Kaboom!: Violence, Sadism, and Paranoia in Kiss Me Deadly
The atomic box opens. Screams and flames emerge, roaring through the soundwaves as Mike and Velda scramble wounded toward the beachline, with treacherous, apocalyptic fire behind them. This is the final sequence in Robert Aldrich’s seminal noir film, Kiss Me Deadly (1955). This essay discusses Aldrich’s masterwork in the context of postwar America, and the paranoia that permeated the social and political atmosphere of the era. While much has been said about the blatant connection between the film’s apocalyptic plot line and its relationship to the political landscape of the time—the Cold War—there is still much to be said regarding the odd, troubling aesthetic choices made by Aldrich. This essay attempts to expand the conversation beyond basic plot into a more specific realm of peculiar aesthetics. A closer look like at the ways in which Aldrich handles violence, sound and artifice will enrich critical understanding of Kiss Me Deadly. Through a close reading of these elements I intend to demonstrate that the film’s aesthetic atmosphere is just as—and perhaps more, even—important to a critical discussion of Kiss Me Deadly in the context of the postwar America.
Critical discussion of Kiss Me Deadly has for the most part been centered within its historical context. The film at once mirrors the political and historical context of its time, as well as serves as a sort kind of symbolic marker for the end of the first of wave film noir. In a sense, this is a satisfying critical conclusion—end of discussion, you might say. A film whose plot literally ends in explosion—the perfect symbol, at once a materialized image of the great kaboom, the the root of universal paranoia, but also a definitive message from Aldrich to the noir crime drama as we knew it: this is the end. And while the discussion may seem some expired, I will argue that Aldrich in Kiss Me Deadly is up to something a bit subtler, more subversive. Through a close reading of certain scenes and a re-occurring string off unusual depictions of violence, I hope to demonstrate that Aldrich is both subverting traditional images of masculinity as well as playing with the genre and commenting on the American socio-political landscape of the time.
The purpose of this essay is to tether the critical conversation from a focus which has been predominately historical and symbolic to a discussion of the filmic elements and stylistic choices made my Aldrich in the work itself. The intended result of this synthesis of perspectives would open the critical discussion to a variety of fields of study—perhaps gender studies, urban studies—as well as reveal something about the nature of paranoia in the time of the postwar America.
We can see now both through the historical context surrounding the film, as elucidated by scholars above, as well as through a close-reading of certain aesthetic like the portrayal of violence, that Kiss Me Deadly is very much a reflection and comment upon such postwar attitudes as paranoia and social unrest. It is also a comment on film noir itself as Aldrich manipulates noir aesthetics to oscillating extremes, creating a surreal, almost dystopian brand of the hardboiled detective film. The majority of critical discussion surrounding the film focuses on the symbolic implications of plot, theme, character, historical context, etc., so I have tried to extend the discussion into the realm of aesthetics and stylistic elements—but there is more to be said. Upon re-watching the film through this lens, we can see that there are innumerable ways in which the symbolic and aesthetic are in conversation here; violence, for one, but also the curious use of sound—the dialogue which seems at times intentionally muffled, obscure—and definitely the distinctly misogynistic portrayal of women, as well the ultra-sadistic portrayal of men like Hammer and the architect of the apocalypse, Dr. Soberin. In each of these, and surely more, there is a well-spring of symbolic and aesthetic analysis to do. Continued research will further reveal the imperative need to read the film in terms of both dimensions.