Day Five: Squeezing Out the Pulp - Kiss Me Deadly, and the Bitter End
Film Noir is no stranger to paranoia. Sure, the visceral imagery and nefarious tough guys on the big screen are something to be feared, but great film noir teaches us that it’s the stuff that we can’t see, the things lurking right around the corner, that are truly the most terrifying.
Robert Aldrich’s 1955 classic, Kiss Me Deadly, arrived at a time when the Hollywood Blacklist was at it’s pinnacle and Senator Joseph McCarthy wasn’t just a household name; it was a name that summoned trepidation behind the scenes of every production in American cinema. In the onset of the Cold War era, it wasn’t terrorist leaders or undercover agents that were given the dreaded label of “communist”, but screenwriters, directors, poets, actors, composers and producers. Standing up in the name of art was the kiss of death, so to speak.
It is this paranoia, this fear of the unknown, that propels Ralph Meeker’s savage anti-hero Mike Hammer through the final half hour of this film. We’ve spent the first hour reveling in the escalation of Hammer’s braggadocio and flagrant disregard for his own well being, all in pursuit of a bag with incomprehensible cargo (a concept that Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction borrowed, glowing contents and all). Mike’s exploits are pretty standard fare for film noir at this point. The ladies want him and men have been cursing his name in the darkest alleyways of Los Angeles.
It’s when Mike finally gets a taste of what he’s been chasing that the film takes a drastic and unforeseeable turn, leaving us with no option but to ride it out, even if we might not like what we see. The words “Manhattan Project”, “Los Alamos” and “Trinity” are all that Hammer needs to hear before he becomes swallowed with terror, and for the first time in the film, concern. This was an altogether familiar fear in a world where the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse was an alarmingly real one.
Suddenly, our hero is gripped with the urgency of his worst nightmares, and a pressing desire to rescue his main squeeze, Velda, (the captivating Maxine Cooper) from certain peril. In the closing sequence, we see the traitorous Gabrielle (Gaby Rogers) killed by her own curiosity, her desire to peer into the unknown ultimately becoming the catalyst for her demise. Mike and Velda escape onto the beach, with the waves of the Pacific crashing against their backs as the house that they were trapped in is leveled to cataclysmic smithereens. For decades after its release, the film’s original ending had been removed, doing away with Mike and Velda’s escape scenes, and leaving the viewer to believe that the things that we’ve been chasing may be the death of us after all.