Kiss Me Deadly definitively incorporates a large range of effects proper to films noirs. From the particular use of light to low shot angles, this monument of the genre is the living memory of an era’s fascinating aesthetic style.
Hard would it be the argue against the belonging of the movie to the typical visual and narrative vocabulary of film noir. Let us begin with the shot angles. The first we forcefully experience is during the hospital scene, where Mike Hammer wakes up after the car accident. In one of the first shots, we see the bed in diagonal, stretching from the high left to the bottom right of the screen. Leaning the camera in such a way puts us, the audience, in the eyes of a hypothetical roommate of Hammer, looking on its left and seing the injured’s visitors.
A little bit further, we see the Velda and Pat on top of the bed, from the eyes of Hammer. This kind of shot, again, puts the viewer in a perspective, and in this particular case, in a dominated position, or at least weak situation, the same Hammer is experiencing at that moment.
Light and shades, of course, are central features of film noir. High key light is typical of the genre, and Kiss Me Deadly is no exception. Throughout the movie, we encounter pronounced shades on the characters faces, especially when the situation is tense. In the very first scene, for example, when in the car, Hammer’s face is half in the dark, making him quite untrustworthy, disturbing. Is he the bad guy? Or an insignificant character? The inexact features of his face pushes him away from our attention, letting us focus on the lady he just picked up, much better lightened and thus recognizable in the very beginning, when passed by by numerous cars.
Another very powerful shot takes place when Gabrielle aka Lily Carver decides, against the repeated advice of Dr. Soberin, to open the box. She exposes herself to what appears to be a very powerful kind of nuclear reaction, and bursts into flames in terrifying apocalyptic sounds. The box emits a strong light, creating horrifying shadows on her face and making the scene even more dreadful. Here again, lighting emphasizes the emotion the director wanted to produce in a very direct and efficient way.
Finally, I would like to make a point on the role of women in Kiss Me Deadly and moreover in other films noirs. Female characters have a very ambiguous role in the film, and it struck me how confuse I was about them. Leaving aside my tendency to credulity in front of beautiful women, leading me to completely miss their probably obvious intentions, I think it is arguable that women are on purpose portrayed as not predictable “creatures”, if I may. They seem to evolve in a parallel world, potentially betraying the man at any moment.
At the beginning of the movie, I was convinced I had figured out Velda’s real goals and was prepared to see her be disloyal to Hammer. She had good reasons for that: Velda was Hammer’s laborer, using her body and intimacy to provide the private inspector with work, while still being his lover and taking care of him. She could have deserved more than the indifference Hammer usually granted her, but she did not betray him and stayed loyal until the very end. Inversely, I was very confident on the truthfulness of Lily Carter, whereas she was the one who turned out to be the enemy.
The figure of the woman is employed to confuse, because using feelings and sexual desire are probably some of the most effective ways to confuse men. Put in two words, it gives femme fatale.
Despite the fact that many other aspects of the movie further root it to this unique genre, here were some key points I considered essential for the unfamiliar viewer to appreciate the treasures of film noir aesthetics.