Director Robert Aldrich had directed only three features before embarking on one of the true masterpieces of Hollywood filmmaking with Kiss Me Deadly (1955), coming off years of logging assistant director hours for already established artists (Renoir, Wellman, Chaplin, among others.) But Kiss Me Deadly recoils at thought of being marked as a young man’s film, or fitting in with the time in which it was made. The film has the rhythm of a drum solo; the extreme violence in the film feels like no other film’s violence. A combination of mysterious violence enacted just outside of the frame, and the exaggerated reactions that violence produces give Kiss Me Deadly the feeling that it teeters on the border of a world that exists in tandem with our own but is too dark to behold. To journey into it, as Kiss Me Deadly does without pulling a single punch, is to risk (literal) nuclear annihilation.
Kiss Me Deadly is the last film in All The Marbles: The Complete Robert Aldrich, the Harvard Film Archive’s exhaustive and unprecedented retrospective of Robert Aldrich’s entire career, sweeping from his early assistant work on Limelight and The Southerner to his late career renaissance directing Burt Reynolds in The Longest Yard. The retro dove deep to show his early work and work in television, while also showcasing the breadth of his choice of material, from The Dirty Dozen to Autumn Leaves. Aldrich was a loud, blunt filmmaker, and the subjects of his films are appropriately overheated regardless of their genre origins, from westerns to offbeat women’s pictures. His career is uncommonly rich with these kinds of curios, but Kiss Me Deadly, which opened the retrospective and returns to close it, remains the extreme standout of Aldrich’s films.
This, it is worth adding, is hardly fair to the superlative works that abound in Aldrich’s filmography, as Kiss Me Deadly remains a standout in not just film noir but in the entire American cinema. Few films have reckoned so incisively and intelligently with the tendency of many movies – particularly noirs – to descend into the rabbit hole in pursuit of the truth behind a great sinister mystery. Aldrich’s blunt style paradoxically benefits from a careful examination of how such a style stitches scenes of disparate emotional qualities together, particularly in this film. For while the violence is indeed lurid in Kiss Me Deadly, the film is not all bulging eyes and punches towards the camera. The film is moody, and reflects back at the viewer the fear and pessimism of all those who try to unravel mysteries and expose “the mysterious They” as the film puts it. As the film suggests, the world is made up of too many people positioned between the veneer of civilization and an abyss of dread and death. Too many of us in fact are Cloris Leachman, standing in the light of oncoming traffic, hardly clothed, amnesiac, on the edge of the road looking out into the surrounding darkness.
Kiss Me Deadly
dir. Robert Aldrich
Screens Thursday, 8/18, 7:00 PM @ Harvard Film Archive
Part of the ongoing series: …All the Marbles (The Complete Robert Aldrich)