Noir’s Goodbye Kiss

encountering noir screenings for seventy-five years

Film noirs opaque shadows will fall on Boston this June when the traveling film festival Noir City slinks onto the screen of Harvard Squares Brattle Theatre. For those who believe Billy Wilders nasty, lusty Double Indemnity was, in 1944, the jolt that brought noirs patchwork monster to life (a debatable take, to be sure, especially when you trace noirs roots back to German Expressionism), then 2019 is the 75th anniversary of the genres dark inception. Thousands of cycles of hybridization later, the origin points of film noir continue to feel freshand freshly ominous.

Film still: Jack Elam as Charlie Max in Kiss Me Deadly (1955); Parklane Pictures, Inc.

Indemnity may have marked the beginning, but another staple showing on Noir Citys program, Robert Aldrichs Kiss Me Deadly from 1955, self-consciously signaled the end of film noirs brazen first act, before the genres conventions were mitigated and absorbed into just about every other genre of film. It does so by both subverting and ratcheting up what noir had been for over a decade; the lurchy, low-budget menace, the dog-eared charm and broken soulfulness, the abrupt ferocity wired into the genre are all mutated in one way or the other in Kiss Me Deadly. Its stark black-and-white imagery is rendered dark and dangerous all over again, looking ahead to category-busting films like Charles Laughtons Night of the Hunter (six months after Kiss release), Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho (1960), and George Romeros Night of the Living Dead (1968). While sex and violence had always been an inherent, yet mostly implied, component of the genre (collateral from the curdling conservatism of the post-War period), Kiss Me Deadly moves it front and center, out of the shadows and under a white-hot light for all to see.

And, boy, do you see it in Kiss. The film takes noirs tropes to the breaking point: consider the opening focus on the fleeing gams of a woman (they belong to Cloris Leachman, in her film debut). And much like it was in the crime noir landmarks Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945), D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté, 1950), and Cornell Woolrichs novel I Married a Dead Man, this establishes panic as the defining atmosphere. But whereas those stories were infused with slivers of empathetic melancholy and followed their openings with a flashback to a more innocent moment along the characters paths, Kiss has Leachmans Christina Bailey, clothed only in a trench coat, explode onto the screen never to lookor flashback. Its a propulsive ride forward from there, becoming bleaker and more bewildering as it careens toward its finale. Of course, to underscore the often absurd, nihilistic coincidences that are flecked throughout noir, it is fait accompli that Christina will end up staring down the grill of private detective Mike Hammers (Ralph Meeker) car.

Film publicity photo: Gaby Rodgers as Lily Carver in Kiss Me Deadly (1955); Parklane Pictures, Inc.

And what about Hammers place in the pantheon of anti-heroic, semi-crusading sleuths? If you crossed Bogarts myriad of cinematic dicks with Harrison Fords Rick Deckard of Blade Runner (1982), minus the kid gloves with women andwell, charm and intelligence, mostly, then youd have Meekers Hammer. Bogarts Sam Spade and the countless screen portrayals of Philip Marlowe belie a damaged soul underneath the hard-boiled shell, yet many of them are apt to go gunless, or at least to not consciously or overtly seek out violence unless its in defense of self. Here, Hammer knows how to hurt and does so without ever having to assign it as a last resort; he breaks fingers, slaps men young and old, beats heads against cement walls, and occasionally delivers a mystical judo chop that completely incapacitates his opponent (the blows, doled out twice, are never shown on screen). He revels in violence rather than utilize it strategically. There are allusions to just how brutally egocentric Hammer is, too: Christina has him pegged immediately when she describes him as a guy that takes care of one thinghimself. Hammers mechanic pal, Nick Va Va Voom (Nick Dennis), is asked by his garage assistant what Hammer gets out of giving up his new car to Nick, hinting at how dangerously self-centered he knows him to be, too much to be simply doing something out of generosity of spirit. Trouble.the assistant mutters, answering himself. Hammers narcissism blinds him, too; indeed, Slant Magazine film writer Glenn Heath, Jr. notes, Mikes inability to grasp the truth reveals a crippling limited perspective, personifying an extreme form of vicious masculinity that seems destined for a grave.

No matter how you interpret the endingeradication by a nearsentient nuclear source, a supernatural or alien presence (the opening of the iconic briefcase, with its accompanying eerie chanting and blinding-light destruction, hints at the decades fertile cinematic science fiction)its pretty clear theres no way out for the characters, nor for, perhaps, humanity. When Sam Spade acknowledges the inconsequentiality and infuriating existentialism of the bird statue at the close of 1941s The Maltese Falcon (the true start of film noir?), the audience can take solace in that his adventures will continue, that peace evades him for now, not permanently. In Kiss Me Deadlys finale, a gut-shot Hammer wades into the inky darkness of the crashing shoreline waves, a bleak reminder that well all eventually be consumed and washed away. What a grand kiss-off.