Film noir filled a void left by the horror movies of the previous decade during the post-War years. By then the Universal Monsters were pale shadows of their former selves, being paired against each other like they were carnival wrestlers.* The old monsters must have seemed quaint in the wake of the death camps, the Baatan Death March, Iwo-Jima, and the atom bomb. These were the real horrors in the world and the old fang and claw just didn't cut it anymore. Noir, on the other hand, seems like the ideal horror idiom for the post-War era. There's a profound sense of personal annihilation in most of these movies, which is appropriate in a world where the horrors have become so large that they dwarf most human concerns. There's a line at the end of Jim Thompson's Nothing More Than Murder that seems to sum this up perfectly:
"They can't kill me. I'm already dead. I've been dead a long time."
Hence, you have noir anti-heroes like Jeff Baily in Out of the Past and Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard's Joe Gillis charting a steep downward spiral into the grave. Hell, Joe Gillis even tells his story from beyond the grave.
But film noir wasn't the only genre of film filling the void left by the horror movie. Science fiction had also entered the fray, and science fiction addressed the horrors of the post-War world more expansively in apocalyptic visions like the ruined cities of The War of the Worlds and the soulless pods of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A lot of the concerns of film noir and science fiction intersect, and so, too, do the genres themselves in Robert Aldrich's profoundly disillusioned adaptation of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me, Deadly from 1956, a film that marks the beginning of the end for the classic film noir era.
Kiss Me, Deadly is a strange conglomeration of talent. It's a movie based on Mickey Spillane, that most right wing of popular authors during the 1950s, made by people who absolutely hated Spillane. The sentiment was reciprocated. Spillane didn't much like Kiss Me, Deadly. In fact, he so disliked Kiss Me, Deadly's depiction of Mike Hammer, he cast himself as the character in The Girl Hunters to show filmmakers how it SHOULD be done. On the one hand, he had a point. Kiss Me, Deadly bears only a cursory resemblance to his book. On the other, though, he doesn't have a leg to stand on because the Mike Hammer one finds in Kiss Me, Deadly is brutal, cynical, paranoid, and ignoble, kind of a sleazeball actually, just as he is on the pages of the books themselves. Hardcore fans of Spillane have long regarded Ralph Meeker's portrayal as being the closest to the hard-drinking two-fisted character they admire. The movie was written by A. I. Bezzerides, a writer who could hardly be called a conservative (his novel and screenplay for Thieves Highway is almost socialist). Aldrich himself had trouble from HUAC for his politics, even though he was never a victim of the blacklist per se. This conflict between the politics of its source material and the politics of its filmmakers creates an interesting tension in Kiss Me, Deadly, in which the world is topsy turvy. The film's ending departs radically from the source material. In the novel, the "Great Whatzit" is a bag of narcotics. In the movie, it's a device that promises universal annihilation.
Visually, this is a movie of many moods. It starts out in the deep shadows of film noir, on a lonely highway in the dead of night. It moves to the sun-splashed banality of the streets of Los Angeles. And then to the modernist interiors of mid-century chic. Aldrich is very creative with his shot compositions, in spite of the film's dominant blank facade. Mike Hammer's office is a chaos of rectilinear design and some of the shots there could have been designed by Piet Mondrian. Hammer in his element is rigidly square and bounded by rigidly square shapes. But when he thinks of Christina, the woman whose death kicks off the plot, who implores Hammer to "Remember Me," the movie rotates the squares and the shots become dominated by diagonals. She knocks Hammer off his axis. The movie punctuates this with an X marks the spot flourish when Hammer discovers the book of poems by Christina Rossetti, which is sitting under a piece of art on which is emblazoned a white X, in stark contrast to the black X Christina herself made in Hammer's headlights.**
Hammer's character arc is essentially a quest for redemption, even if the character himself doesn't seem to know it. Christina is kind of a representative of liberalism, who loves poetry. Her insertion into Hammer's narrative of fast cars and fast women and proto-fascist politics gnaws at him. Her death causes him to question his assumptions about the world. At first, he follows her thread because he thinks there's a payoff at the end of it. When the full horror of her situation manifests itself and when the world quite literally explodes, though, Hammer abandons greed and ideology and clings to the one thing in the world that he loves: his secretary, Velda. The filmmakers may not have liked Hammer, but they grant him this small moment of grace.
This version of Hammer is very much of a piece with Aldrich's other anti-heroes. Like Paul Crew in The Longest Yard or Joe Costa in Attack! or Ben Train and Joe Erin in Vera Cruz, Hammer chafes at authority, spits in the eye of "The System," and gets crushed by it in the end. This is the living end of Chandler's vision of the private detective as knight errant, where a determined individual could put a halt to the evil that men do. Aldrich's Hammer has no such effect. "The System" such as it is has become too big for just one man to take on. The world of Kiss Me, Deadly is paranoid, in which vast movements--the seekers of this film's "Great Whatzit" are presumably agents of an unnamed enemy power--dwarf the individual. In some respects, Kiss Me, Deadly is prototypical of the James Bond films, in which a world-devouring "Great Whatzit" is often the MacGuffin and in which great powers use hard men as proxies in some greater game. The connection to Bond is evident in the way this movie's main villain is usually filmed: you never see his face; you only hear his voice; he's elided in much the same way that the early Bond films elide Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
This film's Great Whatzit has been copied by so many other movies that I don't even need to list them. For the most part, it's a more elaborate version of The Maltese Falcon and doesn't actually have any value apart from the fact that it drives the plot. It very well could have been a sack of narcotics for all the difference it would make on the film's first two acts. At the end of the film, however, the nature of the Great Whatzit matters quite a bit: first, because it escalates the stakes of Hammer's quest, and, second, because it becomes not a stand in for the stuff that dreams are made of so much as it becomes the very avatar of the post-war nightmare. The suitcase in Kiss Me, Deadly is the same kind of boogeyman one finds in the big bug movies: it's a thing that reduces human concerns to less than the scale of ants. It's the djinn who won't go back into the bottle. It's a device that translates noir's usual personal annihilation into a universal apocalypse. This would be bitter enough, but Aldrich rubs salt into the wound. The world The Great Whatzit would destroy apparently deserves to be destroyed. Hammer's values are driven by greed and he'll do anything to sate his greed. The plot of the movie takes Hammer to the good life his greed might eventually provide. He walks among the mansions of Beverly Hills and along the poolside with the rich and famous and this milieu is utterly bereft of human feeling. The sex offered to Hammer here is perfunctory and predatory. The culture is gin rummy on the deck. This is the flipside of the American Dream of the 1950s: corruption at every level and utter banality amid splendor. This is a world that has no use for beauty. Art--such as the paintings that festoon Hammer's own office--exists to match the decor rather than as something to enrich. Christina represents a humanist culture that is destroyed by the relentless march of affluence. As the treacherous Lily Carver is incinerated when she opens the Great Whatzit, it's almost like it's a cleansing flame has been loosed upon the world.
*It should be noted that the essential horror movies of the forties were already shading into a film noir idiom, with the Val Lewton unit at RKO poaching one of noir writer Cornell Woolrich's "black" novels for The Leopard Man and with Lewton's The Seventh Victim prefiguring noir's dark descent.
**C. Jerry Kutner over at Bright Lights After Dark posted a thorough catalog of Kiss Me, Deadly's use of "X" shapes last week, so this has been on my mind. Highly recommended.