One of the most shocking moments in Kiss Me Deadly is when the police detective tells private eye Mike Hammer just what he thinks of him. He tells him that he is a grubby crawler into other people's affairs and underlinen; a man over his head in a situation that is too vast for him to understand. The moment shocks because it reverses the audience's understanding of how it should feel about Hammer.
The average audience would have assumed, however callous and brutal his actions and however sardonically sawn-off his words, that Hammer was somehow on the side of right - as any good private eye in the Chandler tradition ought to be. But Hammer is no Chandler-esque knight in tarnished armour walking erect through mean streets; he was created by Mickey Spillane, a writer with an eye for best-selling sadism. In Hammer is the demeaned perpetuation of the private-investigator ethic.
So articulate is the police detective's distaste that it is obvious that film's director Robert Aldrich and its screenwriter AI Bezzerides feel exactly that way about Hammer too. It is not just that he is an anti-hero, but in his arrogant assumption that his amoral might is right, he is a fascist hero. It is as though Aldrich and Bezzerides were using the character in order to repudiate him and all he stands for.
This is just one of the many dazzling brilliances in a movie that was of seminal importance for its time, establishing Aldrich as a cult auteur with French critics, and later regarded as a classic film noir. On the surface, Kiss Me Deadly is a roughneck suspense thriller of enormous ingenuity, but on other levels the Cold War concerns of the narrative contain not only a fable for our time, but the echoes of a more ancient myth.
Aldrich's approach to Kiss Me Deadly's brutality is, for him, elegant to the point of fastidiousness (almost as though he were distancing himself and the audience from the film's New York and Los Angeles wastelands) which seems as negative of real emotion as though an atom bomb had already scoured the world. The nuclear hysteria that raged at the time of the film's production is transmuted by the director into powerful deterministic comment.
What begins as a sordid story of underworld intrigue, conspiracy and the search for what is called 'the great whatsit', assumes the irrational nature of nightmare. And there are so many subjective shots from Hammer's point of view - notably when knocked out from behind, and when he is about to open the locker that supposedly contains the answer to all mysteries - that it is evident that, though disclaimed, he is the figure with whom the audience identifies. What he does, he does in our name. As political comment then, Kiss Me Deadly daringly persuades its audience - and in 1955, a year of Cold War, it was daring - that legalized thugs like Hammer could hamfistedly seek out radioactivity, leading to climactic destruction. That he was led to it by a woman, Lily Carver, is just another aspect of an ignorant gullability that is as much part of his sexual nature as his intellect. Ignorance undoes all things; even, in opening the ultimate box, mankind.
Ralph Meeker's performance as Hammer never concedes the slightest shred of decency, as though the actor heroically realized that a one-dimensional character is the only way to set into more defined relief the other perspectives of situation and character. Its connections with the Lemmy Caution of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, made ten years afterwards, are only too apparent.
In his book Film Noir, Alain Silver has written:
'What distinguishes Kiss Me Deadly's figurative usage from that of other Aldrich films is an explicit aural fabric of allusions and metaphor: the recurring Christina Rossetti poem, Remember Me; the Caruso recording ... they all provide immediate textual reference if not subsidiary meaning.'
Accordingly, and with its necessary undertow of credibility, Kiss Me Deadly provides a suitable, realistic context for an allegory - and the film is all the more disturbing in that it is really communication about the nuclear age in ancient legend. For as Lily Carver opens the box and becomes a column of fire - a pillar of salt? - and Hammer and Velda look backwards from the sea to watch the house mushroom upwards into devastation, so the audience realizes just what has been unleashed by all their separate actions. The totem-words of nuclear armament have already been uttered: 'Manhattan project... Los Alamos... Trinity'.
The word that is never said, but that is most implicit in all that happens, is Pandora. It is her box that has been breached. The breaking of encasing restraint, the unleashing of the apocalypse, is what those Hammer-blows have acheived. It is more than enough.