Mike Hammer, Occult Dick:
James J. O'Meara
Kiss Me Deadly as Lovecraftian Tale
Kiss Me Deadly (1955; 106 minutes; Black and White)
Director: Robert Aldrich
Writers: Mickey Spillane (novel), A. I. Bezzerides (screenplay)
Stars: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Gaby Rodgers, Jack Elam, Wesley Addy, Strother Martin, Percy Helton, and introducing Cloris Leachman.
“A crack formed and enlarged, and the whole door gave way — but from the other side; whence poured a howling tumult of ice-cold wind with all the stenches of the bottomless pit, and whence reached a sucking force not of earth or heaven, which, coiling sentiently about the paralysed detective, dragged him through the aperture and down unmeasured spaces filled with whispers and wails, and gusts of mocking laughter.” — H. P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook” (Weird Tales, 1927)
“Soberin and Gabrielle are vying for the contents of the box. Gabrielle shoots Soberin, believing that she can keep the mysterious contents for herself. As she slyly opens the case, it is ultimately revealed to be stolen radionuclide material, which in the final scene apparently reaches explosive criticality when the box is fully opened. Horrifying sounds emit from the nuclear material as Gabrielle and the house burst into flames.” — Wikipedia, Kiss Me Deadly
“The key Mike found led him to something of which he had no comprehension and which will very possibly kill him, and maybe destroy the Earth. He and Gabrielle are caught in a world of meanings that preexist them — culture, science, religion and myth. They proceed as they do in pursuit of something they don’t understand — but think they understand the value others place on it. They are fatally wrong.”
While recently reading Barton St. Armond’s classic article “H. P. Lovecraft: New England Decadent,” I came to the Lovecraft quote above and had an odd thought: I’ve seen this before! Then it hit me: the finest screen adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft occurred already in 1955, and quite unconsciously at that. I suppose that’s the best way, the way it had to be; no bothering with Lovecraft’s purple prose or mythos monsters; just the pure essence of Lovecraftian terror, mixed with a lot of sleaze to keep the marks happy and then sloshed up on the screen. It’s called Kiss Me Deadly.
Here’s a synopsis courtesy of DVD Savant:
Sleazy, cynical detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) makes his living with divorce cases, often unleashing his sexy secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) as an agent provocatrix on straying adulterers. When he picks up naked-under-a-trench coat hitchhiker Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman, in her first movie) and she’s later tortured to death, Hammer decides to ditch the bedroom work and pursue the secret behind the brutality, purely for profit. His government agent friend Pat Chambers (Wesley Addy) warns him off, but Mike slowly pulls the case apart by threatening witnesses and putting Velda and his best buddy Nick (Nick Dennis) in harm’s way. When the secret turns out to be a mysterious box stolen from a government science lab, Hammer finds out too late that he’s latched onto something far too big, and too hot, to handle.
This is a Lovecraft tale? Sound absurd? Can you prove it isn’t? Consider this from the screenwriter: “I wrote it fast because I had contempt for it. It was automatic writing. Things were in the air and I put them in it.”
Not your usual auteur’s claim of authorship. It’s the usual note of contempt of well-paid Hollywood commie hacks for two-fisted American pulp writers, here Mickey Spillane rather than Lovecraft, and with the interesting additional note of surrealist writing techniques. As happens in many a horror tale, you don’t have to believe in the Ouija board to conjure up something ugly “in the air” when you play with it.
Although opening to indifferent business, the film has become a legendary noir, ultimately getting a Criterion Collection release a couple years back. Reading all the commentary and fanboy buzz on the net you can’t get far without hearing about how Aldrich and Bezzerides not only had contempt for the material, but wanted to take down the whole Mike Hammer phenomenon, which they seemed to think spelled either the coming of Fascism or the return of the Stone Age. The message they seemed to want to deliver — best expressed by Fed pal Pat near the beginning — is surprisingly up-to-date: don’t take the law into your own hands, give up your guns, stop listening to conspiracy theories, and trust — but above all, don’t question — the Feds.
But as I’ve said here on Counter-Currents before, the writer who lets his imagination free is not likely to produce something pleasing to the PC crowd.
In the case of this film, by portraying Hammer not as Spillane intended — a somewhat more violent, lower-class but still Marlowe-style knight errant — but rather as a psychopathically violent moron, they produced an astounding sleazy and ultra-violent film that barely escaped the box office poison of a “C for condemned” rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency and was cited as a threat to America at the very same Congressional hearings investigating those damned comic books!
But Hammer is brutish and stubborn, keeping the cops and the feds in the dark even though they keep trying to impress upon him the importance of this case; he doesn’t seem to realize just how far in over his head he is. . . . Hammer’s no hero, and the film’s staggering climax represents his complete failure: his realization of the horrible forces he’s been toying with, followed by a nuclear meltdown from which he barely escapes. And then the film simply ends, with abrupt finality, leaving Hammer as a broken, irrelevant archetype, an out-of-date relic whose time has passed with the relative innocence of the pre-atomic age.
Once compared with what Aldrich & Co. produced, Spillane’s Hammer did indeed seem more like Marlowe or the Thin Man; the self-sabotage is rather like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, where the Jewish and American sadism makes the audience sympathize with the Nazi “villains.” It’s no surprise to recall how Tarantino already ripped off (or “paid homage to”) KMD’s “glowing what’s-it in the suitcase” McGuffin for Pulp Fiction.
Still, I need to answer a number of objections you undoubtedly have. First, you might point out that Lovecraft liked to make his protagonists scholars, however oddball, or professors, scientific explorers, or even just wealthy slackers (“The Hound,” “Pickman’s Model”), not thugs like Hammer. Even the “detective” in the quote above is, rather implausibly, a dandy from Trinity College, Dublin who returns to New York to join the police force and investigate occult matters.
Well, the film picks Hammer up “out of the gutter [he] came from” as the mob boss says (even the mob loathes him; the feds want someone “to open a window” after interrogating him) and tidies him up into “more of a Playboy-inspired dream guy, a proto-James Bond who has to fend off dishy dames with a club.” Not that Mike himself is now an effete snob. As the New York Times says: “Mike himself is a sort of cultural caveman, whom Aldrich pointedly surrounds with high art: modern paintings, 19th-century poetry, radios that invariably pour forth classical music whenever Mike switches one on.”
Like a good post-war consumer, Mike has read all about the “Playboy Philosophy” and has bought all the right toys, from his mid-century modern bachelor pad — complete with wall-mounted, reel-to-reel answering machine — to his brand-new Corvette; the rest of the surrounding, the “culchah” items, are provided by his clients and informants.
After meeting the Rossetti-spouting Christina, he searches her book-lined apartment — casually stealing the book he needs, of course — and finds out that she “always seemed have [the radio] tuned to that station” — the all-Schubert station, apparently — so the next time Mike’s at home needing to do some hard thinking, sure enough he turns on a radio set to the same station, as if Mike usually listens to string quartets rather than bachelor pad exotica (Brooklyn hipsters from the ‘90s would kill for that so-ironic pad, man). During another “think, damn it” session he asks Velda to read out the poem Christina has marked, presumably to allow him to concentrate on this difficult “thinking” business, but it sure seems as if he could be functionally illiterate.
The final clue falls into his hands at a “modern art” gallery, where, archetypically, he gives away his entrance by walking, caveman that he is, right into and smashing a glass end-table. (I’d love to hear that was a goof Aldrich decided to keep in.)
So while Mike isn’t himself an egghead, he is surrounded by cultural references, which actually is what gives the Lovecraft touch.
Like one of Mad’s parodies, the movie unfolds in a deranged cubist space, amid the debris of Western civilization — shards of opera, deserted museums, molls who paraphrase Shakespeare, mad references to Greek mythology and the Old Testament. A nineteenth-century poem furnishes the movie’s major clue.
The movie is filled with cultural references, from Rossetti at the beginning to the pompous, soon to be shut up with a bullet Dr. Soberin at the end.
Dr. Soberin: As the world becomes more primitive, its treasures become more fabulous.
The latter sequence is particularly choice, as Soberin rattles off his culture markers and Lilly, doubling Mike (a point we shall return to), childishly, or barbarically, stubbornly (another key point) ignores his insinuations and insists on knowing — not literary or mythical references, but what’s in the box.
Dr. Soberin: Curiosity killed a cat and it certainly would have you if you’d followed your impulse to open it. You did very well to call me when you did.
Lily: Yes, I know. But what’s in it?
Dr. Soberin: You have been misnamed, Gabrielle [Lily’s real name, also the actress’s name, misnames her?]. You should have been called Pandora. She had a curiosity about a box and opened it and let loose all the evil in the world.
Lily: Never mind about the evil. What’s in it?
Dr. Soberin: Did you ever hear of Lot’s wife?
Lily: No. [WTF never heard of Lot’s wife?]
Dr. Soberin: No. Well, she was told not to look back. But she disobeyed and she was changed into a pillar of salt.
Lily: Well, I just want to know what it is.
Dr. Soberin: The head of Medusa. That’s what’s in the box, and who looks on her will be changed not into stone but into brimstone and ashes. But of course you wouldn’t believe me; you’d have to see for yourself, wouldn’t you?
Perhaps it’s her Damian meets Lolita eroticism, but the filmmakers are again subverted, as the audience is definitely on Lily’s side as she shuts up Soberin — poimanently, ya see? — and opens the damned box. Though not before Soberin delivers his peroration:
Dr. Soberin: Listen to me, as if I were Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of hell. [What, she didn’t get Lot’s wife and she’ll get this?] I will tell you where to take it, but don’t . . . don’t open the box!
Even the film’s Voice of Reason is equally pompous and fragmented — decadent, if you will. When Pat finally tells Mike what’s up, he speaks slowly, as if talking to a dense child, but still can’t really put it together himself, and mumbling disconnected words he hopes will ring a bell with no further effort on his world-weary part:
Lt. Pat Murphy: Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. 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.”
But anyway, rather than a cultured protagonist, the Lovecraftian note here is carried by the presentation of a cultural wasteland, where culture exists only a scattering of dying embers, tossed around without much or any understanding by the Last Men (perhaps, given what happens when the box is opened, literally Last Men). It’s the world Lovecraft believed himself to be condemned to live in, not his (imaginary) Regency past.
That landscape, physically, in terms of shooting locations, is Los Angeles, today [as of 1955]. Surely that can’t be Lovecraftian? Just so, precisely its absence of human culture makes LA the perfect Lovecraftian location. The nighttime scenes are all polished chrome glaring like boiling acid under blinding neon and fluorescent lights (like the box’s contents) while the daytime scenes seem to be filled with grey dust under a pitiless sun that just went nova (foreshadowing the effects of the box’s light).
More importantly, perhaps, many of the exteriors were shot in the Bunker Hill section (an appropriately New English name, don’t you think?) and thus have a more typically Lovecraftian touch of old, ruined neighborhoods. Indeed, shortly after the film was made the whole area was flattened for an “urban renewal” project, making the film, ironically, something of an archaeological record of a now long-vanished, once “modern” area.
And even more importantly, Aldrich, perhaps to show that Mike is “crooked” or “screwed up,” decided to use a number of odd camera angles, not only, say, on the stairs of Lily’s flophouse but even the presumably modern and normal hospital Mike awakens in early in the film.
LA General or Arkham Asylum?
As St. Armand notes,
So many of these skewed structures which we find in Lovecraft . . . with their gambrel roofs and rotten timbers and rooms tilted at crazy or obtuse angles, are, of course, psychic allegories of decadent and tumbled-down minds, twisted to exquisite and picturesque degrees of insanity. . . . Here the dreamland which . . . populates modern Boston with ghouls and living gargoyles is no longer an antiquarian fancy but rather immediately beneath the cellar door or around the nearest corner.
Bunker Hill or Innsmouth?
Then, there’s the violence; sure that’s un-Lovecraft? No one in Lovecraft’s world goes about gathering information like Mike does. He has two methods: if he sees you as a member of the white collar class, a coroner or health club concierge, he’ll peel off some cash to offer what he considers a fair price; should you refuse, or hold out for more, that’s when the finger-breaking starts.
Otherwise, he just jumps right in like a skinhead at a mosh pit, and you’re lucky if he finds it more amusing to snap your rare Caruso 78 in half rather than your spine.
If Batman and the Joker had a love child
Admittedly, this thuggish kind of violence is quite out of Lovecraft’s line — breaking fingers in drawers, dropping a jacked-up car on a hapless sidekick and the like — although remember, he did like Robert Howard’s Conan. More to the point, however, is that the filmmakers have taken a page from the horror genre and realized that it’s often more effective — and less likely to get you into trouble with the censors — and even perhaps more cinematically fun to imply, not show.
Thus, when Christina is tortured to death with some kind of metal-crimping device, we only see her legs squirming as we hear her shrieks. Actually, the shrieks continue after they stop spasming, which is perhaps a mistake but certainly emphasizes the illusory, make-believe nature what we’re seeing; it also suggests the kind of torturous results of the warping of the space/time continuum Lovecraft’s protagonists tend to fall into. Again, we don’t see Nick being crushed beneath the car, nor anything but his arm afterwards.
And in a famous sequence, Mike dispatches a goon by some kind of movie-land “martial arts” trick; it’s shot from below, so we don’t see what he does (Vulcan deathgrip?) and the camera then lingers on Jack Elam’s wonderfully creepy face as he emotes sheer terror/confusion over what he’s seen. Later, his boss is compelled to wonderingly ask Mike “What’d you do to him, anyway? You scared Charlie half to death,” rather like any number of doomed Lovecraftian protagonists.
As the movie nears the end, we see more and more — perhaps the need to keep the pace accelerating prevented Aldrich from using any tricky shots? — such as breaking the coroner’s fingers and bitch-slapping the health club concierge, and, of course, Lily’s iconic immolation, which we’ll devote some space to soon. This is consistent with the notion of the horror tale revealing more and more as the climax approaches. And of course, you can’t blame them for not showing the local, or possibly global, effects of the suitcase; ten years later even Dr. Strangelove only used stock footage of mushroom clouds.
But — but — but– What about the sex? Surely that’s not in Lovecraft. Well, indeed, women are pretty hard to find in Lovecraft, and the only sexual congress seems to be with extra-dimensional monsters (e.g., “The Dunwich Horror”). In the same way, the only sex we find in KMD is implied by the blackmail set-ups Mike sends Velda on. For a supposed swinging bachelor, Mike gets laid about as much as SNL’s Czechoslovakian Brothers. Like the violence, it’s all in the implications.
The Feds tell us he’s a “bedroom dick” (he settles divorce cases through blackmail) and that while Velda handles the men, he handles the women, but we never see or hear of any, and that’s just business anyway. Christina starts off on his bad side by making him wreck his sports car, and she’s soon dead anyway; the mob boss’s sister, a drunk nympho, throws herself on him, but he only uses her to get into the house, then dumps her (“Here’s to friendship” is as far as she gets), while he recognizes Lily is a crazy nymphet not to be touched.
Altogether, Mike, like Lovecraft, is a he-man woman-hater that probably agrees with one of the goons: “Women are worse than flies.”
Speaking of Lily: played with Satanic, screen-melting intensity by Gaby Rogers, she’s a sort of multi-doppelganger. The doomed Christina, nekkid and running barefoot, is the classic movie woman in distress, yet is nevertheless rather masculine, with her short hair and trench coat, the first of many sexually antipathetic roles that Cloris “Frau Blucher” Leachman would play. Lily easily takes over her role (Lily to Christina’s Rossetti obsession) — while pretending to be Christina’s roommate — as Mike’s guide to the underworld (in both senses); when they meet she’s also (presumably) nekkid, under a robe this time, and barefoot; when next they meet she’s be running and screaming like Christina as well. Eventually, Velda will supply her with the nifty black/white Chanel suit that neatly emphasizes her duplicitous nature.
Her trench coat makes her a double for the standard private dick. Her fatal colloquy with Soberin shows her fully in the private dick mode, demanding to know and see.
This girl/boy/woman is not an easy person to live with, as Dr. Soberin and Mike discover. She is, as played by ex-European Gaby Rogers, née Rosenberg (another atomic caper resulting in death by fire), the ultimate Jamesian American Girl:
Daisy Miller’s freedom in the face of European social conventions is of a kind that would make her insufferable in any civilized society. . . . She is utterly uneducated, and no intelligent man could stand her for long since there could be no possible exchange of speech with her; she has nothing to recommend her but looks, money, confidence and clothes.
Gaby has looks and confidence, and clothes courtesy of Velda; when Soberin threatens to cut her out on the money, she responds by pulling out something Leavis and James — and Soberin — didn’t count on: the private dick’s best friend, a roscoe, with predicable — and unpredictable — results.
The mythical elements here are pretty deep or widespread. When, near the beginning of the film, the thug with the pliers asks the jerkass we will come to know near the end as Dr. Soberin whether the now-dead Christina should be tortured some more, Soberin makes some typically pompous and leadenly “amusing” remarks about “that would be resurrection from the dead.” When Mike, who should have died in the car with Christina, is somehow rescued and wakes up in the hospital, he is said to be “back from the dead.” Lily Carver comes back from the dead in the person of Gaby, Mike not knowing till the end that the Feds fished the real Lily out of the river days ago.
Lily/Gaby, Christina’s roommate, thus resurrects both Lily by pretense and Christina by becoming Mike’s new naked in a trench coat partner. Confronting his double, Lily/Gaby at the end is like the confrontation of Lovecraft’s “Outsider” with his mirror image in the eponymous story — Hoberman calls him “a walking corpse”; while Pat the Fed already dismissed him in the third person with “Let him go to hell” — and Mike falls dead (with some help from Gaby’s roscoe, of course).
This is Gaby’s final resurrection, the true resurrection — not the ridiculous reanimated corpse (as Alan Watts called it) of the exoteric Christian (Mike, the “walking corpse” brought “back from the dead”) but St. Paul’s Gnostic idea of the Body of Light, with all its parallels in every esoteric tradition.
The pedantic Soberin — too sober to grasp such super-subtle ideas, unlike the “feline” intuition of Gaby — has been doubly routed. Gaby has answered his question from the beginning of the film — “How do you bring back the dead?” — and proven that she is indeed not “misnamed,” for she has revealed herself not as subhuman — “feline” — but superhuman, a being of light, an angel — Gabriel.
“Hip” film critics love to talk about how Gaby “subverts” the detective genre, and especially the Mike Hammer character—this time, girl shoots boy. Despite the filmmakers, I think what’s actually happening here is that Gaby is redeeming the Mike character. While even the Feds grudgingly admit Mike “can sniff out information like nobody I ever saw” his search for what Velda mocks as “the Great Whatzit” is really motivated by greed, when he suspects the box must be valuable to someone. Gaby’s insistence on knowing what’s in the box, by contrast, is childish but sincere — she only kills Soberin when he reneges on sharing the proceeds, after the long back and forth about Medusa and Co.
But how can Mike be redeemed? The filmmakers, as I’ve noted, want to push the Good Liberal notion of “shut up and trust the government” and so portray Mike as “stubborn” and Gaby as subhuman (Soberin condescends with “You have the feline perceptions that all women have”) rather than inquisitive.
Wesley Addy as Pat the Fed delivers the filmmakers’ contemptuous epitaph – “You’re sooo smaaaart”—with his trademark WASP condescension. He’s kind of a wimpy Al Gore, dealing with a “climate denier” or Ross Perot or George W.; Hoberman say it’s “as though addressing a dumb animal” (as Soberin does Gaby).
But is it fair? Noted Lovecraftian Darrell Schweitzer has come to the defense of the “imbecility of [the typical Lovecraft] protagonist”:
The critic has probably read [“Dreams in the Witch House”] either in a fantasy magazine or a collection of Lovecraft stories. . . . Walter Gilman, on the other hand, is supposed to be living in the “real” world where things like [anthropomorphic rat familiars] are beyond the range of normal experience. Gilman knows that they are impossible. The human mind is a stubborn thing [like Mike!], and when it is convinced of something, it isn’t always dissuaded by mere proof. . . . He does what any normal, sane person would do. . . . Unless all heroes are occult detectives we cannot expect them to readily accept the fact that the laws of existence have been violated.
Mike isn’t “stupid” so much as he’s in over his head. As I’ve pointed out before, Lovecraft’s protagonists aren’t stupid or gullible, but almost always all-too educated, like Dr. Soberin, thus inclined to know, as Schweitzer says, what is and isn’t the case, which is exactly what leads them to their doom.
Thus Lovecraft’s protagonists are unlike the “occult detectives” once popular in the Victorian age — such as Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Carnaki, or most famously, Stoker’s Van Helsing. They are not calm, wise experts easily unmasking fake mediums or calling upon some handy bit of mystical folklore to save the day.
However learned conventionally or mystically, they quickly find themselves in too far, asking one question too many. As Lovecraft famously said:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. — “The Call of Cthulhu”
Kiss Me Deadly has been described as the ultimate noir film, summarizing the conventions of the genre and then breaking new ground. Hoberman sees this as happening all through the ’50s, as if some kind of atomic mutation had taken place:
Genres collide in the great Hollywood movies of the mid-fifties cold-war thaw. . . . The western goes south in The Searchers; the cartoon merges with the musical in The Girl Can’t Help It. Science fiction becomes pop sociology in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And noir veers into apocalyptic sci-fi in Robert Aldrich’s 1955 masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly, which, briefly described, tracks one of the sleaziest, stupidest, most brutal detectives in American movies through a nocturnal, inexplicably violent labyrinth to a white-hot vision of cosmic annihilation. — “The Thriller of Tomorrow”
Note the Lovecraftian language uses. “Veering into apocalyptic sci-fi” would be a perfect description of Lovecraft’s own evolution in the thirties, from horror in the Weird Tales style to long, “scientifictional” novellas. Perhaps Lovecraft’s achievement could be described as taking the three original genres bequeathed to him by his master, Poe –- detective, science fiction, and post-Gothic horror — and creating a kind of mash-up more suitable for modern circumstances. To do so, he had to downplay the detective’s infallible and cool logic (as Poe’s Dupin or Conan Doyle’s Sherlock), so as to trigger the horrific end, while using science — or “science” — to provide a comforting illusion of normality, against which the horror stands our more “inexplicably.”
Kiss Me Deadly strikes the Lovecraftian note because, inadvertently, it arises from the same post-war cultural chaos that would retrospectively root itself in Lovecraft’s Synthesis, producing such characteristically modern noir-horror-sci-fi works as Alien, Blade Runner, and The Matrix.
It’s no surprise that the French loved it; as Hoberman notes:
In France, Kiss Me Deadly was admired mainly by the young critics at Cahiers du cinéma, where it was considered “the thriller of tomorrow” and Aldrich, dubbed Le gros Bob, was hailed as “the first director of the atomic age.”
Claude Chabrol praised the film in rather Poe-esque terms:
Kiss Me Deadly, Claude Chabrol wrote in his passionate review, “has chosen to create itself out of the worst material to be found, the most deplorable, the most nauseous product of a genre in a state of putrefaction: a Mickey Spillane story.” Aldrich and Bezzerides “have taken this threadbare and lackluster fabric and splendidly rewoven it into rich patterns of the most enigmatic arabesques.”
At last, let’s deal with the famous ending, or rather, the famous endings. This will require a certain amount of exposition. First, the set-up:
The movie ends at a stylish beach house in Malibu. Carver fells Mike with one shot from a .38, after [inviting him to] “Kiss me Mike. Kiss me. The liar’s kiss that says ‘I Love You,’ but means something else. You’re good at giving such kisses.” She then opens the box and turns into a pillar of fire . . .
Now the mystery starts.
In the version most often seen from roughly 1960 to 1997, Hammer regains consciousness while Carver burns. He rescues his secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) from a locked room, and they limp arm-in-arm toward the exit. At that point we cut to a disconnected string of exterior shots. Light and smoke belch from the beach house. Several awkward jump cuts add superimposed explosions, as a miniature of the house breaks apart. A nondescript “The End” title appears, and the film fades abruptly — not to black, but to gray leader. The music score and roaring sound effects overlap the ragged cut and then end with a poorly-timed fade.
But according to Francois Truffaut’s original 1955 review of Kiss Me Deadly in Cahiers du Cinema, “As the hero and his mistress [he means Velda] take refuge in the sea, THE END appears on the screen.” The original trailer shows similar shots.
Someone, identity long since lost, thought this worked better, and cut the negative thusly soon after release. Unknown to MGM, Aldrich, or anyone else, a pristine original negative was sitting around in the Aldrich archives.
At the point where standard prints cut to the ragged short ending, this copy continued into a completely new sequence. The couple descended some stairs and then took off across the beach. The shots of the burning house were now separated by four new angles with Velda and Mike throwing long shadows down the beach. Rear-projected views showed the pair in front of the exploding beach house. They watched from the surf until an authentic end title (“The End, A Parklane Picture”) appeared. The mystery box growled and howled throughout at full volume, like the monster of a 50s Science Fiction film. [Or the boxt in Raiders of the Lost Ark] The beautiful ending had more production value than anything else in the movie. Although it was disturbing, it was conventionally edited, and resembled nothing that would inspire the French New Wave.
Quite unusually, it is the original ending that provides something of a “happy ending,” making it clear that Mike and Velda escape the house. The difference vanishes when you consider that Mike has been shot at close range, already burned by radiation before arriving, and is about 50 feet from a nuclear explosion. For that matter, we don’t know if the Whatzit is some kind of Strangelovian doomsday device that will destroy the Earth or trigger WWIII, so “living happily ever after” seems unlike in any event.
Since we are aware of the doubling of Mike and Gaby, as well as the mythical themes running throughout, we can see something else going on in the original, long ending: paradoxically, it is Gaby whose fate is more secure.
We’ve already called attention to Gaby’s checkerboard clothing, and her purer pursuit of knowledge. We can say that this Pure Fool has reached the end of the quest. As we’ve noted many times, hideous apocalyptic endings are merely a genre convention. What is important here is that Gaby has achieved a state of pure light, becoming a vertical pillar of fire, combining both the Hermetic symbol of light and verticality and the Judaic YHVH. Again, we recall the homage to the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which presents the negative, inverted Judaic version, in which the search for knowledge and transcendence fails and is punished as sin.
We cut to Mike, who, having been shot by Gaby, has fallen, in an oddly stiff way, like a tree falling, and now lies sprawled at length on the floor. This is the fall into horizontality, the material world of space and time. He and Velda then descend the stairs and flee horizontally across the beach.
As Lovecraft suggested in the quote above, Mike and Velda are seen to flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. They return to the oceans, like the protagonist of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” These are, of course, the Waters of material existence that the Realized Man (or Woman) must cross or walk over.
While behind them, the house, another symbol of the warp and woof of material manifestation, no longer needed, disintegrates, as Gaby’s soul, presumably, escapes vertically into the higher dimensions. Of course, this also connects us back to Lovecraft, and most importantly, his master, Poe, and his iconic “Fall of the House of Usher.”
Clearly, anyone who wants to create a work of pure, PC agitprop needs to be a little more careful than to simply put yourself on autopilot while dealing with that infra dig pulp stuff; it may be smarter than you think—or than you are.
Kiss Me Deadly, original [restored] ending
2. Film Noir by William Luhr, (Wiley, 2012) p 141.
3. Originally published in 1979, Waterfire Providence republished it in 2013 in a fine edition (paperback and kindle) including plates of the works discussed, from Goya to Clark Ashton Smith.
4. “You’ve seen these films! Haven’t you, my man?” — Will Graham, Manhunter.
5. “Can you prove you didn’t? You certainly can’t prove I did.” Ray Miland, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, 1954.
6. Quoted in Luhr, p. 138.
7. “Although a leftist at the time of the Hollywood blacklist, Bezzerides denied any conscious intention for this meaning in his script.” Wikipedia, op. cit.
8. Although earlier pulp detective writers had been up-marketed and used to make some well-regarded films, the Hollywood Elite drew the line at Spillane, who was far too popular, too “fascist” (unlike a good party member like Dashiell Hammett) and had even started off in the lowest depth, comic books (Luhr, p. 129). Oddly enough, KMD itself was singled out by the Kefauver Commission as 1955’s number one menace to American Youth. Chandler and Hammett preceded Lovecraft in the canonical Library of America, followed by P. K. Dick; can you imagine Spillane there?
9. Later, there would be a similar panic among the “respectable” culturati over James Bond; Kingsley Amis easily shows the absurdity of Bond as a Hammer-style “sadist” in his The James Bond Dossier (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965).
10. See especially the conclusion of “A Light Unto the Nations: Reflections on Olaf Stapledon’s The Flames” here. The problem is especially tricky with fascism; one doesn’t “know” anyone of such a type — Pauline Kael famously said she “didn’t know anyone who voted for [Nixon]” — so one all too easily draws on oneself and produces an accidental and revealing portrait of liberal totalitarianism; see my “The Fraud of Miss Jean Brodie” here. For contrast, consider Henry James’ The Bostonians; as F. R. Leavis says, “James understands the finer civilization of New England, and is the more effective as an ironic critic of it because he is not merely an ironic critic; he understands it because he both knows it from inside and sees it from outside with the eye of a professional student of civilization who has had much experience of non-Puritan cultures.” The Great Tradition, (George Stuart, 1950), p. 134. He later refers to this as “insight . . . utterly unaccompanied by animus” (p. 135).
11. J. Hoberman, The Magic Hour: Film at Fin de Siècle (Philadelphia: Temple University press, 2003) p. 23. Spillane was so infuriated by the portrayal that he made sure the next time Hammer was filmed to not only write and finance the movie but play Hammer his own damn self. The result, The Girl Hunters (filmed in England other than some shots of Spillane swanning around Midtown Manhattan in a white trench coat — “Just like a cop to wear a white trench coat” Burroughs had noted in the opening chapter of Naked Lunch — and featuring the pre-Bond Shirley Eaton) is . . . interesting.
12. Only the Cinema: “Films I Love, #22: Kiss Me Deadly,” here.
13. See Trevor Lynch’s review here.
14. As did Steven Spielberg (“Marion, don’t look in the box!”) and Alex Cox (Repo Man); Brian Wall adds Bunuel (Belle du Jour) and David Lynch (Mulholland Drive); see Brial Wall, Theodor Adorno and Film Theory: The Fingerprint of Spirit (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 67 (and here). Hoberman (The Magic Hour) adds Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.
15. Hence St. Armand’s interest, as one of several stores where Lovecraft reveals and works out his Decadent and Symbolist influences.
16. “Spillane also seems to have invented the sadistic quip during killings — but Bezzerides gives this role to the deadly female instead.” http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s286kiss.html
17. “But there’s also “a new kind of art in the world,” as one character explains to Mike, and its embodiment turns out to be the object of his search, a leather-bound steel box.”
18. “KMD may have one of the best ’50s images of consumer iconography. On Hammer’s wall is a reel-to-reel answering machine. These devices actually existed in that era, and the make is Code-A-Phone.” — http://www.freepresshouston.com/film/thoughts-on-kiss-me-deadly/. Check it out here.
19. “The detective, played by Ralph Meeker (the actor who replaced Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire), drives a Jaguar, has a futuristic telephone answering machine built into his bachelor pad’s wall, and, a bag of golf clubs in the corner, lives a version of what was not yet called the Playboy philosophy. The faux Calder mobile and checkerboard floor pattern add to the crazy, clashing expressionism.” “Kiss Me Deadly: The Thriller of Tomorrow” by J. Hoberman, here.
20. Hoberman, op. cit.
21. Luhr: “The use of the Rossetti sonnet to uncover a major clue underscores the film’s repeated references to past culture” (p. 140).
22. Talk about subverting the filmmakers’ intent, some have even discovered a “liberal subtext” that makes Mike a sort of Alan Alda: “As much as anything else, it’s the positive images of women, immigrants, African-Americans, and poor people, along with Hammer’s getting on with them so well, especially the folks at the jazz club, boxing gym, and auto repair shop, that gives the film much of its leftist edge.” — Café Noir, here. This “common touch” angle is especially worked in the aforementioned Girl Hunters, where a good third of the film is Hammer/Spillane collecting favors and plaudits from all the little people who are so grateful to owe him — even his landlord won’t take his back rent: “Take, take; remember when you gave?” That Hammer is played by Spillane himself and many of the little people are real friends of his gives it a rather odd tone. I leave it to the reader to reflect on what the praise of “getting on with” the poor tells us about the liberal’s rather feudal idea of his role in society.
23. “The force of Soberin’s mythical invocations is the reverse of what he desires; the free-floating prestige of his examples only seems to add to the glamour of the box” (Forgetting Lot’s Wife, p. 74).
24. The film can’t strictly have a “hero” since the message is “obey the (Liberal) government.” Heroism and individualism are only good when bad fascists are in charge; then it’s “question (non-Liberal) authority.”
25. Like Lovecraft’s occult gobble-de-gook.
26. Of course, we also recall Lovecraft’s incantations and cosmic mumbo-jumbo; even, perhaps, the Trinity that Red Hook’s detective hales from?
27. This, of course, is the note that interests St. Armond, Lovecraft’s self-image as a Decadent, an 18th-century gentleman exiled in a philistine future.
28. The first look like the digitally over-restored print of Ed Wood’s Night of the Ghouls, the second like a lost work of Coleman Francis. Actually, the later kinds of scenes are perhaps more Clark Ashton Smith than Lovecraft, but just go with me on this.
29. “The Bunker Hill area underwent a controversial total redevelopment which destroyed and displaced a community of almost 22,000 working-class families renting rooms in architecturally significant but run-down buildings, to a modern mixed-use district of high-rise commercial buildings and modern apartment and condominium complexes” (Wikipedia, Angel’s Flight). “In 1955, Los Angeles city planners decided that Bunker Hill required a massive slum-clearance project. The top of Bunker Hill was cleared of its houses and then flattened as the first stage of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project to populate Bunker Hill with modern plazas and buildings. When the height limit of buildings for Los Angeles was finally raised (previously buildings were limited to 150 feet), developers built some of the tallest skyscrapers in the region to take advantage of the area’s existing dense zoning. In approving such projects, the city sought to project a modern, sophisticated image (Wikipedia, Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project).
30. Op. cit., loc. 732.
31. Even before Miranda, movie audiences preferred not to see such methods used by “good guys.” Mike treats every suspect and informant the way Batman does the Joker in The Dark Knight, rendering the Joker’s attempt to taunt him acting like the Joker himself nugatory. Mike is already a combination of Batman and Joker, giving his big, smarmy smile a psychotic resonance. Hoberman: “The movie stops in its tracks to focus on his excited grin as he snaps a collector’s priceless 78 record.” Presumably this is how the filmmakers — and good liberals today — think vigilantes are or would be, rather than concerned citizens performing a distasteful but needful duty. Interestingly, Mike does all his violence after Pat the Fed takes his gun away; so much for “guns cause violence.” He pries a key, not a gun, from the coroner’s “cold dead fingers” after smashing them in a desk drawer.
32. I’m reminded of The Black Cat, where the vengeful Lugosi flays Karloff alive . . . off screen.
33. Luhr, p. 129. Similar claims, of course, are made by the advocates of the Ed Wood or Coleman Francis oeuvres. It’s been claimed online that Christina’s dubbed screams are the same ones used for Gaby at the end (or vice versa) which also nicely bookends the film and emphasizes the make-believe, but also amps up the Gaby/Lily/Christina doubling we’ll explore later.
34. For a complete accounting, see “Lovecraft’s Ladies” by Ben P. Indick in Discovering H. P. Lovecraft, ed. Darrell Schweitzer, 2nd ed. (Wildside Press, 1995).
35. “Rodgers, born Gabrielle Rosenberg in Germany in 1928, was the niece of the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, and grew up in Amsterdam, where she remembered playing with Anne Frank as a child; she appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan in 1957, representing “The New Face of Broadway,” and married songwriter Jerry Leiber, author of “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and numerous others.” Criterion Collection website, here.
36. Many critics have discussed the checkerboard and “x” symbols found throughout the film; I of course would liken them to the Traditional symbolism of Universal Manifestation as a weaving pattern of warp and woof. See “The Corner at the Center of the World: Traditional Metaphysics in a Late Tale of Henry James” here, reprinted in Aristokatia I and forthcoming in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others (Counter-Currents, 2014).
37. “So plainspoken as to be a parody of the hardboiled detective she imitates in her inexorable and inexpressive search for knowledge” — Martin Harries Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship, p. 74.
38.Leavis, op. cit., p. 143.
39. “Old (’30s–’40s) term for a handgun: same vintage as gat, heater, cannon, etc. ‘He pulled a roscoe and ventilated the gorilla.’” Urban Dictionary, here.
40. Darren McGavin, who would star in “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer” (1957–’59) later starred in a short-lived 1968 series, The Outsider.
41. “The Thriller of Tomorrow”; a similar confrontation occurs in “The Jolly Corner,” the James ghost story I analyze in the work cited in Note 35 above.
42. See Evola’s Hermetic Tradition, Part Two, where he discusses how the Realized Man creates for himself a new, indestructible body — the Tantric Diamond Body — by reconstructing himself from the atomic level on up — the film’s atomic chain reaction is an inverted symbol of this.
43. Ironically, after being shot by Gaby, Soberin transforms himself into the dog, Cerberus.
44. Prominently featured in the Bunker Hill locations is the “Angel’s Flight,” a rather Lovecraftian funicular railway, featuring two cars, Sinai — pillar of fire? — and Olivet.
45. It’s as if Brigid O’Shaughnessy shot Sam Spade and took off with the Maltese Falcon. Usually, it’s Mike who does the gut-shooting. In Spillane’s own film, The Girl Hunters, he tricks Shirley Eaton into blowing her own head off with a shotgun.
46. Soberin’s enigmatic remark that the Whatzit “can’t be divided” suggests the extra-dimensionality of one of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods.
47. “Character Gullibility in Weird Fiction; or, isn’t Yuggoth Somewhere in Upstate New York?” in Discovering Lovecraft, loc. 1003.
48. See my review of Graham Harmon’s Weird Realism, “‘A General Outline of the Whole’: Lovecraft as Heideggerian Event” here and in forthcoming The Eldritch Evola … & Others.
49. Blackwood was an initiate of the Golden Dawn; Evola even deigns to quote John Silence on some occult self-defense techniques in his Introduction to Magic.
50. Anomalously, the folklorists from Arkham know just the right formula to dispatch the Dunwich horror and dismiss the revenant Charles Dexter Ward.
51. “. . . he gradually discovers layers of power and danger that surround him of which he knows nothing and with which he is unprepared to cope” (Luhr, p. 134).
52. “Kiss Me Deadly looks back both to canonical film noir, whose era was winding down, and ahead to neo-noir, or resurrected noir, which would not emerge for more than a decade. Death and resurrection are central themes [as we saw with Gaby] . . . embodying the baroque endpoint of an exhausted genre, pushing that genre’s tropes to and beyond their limits” (Luhr, p. 144).
53. Hoberman, “Thriller of Tomorrow.”
54. Conveniently summarized in “The Restoration of Kiss Me Deadly” by Glenn Erickson, here, from which I take the following summary of the endings
55. It’s a bit like the end of Bride of the Monster, and any number of other ’50s movies where atomic blasts happen right and left, with only a small danger of mutating into a 50 giant or something, as long as you wear your “protective goggles.”
56. See, as always, Baron Evola’s The Hermetic Tradition, especially Chapter One on the symbolism of the Tree.
57. In the James tale we analyze in “The Corner,” this is how the protagonist ends up, sprawled out on a checkerboard patterned floor; while there’s none here, there is one in Mike’s apartment.
58. Remember those “long shadows” they “throw down the beach”?
59. See René Guénon, The Multiples States of the Being, Chapter 12, “The two chaoses.”
60. See Guénon, op. cit., but especially Coomaraswamy, The Door in the Sky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) that exhaustively documents the symbolism of, for example, the hole in the roof of, for example, a teepee or another traditional structure, which smoke outlet serves as a symbol of the path of the soul.
61. “This opus has become a cult film . . . I cannot say why — I never completely understood our screenplay, and my confusion was still there when we ran the completed film” — producer Victor Saville; quoted in Mickey Spillane on Screen: A Complete Study of the Television and Film Adaptations by Collins and Traylor (McFarland, 2012), p. 61.
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