I will say right off that although I love classic films, I am not a huge fan of the sci-fi genre. There are a few films I like, mostly in the psychological horror/sci-fi category (like the original Frankenstein) but on the whole I just find science fiction a little difficult to relate to. And I am definitely not a fan of end-of-the-world sci-fi because they tend to be too depressing. If the end of the world is coming, I prefer not to know about it.
However, when I saw the post about this blogathon, one film immediately came to mind and I wanted to write about it – the film Kiss Me Deadly from 1955. It’s of those B-films that stands out above the rest because of its complexity, it’s genre fusion, and its director, the great Robert Aldrich, who later went on to do what no director had dared to even try – he put vicious rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in a film together and make it work (I’m talking here about the brilliant campy horror film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, of course).
Kiss Me Deadly is one of Aldrich’s earlier films and there is no doubt that it does fall into the sci-fi “end of the world” category. However, what makes it so interesting to me is that it’s also a film noir in the very stereotypical sense. It incorporates all the right film noir elements. The protagonist, Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) is a memorable film noir anti-hero. He is a detective and not a very classy or moral one. It’s no secret he doesn’t quite make an honest living even when he does his detective work. He seems to court violence of the most brutal kind wherever he goes. He has every woman falling for him even as he keeps a tight leash on his girlfriend/secretary Velma (Maxine Cooper) and pimps her out to slimeballs that can help them with their investigations.
There are several women involved in the film that could pass for the classic film noir femme fatale but the one that most fits the bill is Lily (Gaby Rodgers). She is devious, posing as the ex-roommate of Christina (Cloris Leachman), a young woman whom Mike picks up as a hitchhiker one night that pulls him into in the dangerous chase after “the black box”. And, like all femme fatales, she knows how to use a gun and does without much thought or remorse.
Both the good guys (if you can call Hammer a “good guy”) and the bad guys are chasing after the same thing – “the black box” the contents of which are only vaguely alluded to in the film. We are led to imagine, along with the characters, that the box must contain stolen goods or counterfeit money or whatever juicy prize you can imagine that fits a typical crime story. And yet the prize is an anti-prize – something that is very valuable because of its destructive qualities. This is where the sci-fi element comes in.
***Spoiler alert: Sorry I have to talk about the ending of the film but it relates to my blog article.***
While we are never told exactly what is in the box, the ending gives us an idea and it isn’t a pretty one. Gaby, who can no longer control her curiosity, opens the box and in doing so, becomes of metaphor for Pandora and her box (literally and figuratively). We finally get to see what all the violence and murder was about. But even so, all we get is a glimpse of a harsh light and the kind of horrifying doomsday soundtrack we have come to associate with sci-fi films. And, indeed, destruction follows, with blow ups and fires that metaphorically mirror the fires of hell. Some sources surmise that the substance in the box is some kind of atomic energy or radioactive substance, possibly radionuclide material. But whatever it is, it is clearly unstable and dangerous.
The messages in this film are multilayered and even the words Christina utters to Hammer throughout her short life in the film – “remember me” – are never explained. My interpretation is Christina is a symbol of the human sacrifice made when people go around playing with the tools of world destruction. It’s not just one woman that gets killed but all of us so when you remember one, you remember the many.
It might seem strange to marry sci-fi and film noir but, given the time frame of this film, it’s not surprising. The Cold War in America began just after the end of World War II in the mid-1940’s and did not begin to diminish until the late 1950’s. So 1955 would put this film just at the height of the Cold War scare. Very real terrors about what could happen if Pandora’s Box (nuclear war) was open had the world, and especially Americans, in a panic. This film feeds off of that panic.
Interestingly, the ending that we now see for the film was not the ending that went out to theaters at the time. The film’s original ending shows Mike and Velma escaping to the beach while all hell breaks loose after Lily has unleashed the power of Pandora’s box. The credits roll as they crawl around together in the water, staring at the destroyed house. However, the film’s ended was aborted so that the version that went out to 1955 audiences did not include this scene of redemption. Filmgoers saw only a house blowing up before the credits began so they would be led to assume that no one makes it through the explosion. This very dismal but very film noir ending was replaced by the original ending when the film was restored in 1997.
I can’t say this my favorite film noir film only because the level of brutality and darkness is layered on a bit too thick for my taste. But it is a highly interesting film in the context of its time.