The World Ending Object
Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich’s noir of 1955, ends memorably.
A beach bungalow. Los Angeles at night. The film’s private detective busts into the bad guy’s hideout. A beautiful, double-crossing dame, gun in hand, lures him to her with the promise of a kiss, then shoots him in the stomach at point-blank range. As he lies doubled-up on the floor, she turns to the leather-bound case on the coffee table, the case that everyone throughout the film—our private detective, the cops, the villains—has been trying to find. She opens it and a white-hot glow and an eerie, deathly sound fill the room. She stares into the box, wild-eyed, screams, and bursts into flames, her hands still fixed on the box’s handle. The wounded detective manages to get up, frees the other woman he came to save, and together they stagger out into the cold Pacific Ocean as the bungalow in the background is engulfed in a mushroom-cloud atomic explosion.
One of the strangest and most singular noirs, a film often considered to be the last of the genre, Kiss Me Deadly is manifestly bleak, even by noir standards. Its mushroom cloud climax, which simultaneously ends the film and the world that the film depicts, is unprecedented. It takes us beyond the standard range of noir’s lurid evils (murder, money, femme fatales) and into a completely new kind of danger and dread: the Atomic Age. In this way, the film simultaneously kills off one era by presenting the spectacle of a new one. It does this by introducing a leather-bound case into the narrative that seems like a stock noir plot device up until it is revealed to be one of the darkest of the Cold War’s consumables, a handheld world-destroying bomb.
As someone whose work addresses in part the narrative potential of objects, often foregrounding them in short films, Kiss Me Deadly’s case (or its “Whatsit,” as it is referred to in the film) is of singular importance. It exemplifies the unique potential of “things” in films whose real and symbolic functions transcend the practical properties of simple objects.
For the first half of the film, the audience, riding alongside Mike Hammer, our aptly named brutish detective hero, hears only accounts of the mysterious “Whatsit.” We know it to be “something small,” “something easily hidden,” and something valuable enough to leave dozens of corpses in its wake. When Hammer finally traces it down (still unaware of what it is) to a locker in a private health club, we see that it is square in shape, the size roughly of a typewriter box. Its leather casing runs horizontally down the middle with metal rivets puncturing it on all sides. Two leather straps, buckled at the front, serve to hold it together. The leather is worn; the casing appears to be custom made. The removal of the top half of the casing reveals a hinged metal box with a metal looped handle inside.
So far, so conventional. The case is a variation of something used countless times in other films to secure or transport valuables. “What is it that we are seeking? Diamonds? Narcotics?” one of the gangsters asks Hammer, knowing he cannot guess what the case really contains. But thinking it full of noir-like treasures the characters treat it accordingly. Without knowing its exact contents, they assume, like the audience, that it obeys the conventions of noir storytelling. And for all intents and purposes, it seems to act like a prop, a “MacGuffin,” the thing in a film that propels the characters into (predictable) action.
But the “Whatsit” makes things strange.
While removing the leather casing, Hammer realises that the metal box it contains is hot to the touch. Confused, he opens it hesitantly, and a searing white light and ghostly sound emerges. Scared, he quickly closes it, but not before the box’s white light has burned a deep line into his wrist. Shaken, he leaves the box in the locker, telling the attendant: “Whatever it is, don’t let anyone near it!” This is a transcendent moment, not just for Hammer, but for the whole of cinema, because the object that seemed designed for a noir actually refers us to another, different genre, that of science fiction.
So rather than following the rules of film noir, the “Whatsit” presents a problem to the very logic of Kiss Me Deadly’s narrative structure. And its design is what accomplishes this, making us think one thing while telling us another. In this sense, it is a triumph of defamiliarization. Through this object Aldrich complicates the short-sightedness of his film’s main character as well as the limits of the genre he is the hero of. With the introduction of a hand-held doomsday device (the 1950’s version of today’s “dirty bomb”), the critical and narrative limitations of noir are laid bare; the genre proves too sluggish to comprehend the implicit dangers of an Atomic Age. Gone is the economy of noir (the loot), gone is its specific geography (the city), its anti-heroes (the private eyes, the gangsters) and their singular drives (their greed, their revenge). What replaces these conventions are much larger, more planetary in scale: governmental agencies, warring ideologies (capitalism and communism), and nuclear annihilation.
By introducing a horror greater than the hero and his genre can fathom, the “Whatsit” succeeds not only in troubling the direction of the film, but also in troubling the act of reading cinema. It uses the expectations of the audience against itself, and in so doing profoundly comments on the unpreparedness of a population transitioning from postwar to cold-war.
Thus the pitiably outdated Hammer turns parodic in the film’s final scene as he bangs his way into the bungalow hideout where the bad guys are holed up with the “goods.” Obedient to the noir they all think they’re in, the remaining characters mechanically betray, murder, go punch-drunk with greed, rescue the damsel-in-distress. A typically noirish order struggles to impose itself. Each plays his or her part (in predictably gendered ways) straight on down the line.
All, that is, except the “Whatsit.”
Its changes have unsettled everything and everyone else. It has changed in form (it is no longer containable to its metal box), and it has changed in value (it has abolished the very real economies on which the old values were based). And, as if this were not remarkable enough, the transformation it undergoes over the course of the film (from what we imagine it to be to what it becomes) complicates the basic logic of the film noir and the objects it designs and imagines. The film’s crime may be in some general sense “solved” (we know “who” killed and “why”) but the mystery of the “Whatsit” remains (where it came from, how it was purchased, who the villains are that we now face). In other words, what we thought was a mere prop proves to be the narrative’s most compelling character, the only one whose actions are commensurate with the world it is in. In the end it seems to be the only one who knows it is in a science fiction film, and since the rest of the characters are incapable of possessing it (i.e., to capture its potential), it follows its own logic through by detonating (thus ensuring no one can have it). The energies it represents (destruction on a planetary scale) are too much for a noir to contain. It is the ambition of Kiss Me Deadly’s “Whatsit” to defy genre, to misbehave, to disrupt narrative conventions and genre expectations. And it is the trouble that it gets into or causes that perfectly exemplifies what motivates me to desire, define, and design the cinematic object, or, put differently, to imagine (cinematically) the worlds that objects make, or end.