Definitely a film we should have reviewed a while ago – Robert Aldrich, who was one of the most subversive directors ever to come out of Hollywood, takes a run-of-the-mill Mickey Spillane-Mike Hammer yarn, and turns it into one of the most revered, referenced cult movies of all time. What’s in the box? Wouldn’t you like to know…
Hitchcock called it the MacGuffin – the plot element that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction. Sometimes, the specific nature of the MacGuffin is not important to the plot – anything that serves as a motivation can serve its purpose. The MacGuffin can sometimes be ambiguous, completely undefined, generic or left open to interpretation. Think the ‘government secrets’ in North by Northwest (1959), the stolen $40,000 in Psycho (1960) and, of course, the ‘black box’ in Pulp Fiction (1994).
Did I say ‘black box’? Fancy that. It was actually a briefcase in Tarantino’s masterpiece, of which the audience never discover the contents, but it certainly contained something spooky. Beautiful, maybe, in the words of Tim Roth, but spooky.
Well, guess what? Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) was there almost 40 years before QT and, in terms of lasting impact, will probably still be around when Tarantino and his films are dust on the wind.
To begin, Aldrich’s film is pure private-eye schtick. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is driving down a lonely LA road one dark night when a young woman, Christina (Cloris Leachman), wearing nothing apart from a coat, tears out in front of his car. Reluctantly offering her a lift, things take a turn for the worse very quickly, when Hammer’s car is driven off the road and Christina is kidnapped. She had left Mike a message, however – ‘Remember Me’. Hammer eventually escapes his assailants, but Christina is killed and, in investigating her death, our man is sucked into a deadly vortex of intrigue, conspiracy and danger, all of which centres on ‘The great whatsit’ – something contained in a lead-lined black box. And what could it be?
Velda: You want to avenge the death of your dear friend. How touching. How sweet. How nicely it justifies your quest for the great whatsit.
Lt. Pat Murphy: Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. ‘Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity.’
The film is nothing short of astonishing. Quite how Aldrich got away in 1955 with the violence and sexuality (suggested and overt) that is at the heart of the story, coupled with an entirely unlikeable character as its ‘hero’, is beyond this reviewer – but he’s very glad that he did. For example? Well, Christina is vaginally tortured to death, for starters, and check out the scene where an unco-operative doctor gets his hand slammed in a drawer by Hammer, as well as his cold-blooded dispatching of a set of goons. He’s a bad mo-fo, no doubt.
But the narrative has so much more going on than mere violence. The immaculately scripted (A.I. Bezzerides) build-up as to what the box may actually contain, that ends in one of cinema’s most explosive climaxes, is simply peerless – and you return to a world that’s filled, then as now, with atomic paranoia. In addition, it is, thanks to the gloriously exaggerated performance by Nick Dennis as Mike’s doomed car mechanic Nick, the first time the expression ‘Va-va-voom’ was used. ‘Eh, Mike, real va-va-voom, eh Mike?’
Dr. Soberin: The head of Medusa. That’s what’s in the box, and who looks on her will be changed not into stone but into brimstone and ashes. But of course you wouldn’t believe me, you’d have to see for yourself, wouldn’t you?
Too late, doctor. What’s in the box? The end of the world.