There’s something about watching film noirs that I find vaguely comforting. It’s not the slight undercurrent of racism, the perhaps archaic views concerning sexuality or the fact that in any given film noir a woman will inevitably be slapped with no prior warning. Instead it’s the overall form. For the most part, I enjoy the recognisable characteristics, the themes, the shady characters, the wonderful dialogue, the grimy city backdrop, the femme fatales, the absurd masculinity and the pull of a story reaching a hectic climax. There’s a dirtiness to film noirs that is so irresistible to a modern audience. Violence, questionable morals, death, greed and sex. It’s some of the most powerful stuff in cinema.
But for all my love of the genre, my favourite noir is perhaps more of a satire of the genre than a film that belongs to it. Created right at the tail end of the noir movement, Robert Aldrich’s 1955 take on Mickey Spillane’s pulp novel both mocks noir and epitomizes it. Following Mike Hammer, a private eye detective womanizer, Kiss Me Deadly is about the search for “the great whatsit”, an object gangsters, doctors and criminals are trying to get their hands on. Mike, played by Ralph Meeker seems thrust in to a world of bizarre paranoia upon meeting Christina (Cloris Leach man) on a dusty highway wearing nothing but a trench coat and a deceiving smile.
And while the plot sounds fairly formulaic, the characters recognisable, the product is anything but. It comes out a crazy, heady sprawl of different personalities and motives. Everything “noir” about Kiss Me deadly is ramped up to 11. The alleyways are darker, the fedoras are bigger, the punches are harder and the dames are more ferocious. Hammer is more of a caricature than he is human. He drives a fast car, wears a pristine suit, is athletic in a fight and offers a biting wit to dialogue. The ensuing search for the great whatsit is also a sublime piece of accentuated noir, creating a sense of mystery that’s unbeatable. The audience is still in the dark even after the whatsit is unveiled in a bizarre and baffling spectacle.
Gloriously told, Kiss Me Deadly is something beyond the realms of noir. It’s a pastiche, a satire, a mockery and maybe even a political comment on the paranoia of the cold war. Heady, brash, paradoxical and leaving you stunned, Robert Aldrich’s film is possibly the best film noir ever made…if you want to call it a noir that is.