“It’s like a bad dream, written in a stormy night”, a voice-over tells us right at the beginning of the first section, titled “Remakes”, of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le livre d’image (2018). The spoken words are accompanied by newsreel images in brash colors of the mushroom cloud from the explosion of an atomic bomb intercut with high-contrast images from the final scene of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), as Mike Hammer and Velda, in an environment strobing between intense light and darkness, escape the beach house on the verge of exploding after the nuclear powers within the mysterious box, “the great whatsit”, have been unleashed. Le livre d’image (Jean-Luc Godard, 2018)
Aldrich’s film was an instant hit among mid-50s French film critics (André Bazin mentioned it in seven of his published writings) and budding filmmakers, and has remained a reference point for Godard, in interviews and films, until today. The fascination for the film was informed by its overturning of style conventions in a general sense, and as a particularly unfaithful adaptation of its source material. Claude Chabrol wrote in Cahiers du cinema that the film was created from “the worst material to be found, the most deplorable, the most nauseous product of a genre in a state of putrefaction: a Mickey Spillane story”. The unfaithfulness was in part associated with the destabilization of the ideology of the source material. Spillane apparently hated the film. In Thom Anderson’s compilation film Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), where the Kiss Me Deadly is prominently featured, it is describedas a “revisionist version” of Spillane, trying to reverse his “hyper-fascist version of McCarthyism”. Similarly, Janet Staiger has discussed the strategies chosen by both Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides in order to actively criticize and mock the source novel through their adaptation.
In addition to the ideological critique of Spillane, the film offered a kind of stylistic subversion which led to it being received, mainly in a French context, as argued by Peter Stanfield as “something akin to a dream”, maybe also a bad one, as Godard suggests. Foregrounding the oneiric qualities of the film’s sound and images but also the somewhat incoherent structure of the narrative and its unresolved enigmas, Truffaut compared it to Cocteau’s Le sang d’un poète, Roger Tailleur with the surrealist poem.
Kiss Me Deadly is often placed within the tradition of the film noir while also signaling both the decline of this tradition and as introducing themes that would later be associated with the forthcoming “neo-noir”. Already in 1955 Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton described the film as “the desperate flip side” of The Maltese Falcon, sometimes considered the inaugural film noir, with Aldrich ending its narrative by “the most radical of solutions: nuclear apocalypse”. The film contains, to quote B. Ruby Rich, an “irrational universe embedded in [a] demonic [narrative]” picked up by neo-noir during the last decades of the twentieth century.
The influence of Kiss Me Deadly is clearly felt in Godard’s Aphaville, released ten years later, in 1965: the fantasy of dystopia embedded in the real locations, the abrupt violence, the tweaking with the logic of narrative genre tropes, of the visual motifs of film noir, of a popular main character from several other stories (Mike Hammer and Lemmy Caution, respectively) that is both recognizable and unrecognizable.
In addition to the idea of the “bad dream”, there is the curious notion of the “remake” in the section heading of Godard’s latest film, suggested by the montage between smoke emanating from the reality of the atomic explosion and the fear of nuclear disaster projected onto the smoke of an exploding beach house. Although certainly not a remake in terms of plot, a film that nevertheless remakes numerous elements from Kiss Me Deadly precisely within the logic of a bad dream, is David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Released in 1997, Lynch even labeled the film predictivelyas “a 21st-century noir”, even though a distinct fin-de-siecle 1990s aesthetic and sensibility certainly pervades everything contained in the work.
Barry Gifford, the novelist who co-wrote the screenplay of Lost Highway with Lynch, wrote briefly about Kiss Me Deadly in his book, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir, in 1988, and claims that what we see in Aldrich’s film is the director’s “interior vision, translated onto the screen as life barely under control”. He somewhat exaggerates the differences in plot between Mickey Spillane’s novel (from 1952) and Aldrich’s film. In fact, the plot of the film follows the novel quite closely in many instances but also deviates in the change of location from New York to Los Angeles, and in the introduction of a box with stolen nuclear material rather than the suitcase filled with drugs found in the novel.
Gifford describes Mike Hammer, as played in the film by Ralph Meeker, as “a kind of an automaton, almost as he’d been body-snatched and is running on remote control”. This description is perhaps even more suggestive of the relationship between Kiss Me Deadly and Lost Highway as films, not only because of the motif of body snatching, doubles, doppelgangers and rebirths so central to many of Lynch’s works, but also in the way elements of Kiss Me Deadly are reconfigured and relocated: not necessarily as a discernable narrative or plot element but as visual and sensory motifs displaced or “body-snatched” onto new surfaces. A number of these displacements will be demonstrated through a series of images below.
Some of these motifs are very distinct, like the dark highways seen from the front window of a car during the credit sequences. Or like the exploding beach house, whose destruction in Lost Highway, however, is played backwards, similar to how the credits at the beginning of Kiss Me Deadly curiously move backwards through the frame (we see the word “DEADLY” before “KISS ME”).
Some motifs appear as more generic, to be found in numerous films, like the image of a man and a woman driving through the night. The image is, however, unmistakably undergoing processes of repetition and difference, first between Kiss Me Deadly and Lost Highway, and then through variations within Lynch’s film.
Some are recurring locations, appropriate for Los Angeles. A garage.
A mansion with a swimming pool.
Some are staples of film noir imagery. The blonde femme fatale who has just been revealed as concealing her real identity pointing a gun at the protagonist (who seems to be placed right next to the audience).
Some displacements are small moments or images or even flashes of light snatched from one narrative event onto another, or transferred from one object to another. Such as a car crashing into the car in front of it, purposefully (although the purposes are not the same).
Mike in 1955, and Fred in 1997, walking along dark corridors, at times almost disappearing into the darkness.
Mike in 1955, and Pete in 1997, walking along corridors that alternate, rhythmically, back and forth, between a blinding white light and darkness.
When Mike Hammer tries to open the hot leather box: a sudden white light, scattered in the camera’s lens. Bright light and lens flare repeated 42 years later as Fred opens the trunk of his car and is attacked by Mr. Eddie.
The dialogue of Kiss Me Deadly repeatedly refers to the theme of resurrection, and even though Mike Hammer remains Mike Hammer throughout the film, the bodies of Mike, Fred and Pete are doubled through superimpositions by both Aldrich and Lynch.
The doubling of the same body through superimposition, and Lynch and Gifford’s body snatching plot also bear resemblance to Aldrich’s treatment of the human body and the human voice in Kiss Me Deadly. Bodies are transgressed and violated on a diegetic level, and fragmented and displaced through framing (in particular a tendency to show character’s legs and feet before their faces or upper bodies), editing, and a demonstrative disconnect between sound and image. The sound of dialogue from past scenes sometimes brusquely added onto what we see on the screen is the only thing that resembles such stylistic noir staples as flashbacks or voice-over commentary in the film. The disembodiment of the human voice, in particular that of the mysterious Dr. Soberin, whose face we only see at the end of the film, is perhaps at its eeriest when the doctor’s voice appears on Mike’s high-tech answering machine. This disembodiment through technological devices is explored in further detail in Lost Highway, not only by way of the video camera, but also the telephone, which produces doubles placed in several locations simultaneously (the Mystery Man through telephone, Fred being on both the talking and receiving end of the intercom’s mysterious message: “Dick Laurent is dead”).
In the aforementioned Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Thom Anderson describes Kiss Me Deadly as being “close to definitive as a portrait of the city in the mid-50s”, a “literalist film” shot on location and featuring real addresses and real streets. Anderson is particularly interested in the nostalgia evoked by images of that which has been destroyed – “obsolete gas stations and grocery stores”, especially the film’s images of the Bunker Hill district, whose “destruction and depopulation” was unwittingly documented in Hollywood films during the 1940s and 1950s and which soon was to become unrecognizable through urban renewal, through destruction and rebirth.
The “real streets” displayed right at the beginning of the film, do not, however, announce the location of the film, Anderson reminds us. They are initially general, standardized, location-unspecific roads that look like highways in the dark anywhere, to be displaced or lost, or to return as in the beginning of Lost Highway, and then as in a continual loop, to reappear at the end.
In order to explain to Mike Hammer that he is out of his depth in his search for the “great whatsit”, the detective Pat speaks in terms that are both concrete and in the form of a riddle, placing the story of the film in real-life nuclear events. He says: “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”.
While it is unclear what the explosion in Lost Highway refers to , Lynch’s more recent Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) becomes, to paraphrase Anderson, a “literalist” film in its echoes of Aldrich by, just like Godard the year after, showing the image of a specific nuclear test, with a place, a date. Even a name, already mentioned by the detective in Kiss Me Deadly: Trinity. Lost Highway perhaps never became the twenty-first-century noir that Lynch promised but stayed in the confines of the 1990s, displaying a kind of fear whose effectiveness lies in the fact that we do not understand exactly why we are afraid of what we see. In this century, as during the Cold War, perhaps we know more clearly what we should fear, what our bad dreams should be about – ending our narrative by the most radical of solutions: the end of the world.
Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, 2017)
Eirik Frisvold Hanssen