adrin neatrour writes: Retrocrit: pleasure for pain; sex for death
Kiss Me Deadly – Robert Aldrich USA 1955: Ralph Meeker – Maxine Cooper
Viewed Star and Shadow Newcastle 13 July 08 Ticket price £4-00
Retrocrit: pleasure for pain; sex for death
The Kiss Me Deadly (KMD) opens with a disorienting travelling shot that is dominated by its sound. We are in almost complete darkness. We’re in the back seat of a car, behind the driver and his female passenger and we’re driving through the night. Our attention is fixed not on the visual field which comprises of poorly defined shapes outlined in the blackness, but on the sound issuing from the woman. At first I thought that the panting and clonic gaspings of the woman were sexually stimulated which given the year of production surprised me. It was only when the film cut to the reverse shot, face on to the couple, that I realised that in fact the woman was crying.
The mistake had the effect of making me feel self conscious for being so palpably wrong footed, for completely misconstruing the sound effect and interpreting pain as pleasure. Was I conditioned by the sexual crudity of contemporary drama so that I automatically equated rhythmic female panting with sex? Or did Aldrich exploit, as his opening gambit, the ambiguity of the sound made by the woman, intending to put the viewer on alert, to induce latent uncertainty as a core premise in the working out of the movie. Beware: pleasure is uncovered as pain; beware what men covet and prize beyond value is deadly and worthless: it will lead us into doom.
The female passenger in the car – a hitchhiker on the run – is the first victim in the film: the first of many. And the opening sequence, the unrelenting drive through the hell black night, ends with her words –“ Remember me!” The drive has a dream like ominous quality that engendered in me a gloomy and oppressed state of mind, a mood that remains imprinted in the film till its explosive eschatological ending. This driving sequence is a powerful filmic device, a metaphor that anticipates the terrible drive into the future, and its cost in human dignity and lives, not just in the play out of the mechanics of the plot of KMD but also for the future of a planet driven by consuming desire to possess nuclear weapons that ensure mutual annihilation. We are on the road to the doomsday machine of Strangelove.
“Remember me…!” the hitchhiker commands Mike the gumshoe as they drive through the night. The film lingers and worries about the meaning of her words, the words of the first victim, underlining and reemphasising them in the course of the plot. What did she mean? But where else do we have we heard and read these words? “They shall not be forgotten…” “Remember!” is the rubric that adorns the graves of the war dead, the headstones and walls where the names of the Fallen are carved in stone so that they are not forgotten but remembered. “Remember me” is the command of the war dead lest we forget the reason for their dieing. The young woman’s words are a sign pointing to the potential bleak future where millions of innocents might be annihilated in nuclear war.
Neither the mechanics of the plot nor the acting are any more than accessories to the real dynamic of the movie which is the strategic use of the camera set-ups and movements to create both worlds of immanence and amplified circuits of tension that inform the states of mind of the viewers. Two long sequences in particular stand out (the sequence establishing the swimming pool at the gangster’s house is also very fine) that are composed in one single shot: Mike’s visit to the gym; and his visit to the garret of opera singer. The in-frame edit of the action through camera movement engenders in both scenes an amplified spatial tension. And as the camera tracks through the spatial axes it works as a force amplifying and transforming the spatial tensions in relation to the verbal intercourse that takes place between Mike and the other players. This heightened tensile awareness could not have been created through use of the traditional montage device of cross cutting which generally through action cutting increases pace and attempts to induce tension through juxtaposition opposition etc but at the cost of losing durational time dynamic. In KMD Aldrich has produced a movie that creates its spatial tensions not through action cuts but through time images. Having noted above that the mechanics of the acting are accessories to the film it must be said that all the players, in particular Meeker, have the fine technical sense of timing necessary to the delivery of the film in this particular form.
The set-ups used by the camera are also definitive of he KMD. The consistent framing of shots so that they conceal rather than reveal. The framing of feet and legs is integral to the style of the film. This has of course been done before, but integrity and panache with which the shots are et up and incorporated make them part of what KMD is expressing, a world that is corporate rather then individual. Likewise the use of the camera set-ups from surveillance angles points to more than just a Hitchcock conceit: it seems to be saying something a society which is in the process of developing collective paranoia. Likewise the most noteworthy prop on the set: Mike’s early prototype Anasphone which is a ¼ inch tape recorder fixed into the wall and tripped by the phone. It’s prominence and position in the film rather than its role in the plot suggest that like the rubric ‘Remember me!’, it is a sign not a symbolic function.
Some Hollywood films have gone for fiery Armageddon types of endings – White Heat for example. But as far as I am aware although the visual effects were uncompromising the message of such endings is always moralistic. Aldrich in KMD brings down the curtain with a holocaust, a nuclear explosion from which his protagonists vainly flee. There is nothing moralistic, only the moral that the technology that we have brought into the world is indifferent to our desires and works on the simple logic of being a force for universal annihilation. No prisoners are taken. There is no salvation. There is no hope. I imagine Antonione watching KMD with some interest.