To get the most out of any film noir film, you must properly prepare yourself for the world you are about to enter and the style you are about to enjoy. Turn off all the lights. That makes the darkness deeper and the visual and moral grays of the film more apparent. Adjust the sound levels. It needs to fully surround you so the pulsing, anxious music quickens your heart a few extra beats. Got a woman nearby? Don’t trust her, unless she’s with you all the time. Your safety is entirely in your hands, so pack a weapon. Cops aren’t dependable and have their own motives. Pour yourself a drink. Hard liquor. Savor it. Don’t turn off your brain, though. You’ll need to keep thinking and deciphering the whole time.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955), like nearly every film noir, opens with a mystery that drives the plot and the characters forward. Christina Bailey (a young Cloris Leachman), as we later learn her full name to be, runs barefoot down a secluded road desperately trying to flag down a car while clad only in a trench coat. She stands in the middle of the road and succeeds in making Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) pull over and offer her a lift. Although she is clearly in trouble in some way, she does not fill Mike in on the people who are after her, only asking Mike to remember her if something happens to her. Barely a breath later their car is forced off the road and Christina’s screams fill the background as the camera focuses only on the shoes of the men who approach them. The audience gets a shoe-eye view of Christina’s murder and her murderers before she and an unconscious Mike are put back in the car and pushed over a cliff. When Mike wakes up in the hospital to discover Christina is dead, he takes it upon himself to remember her like she asked and find out who killed her and why. He falls back on his private investigator experience, his secretary/casual girlfriend Velda (Maxine Cooper), and his mechanic friend Nick (Nick Dennis) to dig up threads and strings of information. Along the way Mike picks up responsibility for Christina’s roommate, Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), and runs into trouble with thugs under the direction of Carl Evello (Paul Stewart).
Although it came relatively late in the cycle, Kiss Me Deadly is an excellent example of the widely accepted classic film noir style that ran roughly from 1940-1958. However, film noir has no formal definition and there is no mass consensus of an all-inclusive list of films under any definition. French critic Nino Frank first used the term “film noir” in 1946 to reference to The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), and Laura (1944). Despite that early application of the term, however, film noir was not actively pursued as a specific style and was not even a widespread notion until the early 1970s. Film historians have been largely responsible for determining film noir canon by grouping similar films based on certain characteristics in a period of time when films focused on the unsavory underbelly of post-World War II American culture. Film noirs are generally crime thrillers with a morally ambivalent hero, possibly a private eye or policeman, who takes part in a complicated and unsettling sequence of events that typically reflects Freudian or Existential motifs. Narrative structure is often broken up by voiceovers, ellipses, or flashbacks that offer unsettling conclusions. Action takes place in the sleazy parts of the city at night with contrasting dark shadows and bright light sources. Highly influenced by the psychological implications and visual style of 1920s German expressionism, film noir employs interesting angles and lenses to connect the audience with the often-deteriorating mindset of the protagonist. Masculinity and femininity are at odds, as the male anti-hero must contend with the infamous femme fatale in order to solve the crime or retain any semblance of sanity.
No film has all of the possible characteristics of a film noir, but Kiss Me Deadly is regarded as one of the more important film noirs because of all the themes that it does incorporate. The protagonist Mike Hammer came from the popular hard-boiled crime fiction series by Mickey Spillane in the 1950s, which is further evidence of film noir’s ability to reflect American culture. Another sign of the decade is the ultimate secret so many characters die for and Mike pursues: a nuclear bomb. Similar to how the Red Scare took up so much paranoid imagination, Mike tries to protect his allies during his searching while “they” are the enemies who are the “nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit.” However, Mike is hardly a sterling example of morality. His private investigator work is as a “bedroom dick” specializing in divorce, where he gets information against the wife and then makes a deal with her to get information against the husband in order to play both ends against the middle. His masculinity is never in question. Christina has him pegged within minutes of meeting him, noting that he’s one of those self-indulgent males who only cares about himself and never gives in a relationship. Velda obviously cares for Mike, they kiss multiple times, and other men call her his girl, yet he kisses two other girls in the course of the film and is visibly inattentive and unresponsive to many of Velda’s affections. As with most film noirs, women are still man’s weakness, as the femme fatale character surprises both Mike and the villain in situations with the nuclear bomb. Kiss Me Deadly is a classic film noir with its best ability for twists and turns, visual symbolism, gender inequality, and reflection of the anxiety, paranoia, and hopelessness that pulsed through the undercurrent of 1950s American culture.
Similar Recommendations: Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Big Heat, Laura, The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, and Murder, My Sweet