster asserting himself in the face of imminent catastrophe: “I’m no soda jerker! I’m not one of these broken-backed dummies that come into your soda store!” Another moll, asked where she’s heading: “As far as twenty bucks and a mink coat’ll take me.”
It all came about for dozens of different reasons: because Orson Welles had made Citizen Kane and opened up a whole new box of optical toys; because in Double Indemnity Billy Wilder had demonstrated how a whiff of illicit sex could rejuvenate the ailing murder mystery, hooking the audience from the moment Fred MacMurray watched Barbara Stanwyck walk downstairs and fixated on “the way that anklet of hers cut into her leg”; because of the steady popularity of writers like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich; because wartime restrictions on setbuilding made it imperative to get maximum mileage out of lighting and composition (Welles had already pointed the way with his nonexistent set for the main living room of Xanadu); because a host of European exiles with a flair for post-UFA stylistics had settled in Hollywood; because the kids who grew up on Charlie Chan and the Falcon had come of age and craved a slightly more adult version of the same brand of excitement; because successful movies engender imitations.
It was always a hybrid: the point was to get the best package by mixing together the selling points of as many genres as possible, Warner Brothers gangster movies and Universal horror movies, Eric Ambler-style foreign intrigue, femme fatale melodramas from Rain to The Letter, sophisticated whodunits, Gothic shockers, hardboiled private eye capers. The most characteristic effects often rely on the unexpected commingling of disparate elements: Lauren Bacall making a wisescrack about Proust; a murderous gangster terrified of catching a cold; Rita Hayworth hiding out at the Chinese opera; a criminal on the lam talking philosophy with a derelict rummie. The fundamental disparity is between rawness of subject matter (murder, torture, corruption, madness, urban decay) and beauty of presentation (the sculpted lighting, balletic tracking shots, and rich symphonic schmaltz). The archetypal film noir resembles a Walker Evans-Flo Ziegfeld coproduction of a Philip Marlowe mystery, or Dick Tracy rewritten by Clifford Odets and directed by the ghost of F.W. Murnau.
If the movies will never again exercise quite the same power, it’s because they have been torn from their original ritual context, like a fresco severed from a church wall. Movies, for those most entranced by them, were once initiatory rites which could be undergone only at unpredictable intervals: visions emerging out of darkness and then sinking, perhaps irretrievably, back into it. We waited for the chance to see certain rare movies like astronomers waiting for unusual planetary conjunctions. There was no telling where they might show up—at the Cinemathèque Française or for one day only at Dan Talbot’s New Yorker on the Upper West Side, badly dubbed on the Times Square grind circuit or chopped up but still recognizable on an early-morning TV show called Dialing for Dollars, which consisted of old B-pictures interspersed with a phone-in quiz show hosted by Rosemary De Camp. You might walk into a makeshift theater in Guayaquil and there it would be: the Alexander Korda movie for which you had been waiting half a lifetime, materializing with Grail-like insistence. Inevitably, the movie took on the weight of the years invested in the quest for it.
Video has changed all that. I recently watched back-to-back an assortment of old movies which it might formerly have taken a decade or more to track down. As reels of film they were elusive treasures; as videocassettes they are mass-produced pellets of software tossed into a bin along with a thousand others. In an effort to bring in new customers, the distributor lays on a bit of tired ballyhoo: “It was a time when men were men and women were dames!” But presumably most of the buyers either know them or know of them: a nostalgia crowd, analogous to the markets to which reissues of Alice Faye musicals or Perils of the Darkest Jungle or episodes of Car 54, Where Are You? are directed. On Dangerous Ground may not equal the unit sales of Robocop 2, but the overhead is low. You have to wonder how much interest future generations will have in such items. What use if any will the denizens of the midtwenty-first century, in their altered landscape, have for Alice Faye, or Humphrey Bogart, or Orson Welles? Or will all that tape ultimately be recycled to inscribe spectacles yet unfilmed, like the classical parchments from which Sapphic odes were scraped to make way for the homiletics of Saint Jerome?
Here, at any rate, before the twentieth century passes from memory altogether, are some of the recent excavations. Most of them are derived from masters of better quality than the prints that tend to show up in revival houses: one of the accidental side benefits of video is that the software moguls who own the film libraries are obliged to protect their investment.
- The Seventh Victim (directed by Mark Robson, 1943). The slow-paced, somberly lit, self-consciously literary horror movies that Val Lewton produced for RKO in the early 1940s—Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Isle of the Dead—already have the fully developed noir look. Of these, The Seventh Victim, an ultimately unsupernatural take on a band of Aleister Crowley-ish occultists, interwoven with motifs of suicide, sexual perversity, and West Village bohemian life, is especially fascinating. The interconnections among modernist art, psychoanalysis, and a sophisticated diabolism are typical of the period. An air of oppressively deliberate artistry—Lewton’s trademark blend of refined chiaroscuro, compositions crammed with detail, and sinuous camera movements—signals lurking evil. The frame itself becomes an exotic carnivorous flower about to swallow the spectator.
- The Dark Mirror (directed by Robert Siodmak, 1946). The secret of 1940s melodrama was to look lifelike and behave like a dream. If one side of noir wants to be real, even neoreal in the Italian manner (Crossfire, Boomerang!, Cry of the City), it is held in check by the oneiric side which triumphs in The Dark Mirror. Here the viewer can savor the harmless but alluring terrors of a dream world that comes complete with settees, alcoves, silent elevators, and a newsstand in the lobby. It is difficult now to be frightened by a movie where two Olivia de Havillands share the same frame much of the time, and where both fall madly in love with Lew Ayres as a neighboring psychologist who has (by sheer coincidence) devoted his life to the study of identical twins. But the texture triumphs, partly because Robert Siodmak’s direction imparts an appropriately somnambulistic tone to the proceedings. Every production detail conspires to seal the movie off from any known world: as Thomas Mitchell confesses that “it don’t make more sense than Chinese music to me,” Dimitri Tiomkin’s score obligingly chimes in with shimmering Chinoiseries.
Desperate (directed by Anthony Mann, 1947). At the opposite extreme from The Dark Mirror, Desperate gets its whole impact from the idea that something like this is probably happening out there right now. An honest trucker—“he needs the dough, he’s just out of the army with a wife on his hands”—fights back against a gang of criminals: the infinitely recyclable plot would have been equally at home in 1932 or 1978, here it gets the 1947 heavy-shadow treatment, typified by a visually startling episode where the hero (the believably unglamourous Steve Brodie) gets beaten up in a room lit only by a wildly swinging bare lightbulb. This is B-movie as country-and-western ballad, seventy-three minutes of total involvement followed by oblivion: except for one’s lingering uneasiness about unlit corners and warehouses near the river.
The Street With No Name (directed by William Keighley, 1948). The attention to technical detail in World War Two training and propaganda films perpetuated itself after the war in a series of pseudo-documentary crime films (T-Men, Boomerang!, Call Northside 777). The military atmosphere is heightened in this FBI tale by an introductory message from J. Edgar Hoover (“The street on which crime flourishes is the street extending across America…. Whenever law and order break down, there you will find public indifference”) and by blasts of martial music accompanying scenes of FBI workers making scientific comparisons of barrel markings. But when the film cuts back to “the street with no name,” the cinematographer, Joe MacDonald, revels in vistas of bus depots, penny arcades, cheap rooming houses, and pool halls set against a soundtrack of blaring Dixieland. This dreamscape of vice is the American cinematic paradise, a visual and aural carnival appropriate to the gang leader played by Richard Widmark in high psychotic gear. (Terrified of catching a cold, he’s addicted to nasal spray, and when his wife opens a window he screams: “You open that window again I’ll throw you out of it!”)
Road House (directed by Jean Negulesco, 1948). Road House would have been the perfect date movie for young people who had outgrown Love Finds Andy Hardy and A Date with Judy and craved a sophisticated, sexually charged cinema demonstrating new styles in courtship rituals, along with up-to-date vernacular, smokefilled cocktail lounges, and an array of slick clothes. It’s a triumph of marketing strategy: a tough but romantic story with a strong female lead (Ida Lupino), two strong male leads (Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark), glamour, fistfights, a love triangle, psychosis, cops, songs, and a halfway happy ending, all drenched in the burnished, multilayered cinematography of Joseph LaShelle (Laura, Fallen Angel, Hangover Square). What makes it different is Ida Lupino’s incarnation of the torch singer Lily: a singular instance of Hollywood trying to imagine an autonomous adult woman. The limits of Forties screen maturity are reached as she murmurs smokily to Cornel Wilde after their first kiss: “We’re not kidding ourselves anymore, are we?”
Follow Me-Quietly (directed by Richard Fleischer, 1949). There’s a message picture hidden inside this fifty-nine-minute thriller about a serial murderer. The detective hero blames the crimes on their depiction in pulp crime magazines: “How the Judge kills and why—what it feels like to be a killer—spicy, isn’t it? Just think of all the gory pictures you can use for illustrations…. Polluting minds until some poor dope gets a crazy idea and goes on a homicidal holiday!” This line of thought gets quite near the bone, although the hero doesn’t include violent B-movies in his diatribe. As it is, the pallid polemics don’t interfere with the bracing virtues of Follow Me Quietly, a throwaway artifact swarming with the gratuitous pleasures of visual storytelling.
Caught (directed by Max Ophuls, 1949). Leaving Orson Welles to one side, this is perhaps the most visually spectacular movie of the period, with the enveloping sense of space that Ophuls created out of insistently gliding, retreating, corkscrewing camera movements, constant changes of scale, densely choreographed groupings. The world of money and power in which the naive Barbara Bel Geddes is caught becomes indistinguishable from the coordinates of the stylized screen space that enmeshes her. The noir element is concentrated on the figure of Smith Ohlrig, a manipulative, woman-hating millionaire modeled on Howard Hughes (on whom Ophuls sought revenge after being unceremoniously fired from the ill-fated Vendetta). Robert Ryan’s tortured performance of Ohlrig is frighteningly credible, from his taunting relationship with his psychoanalyst to the threat he murmurs to Bel Geddes: “I think I want to destroy you.” Censorship prevents the script from following through to its logical murderous conclusion, but despite the hurried wrapup Caught is mesmerizing in its orchestration of nuances. For Ophuls the glossily seductive texture perfected in 1940s Hollywood was not an obstacle but the perfect raw material for an art of surfaces.
Gun Crazy (directed by Joseph H. Lewis, 1950). A relentless little melodrama—the cinematic equivalent of juke-joint music—which marks a turning point: unlike earlier noir movies, no matter how serious their flirtations with alienation and rebellion, this one actually seems to operate outside the system. The spectator is positively forced to identify with the gunobsessed lovers who drive (literally, in a movie where every other scene takes place in a car) into a career of robbery and murder. There’s no comfortable way out; Peggy Cummins is a compulsive killer but she can’t really help herself, and she does sincerely love the essentially benign but all too malleable John Dall. His performance reaches a pathetic crescendo when he asks her: “Why do you do it? Why do you have to murder people? Why can’t you let them live?” He forgives her immediately after she replies, “Because I love you,” and soon they are dancing to the strains of “Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside.” The violence for which Gun Crazy is celebrated actually only occupies a few seconds of screen time. This disturbingly tender movie spends much more time on passionate embraces and half-hearted regrets: “Everything’s going so fast, it’s all in such high gear…. It’s as if none of it really happened, as if nothing were real anymore.”
Panic in the Streets (directed by Elia Kazan, 1950). An illegal immigrant brings bubonic plague to New Orleans, and epidemiologist Richard Widmark has to fight bureaucratic complacency and underworld evasiveness to prevent disaster. Generically the picture belongs to the lineage of socially conscious noir items like Body and Soul and Force of Evil, but in the McCarthy era the political intention becomes more elusive. Likewise the ostensibly documentary approach veers into something more dreamlike. When American film makers tried to emulate Italian neorealism, they ended up making poverty look gaudily exotic. Here, in the first flush of all-out location shooting, the movie’s star is New Orleans, but the cinematographer, Joe MacDonald, manages to turn its waterfront and back alleys into a fantastic set. The theatricality of the atmosphere is heightened by some outsized performances from Jack Palance and Zero Mostel. Panic in the Streets creates an imaginary environment whose fascination is only tenuously linked to the script’s civic concerns.
The Underworld Story (directed by Cy Endfield, 1950). If Follow Me Quietly is a B-melodrama pretending to be a serious message picture, The Underworld Story is the reverse, adopting the outward characteristics of the gangster movie to send out an urgent communiqué. The American career of the talented South African director Cy Endfield would be terminated shortly afterward by the blacklist. Until this video release, the picture has been virtually unknown. It has a kind of Jacobean wildness to its plot twists, and some acting that borders on the hysterical. The venomously resentful son of a newspaper magnate murders his wife and frames her black housekeeper for the crime, and the cynical but deep-down-heroic reporter (Dan Duryea) who tries to expose the truth gets the treatment from defensive elitists, racist pressure groups, and hired gangsters. The dialogue is rich in coded political statements: “Lakeville…. One of those ivy-covered towns, shiny on top. You know what’s underneath ivy, Mike? Little crawling things.” “Looks like they’re burnin’ witches again.” “When times change, the smart men change with them.” “Don’t you think your phone is being tapped just like everyone else’s around here?”
Try and Get Me (directed by Cy Endfield, 1951). A good-natured but not too bright out-of-work truck driver (Frank Lovejoy) kills some time in a bowling alley and meets an affable guy with a taste for loud clothes (Lloyd Bridges). The process by which this chance encounter turns into a spree of robbery, kidnap, and murder is observed with pitiless exactitude. Ultimately the picture becomes a tract against lynching, but its real interest resides in the relationship between the two men, and particularly in the Woyzeck-like dependence of the hapless character portrayed by Lovejoy (otherwise the most inexpressive of actors). There is a truly painful scene in which he realizes the enormity of what he’s done and just falls apart on screen. Endfield’s last American movie is forceful, bitter, and evidently designed to be as unpalatable as possible. When, at the end, the mob sets the jailhouse on fire it’s almost a relief.
The Narrow Margin (directed by Richard Fleischer, 1952). This kind of suspense exercise, complete with nifty plot twist, would eventually fuel Alfred Hitchcock Presents and other late-1950s television series. The noir elements are incidental and by now almost parodistic. Charles McGraw describes Marie Windsor as “a dish….60-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.” Audiences apparently still got a charge from the mere existence of B-girls and gangsters (particularly the modern kind who looked like tastefully attired business executives), but crime thrillers were becoming B-movies again. Rapid, concise, and beautifully photographed, The Narrow Margin is an exercise in craft with few reverberations beyond the fascination of its technological exactness.
On Dangerous Ground (directed by Nicholas Ray, 1952). The opening reels—detailing the crack-up of Robert Ryan, a hardboiled cop who’s seen too many “crooks, murderers, winos, stoolies, dames, all with an angle”—consists of night-time scenes filmed in tight close-up, and building a thoroughly somber atmosphere before exploding into brutality, as Ryan beats a suspect while screaming: “Why do you make me do it?” (As in Caught, Ryan’s aura of incipient violence is all too convincing.) Then his superior officer sends him—by way of exile—to deal with an upstate murder case, and the picture changes gear. The snowy landscapes (beautifully bleak in George Diskant’s cinematography) and the mournful harmonics of Bernard Herrmann’s score make explicit the artistic ambitions of director Nicholas Ray and the producer, John Houseman. The plot begins to turn into a story of Ryan’s redemption through the love of a blind recluse (Ida Lupino). Considering the talents of all involved, it ought to be a masterpiece; but genre takes its revenge, and the picture’s rhythm never recovers from the unanticipated quiescence of the rural milieu. On Dangerous Ground remains a wonderful idea for a movie that doesn’t quite exist.
Pickup on South Street (directed by Samuel Fuller, 1953). When Richard Widmark picks Jean Peters’s purse on the subway, he doesn’t realize she’s an unwitting Communist courier carrying microfilmed secrets. The Feds track him down and try to get the film out of him: “If you refuse to cooperate you’ll be as guilty as the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb!” But Widmark, an antisocial hipster with a nice taste in clothes, isn’t buying: “You gonna go patriotic on me?” Curiously, Pickup is far from being the exercise in cold war paranoia that its subject augurs. The script has all the elements of political allegory except a decipherable political meaning, while the tone suggests a raffish, Damon Runyonesque comedy interspersed with brutal beatings. Joe MacDonald’s location shooting around the New York waterfront is so spirited that at moments you expect the assorted crooks, informers, spies, and undercover cops to break into a dance number. The moments that linger, however, are unexpectedly mournful and severe: the offscreen murder of Thelma Ritter, or an overhead shot of a tugboat loaded with coffins destined for Potter’s Field. It took a director with Samuel Fuller’s oblique angle of approach to find a vein of poetic anarchism in the conformist heart of the 1950s police-procedural melodrama.
Human Desire (directed by Fritz Lang, 1954). The Femme fatale returns here as a disgruntled housewife married to a brutish railroad foreman, in a low-budget, bowdlerized adaptation of Zola’s Le Bête humaine. Fritz Lang almost single-handedly kept the noir style going through the end of the 1950s. Actually he had been making pretty much the same kind of movie since 1919, regardless of how it was marketed. His later efforts such as Human Desire are singular for their refusal to win over the audience or to create sympathy for any of the characters. You may or may not care whether Gloria Grahame breaks free of Broderick Crawford or sleeps with Glenn Ford, but Lang is certainly not tipping the scales. He is too busy turning every camera set-up into an exercise in relentlessly drab geometrics, like a Mondrian under a light dusting of coal soot. The director manages to extract precisely the same numbed unease from a murder, an embrace, or a moment of dead time in which someone looks out the window. Lang did not so much make great movies as make the same great movie over and over, with the methodical determination of someone compelled to reenact a crime; or, perhaps, of a warden keeping his prisoners under close surveillance.
Kiss Me Deadly (directed by Robert Aldrich, 1955). By 1955 it was after the end; as interpreted by Aldrich, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer represents the deformed endproduct of a thousand 1940s tough-guy movies, transformed by now into a leisure-oriented 1950s man more interested in his hi-fi and his sports car than in heroics. His apartment is the ultimate in streamlined 1950s modernity, with black-and-white checkerboard floor patterns and all the fixtures and gadgets of the good life: record player, television set, coffee table, Swedish bookshelves, and a giant answering machine built into the wall. Mike Hammer lolls on a sofa instead of sitting behind a desk, and flashes a feral, self-satisfied grin when a woman tells him: “Bet you do pushups every morning just to keep your belly hard…. You’re the kind of a person who never gives in a relationship, who only takes.”
Kiss Me Deadly turned out to be a look forward rather than back; its discontinuous editing and flat, jazzy cinematography anticipate the futuristic surfaces of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or Godard’s Alphaville a decade later. The film’s visual style—which François Truffaut described at the time as “almost too full, too fertile”—today seems a foretaste of the assaultive overloads and rapid-fire disorientations of TV commercials and music videos. The script participates in the same discontinuity by slapping together abstract art and blue suede shoes, horse racing and Greek mythology, Christina Rossetti, Caruso, and fast cars. Everything is a clue to some ultimate mystery concealed in a little black box. When Hammer opens the box a sliver, he gets an ugly burn mark across his wrist. Finally Mike’s nemesis on the police force cuts through the mystery: “I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words, just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. Manhattan Project. Los Alamos. Trinity.” As an aesthetic manifesto of the 1950s, Aldrich’s film could hardly refrain from sealing its seriousness of intent by playing the atomic card.
The apocalyptic perspective of Kiss Me Deadly—the film ends with a nuclear chain reaction that may prove uncontainable—embodies an attitude of conscious protest quite distinct from the science-fiction films aimed at teen-age audiences that turned nuclear terror into a manageable plot device: Them! (1954), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), or The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1958). Likewise the noir themes of corruption and organized crime would be supplanted by a concern with juvenile violence and identity crisis in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Blackboard Jungle (1955). For the new youthful audiences, the motivations of old-style crime films were as antiquated as their heroes’ wardrobes. If Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly listens to Nat King Cole singing “I’d Rather Have the Blues,” Blackboard Jungle is closer to the mark with “Rock Around the Clock.” The elaboration of baroque plotting and tightly controlled visual architecture that peaked between Citizen Kane and Kiss Me Deadly was to be broken down into a new style: a more direct and unmodulated kind of movie making capable of competing with rock-and-roll.
August 15, 1991