They? A wonderful word. And who are they? They’re the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?
Like those two later films, the lesson that seems to be at the heart of Robert Aldrich’s celebrated noir is that some things shouldn’t be sought after because eventually they will be found.
And that never ends well.
Kiss Me Deadly is ostensibly an adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer private-eye mystery novel of the same name, but so much change was made between the novel and the actual film that screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides once noted “Spillane didn’t like what I did with his book. I ran into him at a restaurant and, boy, he didn’t like me.”
The plot of the film is definitely a twisty (and twisted) one, which begins with Hammer picking up a woman wearing only a raincoat who has run in front of his car on the highway, desperately trying to get a ride. Not long after learning that her name is Christina, Hammer is forced off the road, beaten, shoved back into his car with a now-dead Christina, and the car is subsequently pushed over a cliff. Hammer somehow escapes and awakens to find himself in a hospital.
And things really only go downhill from there.
Kiss Me Deadly is widely considered to be a classic of the film noir genre, and it’s easy to see why. It certainly makes use of the requisite light and shadow that in some ways defines the genre, and heroes don’t come much more luckless than Hammer who is portrayed in a particularly hard-nosed (and even more hard-fisted) manner by Ralph Meeker.
There’s also the presence of a classic McGuffin, or as Hammer’s world-weary secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) describes it in the quote above, “the great whatsit”. In this case, the true nature of the whatsit turns out to be even less defined than usual, as it turns out to be a small briefcase containing… well, the truth is, we’re never actually made privy to what it contains, except that it might be radioactive and may have some relationship to the Manhattan Project (where the nuclear bomb was developed). and that it brings pretty much instantaneous fiery death to anyone who dares to open it.
All of this leads to an ending that, depending on which version you actually see is either depressingly ambiguous or vaguely hopeful. The end of the film was actually changed after its first American release, with scenes which showed Hammer and Velda escaping from the fiery remains of the house where the briefcase has finally been opened excised so that the viewer is actually left with the question of whether they made it out of the house or not. Those scenes were eventually restored when the film was re-released in 1997, but even so, they really only make the finale slightly more hopeful, as befits the film’s noir roots.
Kiss Me Deadly can also be seen, in a way, as a precursor to many films that would come subsequently. Of course, as I noted above, the ambiguous yet fiery nature of the “whatsit” is echoed in films from a much later period, and the essential question of “What’s in the box” which forms the ending of David Fincher’s Seven (or, if you prefer to be pretentious Se7en) is almost a direct echo of the question which forms much of the basis for this film.
What is not ambiguous, however, is that Kiss Me Deadly is definitelt a film worth watching.
Here’s a trailer: