Robert Aldrich | Kiss Me Deadly | World for Ransom | Ten Seconds to Hell
Classic Film and Television Home Page
There is a remarkably detailed visual analysis of the film in "Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style" by Alain Silver, in Film Noir Reader (1996), edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini. The remarks below are simply intended to point out a few more things about this film, one of the most complex and creative of all film noirs.
1) The showing of an irregular wall along one side of the shot. When Mike Hammer's car pulls up to a gas station near the beginning of the film, we see the entire front of the gas station along the right side of the shot. The gas station facade is by no means smooth; it contains many projections. All of these are fully lit up. The gas station is shot as if it were an elaborate piece of sculpture, like one of Louise Nevelson's friezes. As the camera moves past it, it emphasizes the station's complex 3D qualities. The projections on the station all are "rectilinear": they are "box" like, with flat, perpendicular walls.
A shot with even greater depth of field shows Mike Hammer knocking on a door in the Angel's Flight neighborhood. Behind him we see first a long narrow alleyway, then a huge depth of field showing a Los Angeles city scape. This is an astonishing shot. Both the alley and the cityscape are irregular, just like the gas station. They are full of protuberances, and show a huge amount of specialized detail. The stairs view is bounded on the left by many protuberances from the building, mainly rectilinear, although there are some angular planes as well.
A third similar shot shows the left hand side wall of Hammer's apartment. The tables and furniture form the rectilinear protuberances near Hammer's wall.
2) Aldrich often shows scenes with an L construction. For example, take the gas station, once the characters stop there and get gas. The front of the station is a long horizontal space. Then, at the left hand side of the station, we also see a walkway going straight back from the camera. The walkway is joined to the front of the station like the letter L. The front of the station forms the long part of the L, the shorter walkway the connecting stoke at the base of the L. Hammer's apartment is set up in a similar way. There is a long living room that is often shot so that it stretches from left to right, horizontally across the screen (just like the front of the gas station). Then at the left of the screen, a passage leading straight away from the camera leads to Mike Hammer's bed room (like the walkway at the left of the gas station). This is the same geometry of set design and camera set up in both scenes. The gym shows a similar L, but with the passage (the staircase) on the right hand side of the shot, not the left.
The L construction shows movement in two completely perpendicular directions. This emphasizes the 3D nature of the shot. People do move along the short bar of the L: for example, at the gas station Cloris Leachman moves first down the side of the gas station, directly away from the camera, then returns the same way straight toward the camera.
One can find somewhat similar effects in Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai (1948). Grisby's business office in the film contains both a wall with a safe, parallel to the image plane and close up, and areas of greater depth, containing the desk. Welles tracks from the deep region to the shallow, and back again. Aldrich shows a slightly different over all pattern, of revealing the geometry of the scene. Aldrich will typically start at the flatter part of the composition, showing the viewer nothing but a flat planar surface, parallel to the frame. Then a lateral track will reveal the deep area opening up: something that is visually quite surprising. Then Aldrich will typically show both parts of the L at once.
There are variations in this approach. At Carver's apartment, the deep area is in the center of the shot, not the edge. The effect is of an inverted T, not an L. At first, the door leading to the central deep part is closed, and the viewer cannot see it: the whole image looks like a flat surface. Then Hammer opens the door, and the deep well is revealed. The effect is even more startling than the tracking. Here the central area includes the complexity of a staircase, unlike the corridor like wells of the L shots, so the effect is even more complex and startling.
3) Aldrich will often include different pointing planes in the same shot. This gives a sense of 3D to the scene. For example, a two shot of Hammer and his policeman friend Pete show each near a door. Pete's door is closed, and pointing along one plane. Hammer's door is slightly open, and pointing in a different direction, at an angle to the first door. Both men are standing along the edge of their door, so that the door underlines and exaggerates the positioning of their bodies. Each seems more macho and aggressive, with the full rectangular region of the door behind them. They also seem at slightly cross purposes. Like the directions of the doors, they seem both nearly in the same direction, but also skewed on an angle to each other. The geometry of the scene also suggests things about their personal relationship. It also helps characterize Mike Hammer: he is a man who likes to have his back scratched, like a cat. Some people like to stand so that a door is rubbing them in their back: Hammer is one of them.
The hospital scene shows an astonishing composition formed by tilting the camera. One component of this composition: a screen. The screen is placed at an angle jutting out of the wall. This is not so unusual if the scene were filmed straight on, but tilted as it is, it makes a very unusual planar projection into the surface. One is reminded of the early three dimensional reliefs of Picasso and then Tatlin, which also use a basically flat background, such as Aldrich's hospital wall, with other planes jutting out at slight angles, such as Aldrich's screen.
4) A scene in a bedroom shoots a table and its contents at an angle. The camera is turned at an angle that does not align with either of the perpendicular axes of the table. But, a clock on the table is turned so that it is exactly parallel to the plane of the shot. The clock is a very small space, but it becomes the center of the shot, because it is in such geometric alignment with the camera frame. The effect is to underline visually the various planes of the shot. It emphasizes the contrast between the camera plane, and the planes of the room and the table. The viewer becomes much more conscious of them then if the table were merely shot at a slightly off angle.
5) Aldrich sometimes sets up his camera so that Hammer is parallel to the plane of the image, but everything else in the background is at an angle. For example, when Hammer is released from the hospital, the hospital building itself is at an angle to the camera. It makes elaborate, perspectival lines on the image, similar to those often found in Anthony Mann's He Walked By Night. Hammer himself is at an angle to the background, but facing straight to the camera. This gives a very odd effect. In part, the viewer perceives Hammer to be at an angle to the building. But the viewer also sees Hammer face on. It is a very strange thing to watch. Here it is underlined by the fact that Hammer walks straight towards the camera. It produces another line in the image, one at angles to the background. There are similar effects in Hammer's apartment, when he is listening to his answering machine for the first time in the film.
6) Some shots in the film show simple perpendicularity. For example, there are scenes of cars, pointed not along a roadway, but turned 90 degrees from the roadway, so that they are pointing directly at its edge. This gives a 3D effect. Similarly, when Hammer leaves the night club, his car is at a 90 degree angle to the entrance way of the club.
Soon Hammer will get up from the desk, and move over to a bar in the foreground. This too is filled with phallic looking bottles and glasses. Its hard wooden surface echoes the desk.
There is a consistent depiction of men and women in these shots. Men are associated with technology and business, women with space and standing. Throughout the film, Hammer is often controlling machinery: his car, the answering machine, the telephone at the gym.
The bar scene with Friday has similar characteristics. It is not an L, but it is a corner scene, and the corner provides a 3D effect. Once again, Hammer is sitting, and occupies the bar; the woman gets the open area behind the bar. There are phallic symbols near him again, including bottles and a glass. Once again the woman is standing, and moving around some within an empty space. Once again, Hammer is in a business suit, the woman is in a party dress.
There is a similar disparity of approach at the gas station. Hammer gets the long horizontal area in the front of the station; the station is behind him, and he is sitting in control of the car. This corresponds to all the equipment and the desk in the business shot. By contrast, Chloris Leachman is associated with the deep well space receding from the left of the garage. This space is empty. She is often standing and moving in it, while Hammer is either seated in his car or moving just in front of it. Here the power might be on Hammer's side, but the mystery is on Leachman's. The long dark well of the alley is associated with her mysterious behavior, and the mystery of the plot.
There are other effects in the shot of Hammer and Velda in the office. The regularly repeating white labels on the back file cabinets echo the black and white checkerboard of the floor. The two areas both go together and clash: one is horizontal and in perspective (the floor); the other is vertical and parallel to the surface of the shot (the cabinets). The effect offers considerable visual tension. A third checkerboard element consists of the alternating whitish regions and black areas on the desk. These are less regular in their spacing than the floor squares or file cabinets, but they are similarly rectilinear. They too form a horizontal perspective element, like the floor. Such matching/clashing areas in the image give it a baroque quality, the effect of a complexly loaded image. Such shots are often associated with Aldrich's role model, Orson Welles. One also notes the X shapes sometimes assumed by Velda's body while stretching; it recalls the X shape formed by Chloris Leachman pointed out by Alain Silver in his analysis.
But Aldrich also generates straight line segments in other ways. The scene in which Nick discovers the new car outside includes some trees. These tree trunks are mainly vertical, but they are in fact tilted at slight angles to each other, a bit off the vertical. The trees are also widely spaced, so their trunks are completely separate, and at considerable distance from each other on the screen. The line segments formed by their trunks exactly fall into Aldrich's pattern: strong straight line segments, equally emphasized, widely spaced, at different angles. Aldrich must have shown some effort to hunt up exactly such a location.
The many planar segments in Kiss Me Deadly also tend to have straight line segment boundaries. They are doors, screens, walls. The two geometric patterns, lines and planes, make up the bulk of the compositional imagery in the film. There are a few curved surfaces, notably Hammer's cars. And there are some circles: a chair in Christina's room to the left of the table with the clock; the outdoor clock in the window during the shadowing sequence on the street. However, these circles are so rare as to look like visitors in Hammer's world, not citizens.
The separation of the lines gives a "clean" look to Aldrich's compositions. No individual section of them is cluttered. Everything is carefully spaced out into separate sections. The use of straight lines and planes also adds to the impression of visual cleanliness. No matter how wildly baroque the compositions become, they are always made up of very clear lines and planes, organized so that all of their patterns and configurations are easily visible.
By contrast, Kiss Me Deadly is full of powerful corrupt characters. These people seem to be full of a vulgar wealth: swimming pools and country clubs. These also seem to be remarkable stupid, to put it bluntly. Aldrich seems to be saying that their corruption has allowed these people to rise to the top. They have no real ability, and are remarkably lacking in any sort of virtue or accomplishment. Movie gangsters are often shown to be people of drive, dedication and talent, who are merely working on the wrong side of the law. Aldrich will have none of that. These people have no admirable qualities or accomplishments. They just seem incredibly dumb, for openers. Also, they seem lazy. The mobsters are shown sitting around a swimming pool taking bets. These are places of upper class idleness. They are not the big office headquarters of traditional gangsters, who run their crimes like a business. Aldrich grew up around rich people, and he completely deglamorizes them. One might envy these people their money, but otherwise one would hardly admire them. They seem like completely worthless pigs. Aldrich will treat other well to do people the same way in future films: Hustle shows a country club that is as vacuous and unappealing as the swimming pool in Kiss Me Deadly.
Where Hammer falls in this continuum of intellectuality is hard to guess. At the beginning of the film, Leachman's character asks him if he likes to read poetry, and he gives her a "you gotta be kidding look" that squelches the whole idea. After all, Hammer is the ultimate 50's macho man. But later scenes suggest Hammer has a hidden intellectual side. When he visits Leachman's apartment, her radio station is tuned to classical music, which he leaves on (Schubert's Unfinished Symphony). Later, in his own apartment, he is listening to classical music on the radio himself. Still later, in one of the most notorious anti-intellectual scenes in American film, he threatens the opera singer by smashing one of his records. Hammer in this scene behaves like a monstrous anti-intellectual thug. Maybe he is simply this. But one also suspects that he is deeply conflicted. Perhaps he is trying to suppress impulses in himself that 50's culture does not allow him to express, such as a love for culture.
Hammer is an outsider in the film, trying to be an insider. He is treated with contempt by every middle class person who knows him, other than his secretary. His quest to solve the crime is motivated pure and simple by a desire to get his cut of the take, through blackmail. He comes to a terrible end through this. But there is also a certain pathos to Hammer. He is a man from a working class background trying to better himself, in a society that just will not respect him.
Hammer also experiences "insight" as a detective - enabling him to discover the book of Rossetti poems that will play a key role in the case. Kiss Me Deadly is after all a detective film. Here, Hammer begins to work as a genuine detective. While much of his behavior in the film is horrible, his detective insight in this episode is genuinely admirable, and presented as such by Aldrich. Such scenes in which detectives get the profound insight that allows them to understand their cases much more deeply are one of the core elements of the detective genre. They are perhaps the defining moments that make detectives be detectives, in many mystery works. The archetypal example is the night Sherlock Holmes spends meditating deeply on the mystery in "The Man With the Twisted Lip" (1891), after which he has all the ideas needed to solve the case. The Schubert music conveys this depth of mental process going on in Mike Hammer's brain. The music has a profound sense of interiority - it conveys a sense that he is undergoing a unique form of mental experience. It has a dual role: it suggests Leachman's thought processes, and suggests Hammer is at last making contact with and understanding Leachman's inner life; and the music also suggests that Hammer himself is operating at some sort of higher level of thinking than usual.
Aldrich is not alone in having music-centered scenes express the higher state of consciousness known as "insight". Alfred Hitchcock has characters solve the mystery that has been plaguing them in the musical sequences in Young and Innocent (1937) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). As Robin Wood has pointed out, the Doris Day protagonist not only prevents the assassination during the musical sequence in the latter film, but she also makes the key personal breakthrough against the restrictions of her life, getting her voice back again. Insight is also found by characters in musical episodes of other Hitchcock films, such as Marlene Dietrich's song in Stage Fright (1950), and the ballet in Torn Curtain (1966). One can virtually watch Paul Newman think in the latter film, due to Hitchcock's ability to visualize mental processes.
A filmmaker who on the surface is very different from Hitchcock also used music-centered scenes to convey higher mental states. Oskar Fischinger was a creator of abstract animated films, often set to music. Motion Painting No. 1 (1947) is set to a Bach piece, and shows the process of creating an abstract painting, step by step. Here a music-centered film is used to express the mystery of artistic creation. Many music videos also evoke higher states of consciousness and insight, such as Brian Grant's explorations of ritual.
Mike Hammer is also shown against a whole wall of books. This too conveys that he is thinking. Such imagery is similar that appearing in many comic books of the era. Comic books often showed the hero at home in his apartment, reading in an easy chair, with huge bookcases full of books stretching off into the illustration. This indicated that the hero was a thinker, an intellectual, and a man who valued and revered ideas. Comic books were often profoundly pro-intellectual, and celebrated heroes who used their brains to solve problems and help others. Hammer is not quite at this level - the books here are someone else's. But they are serving as similar images of intellectuality and thinking here, during this scene in which Hammer is experiencing "insight" into solving the case. Perhaps a bit oddly, the fact that there are three rows of books on the shelves behind Hammer, together with some blank wall behind the bookshelves, also seems similar to much comic book imagery. Comics often showed three rows of books, with some wall space showing as well; rather than the English Mansion Library featured in movie whodunits with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. I do not know why this is so. It does somehow suggest that the hero is actually using the books, that it is personal home space. The floor-to-ceiling books instead suggest a public institution, like a Public Library.
The spiral (part of the bed frame) Hammer encounters in the musical sequence is also a symbol of the interior of the mind. It is right next to the table which has the Rossetti poetry book. Spirals were prominent in Aldrich's previous film, World for Ransom.
The finale, with the hero shot and trapped in a burning house, trying to rescue his captive girl friend, recalls that in Anthony Mann's Raw Deal (1948). The fact that it is a beach house recalls Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949).
World for Ransom improves on a second viewing. It is one of those private eye tales, in which the characters are always talking about people we have not yet seen. These conversations are very difficult to follow on first viewing. They always are! Is there anybody out there who really likes this confusing private eye movie convention, or who does not get completely lost? After one has seen the film, and is familiar with all the characters, these conversations become a lot more meaningful. The dialogue is full of genuine characterization of these off screen presences; it makes a lot more sense when we know who they are.
World for Ransom is similar to the later Kiss Me Deadly in that both are private eye stories whose villains are spies dealing with nuclear secrets. This makes them very different from most film noir, which tend to deal with an urban underworld and domestic crime. Henry Hathaway's The House on 92nd Street (1945), Fritz Lang's Cloak and Dagger (1946) and Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1954) also deal with nuclear spies, but it is unclear to me whether this or any other of Fuller's films are true film noir. The villain of World for Ransom is played by Gene Lockhart. He was also in The House on 92nd Street, emphasizing the continuity between the two films. He is chillingly believable as a man who would trade nuclear death for money. All of these films are full of government intelligence officials; these too are unusual characters in film noir. Such works all deal in a very direct fashion with the anxieties of the nuclear age.
In both Aldrich films the bad guys are ruthless about eliminating people. Anyone who comes into contact with them or who might know their secrets are murdered. They are negative forces sweeping through their worlds, paralleling the destructive bombs they are trying to steal. Both groups of bad guys are led by sinister professional types: the doctor in the later film, the brainy spy master here. Both men have a sort of sinister upper class status. Both men are intellectual, cold, and very deadly. He is the person who makes the decision to kill people in both films. The tactics of the bad guys is similar in both films: the scene where the scientist is tied down to the bed is echoed in the scenes of Mike Hammer being tied to the bed in Kiss Me Deadly.
Callahan seems a lot more honest and decent than Hammer. He has less than perfect motives for his quest: he is trying to get his old girlfriend back from his friend. Still, he is not trying to exploit the atomic secrets for profit, the way Hammer does. In some ways, Hammer is a combination of characters from the earlier film: he has Callahan's private eye profession and lower class status and alienation from the world; and Julian March's corruption and self-destructive willingness to exploit nuclear secrets for money. Most of the scenes in World for Ransom are from the point of view of either March or Callahan. The audience is encouraged to feel what they are feeling. They are clearly central characters.
Callahan has ties with a lot of underworld Singapore characters: the racket boss, and the lottery ticket seller on the streets. These characters are a source of information. Although they are not honest, they are not involved with the horrific nuclear trade, and they are not murderous. This gives Callahan a level of support, that is denied to Mike Hammer: there is no corresponding group of characters in the later film.
The casting of World for Ransom is distinctly odd. Aside from Dan Duryea (Callahan), most of the cast are veteran British actors, such as Patrick Knowles (Callahan's old friend and cheap crook Julian March), Reginald Denny (British Intelligence agent Major Bone) and Nigel Bruce (Governor of Singapore). Dan Duryea is not young himself, and he is surrounded by even older men. This seems to be one of those Hollywood films in which a veteran actor is placed in a world from which all trace of youthful competition has been removed. This is still a common practice today: for example, in the dreary remake of Mission: Impossible (1996), Tom Cruise exists in a world entirely populated by actors like Jon Voigt, so he can seem like the juvenile in the film. By contrast, Tom Hanks was brave enough to appear in (and direct) a film like That Thing You Do! (1997), in which he was the older authority figure to a whole troupe of young male performers. However, more seems to be going on here than Hollywood casting practices. Aldrich has always loved to work with casts of veteran performers. One thinks immediately of his Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965).
Robin Wood has suggested a homosexual theme in Aldrich's work. One can see such an approach in World for Ransom. Callahan and March were former best friends, who shared a woman. Such a ménage à trois is often seen as a gay relationship between two men. Later, Callahan and Bone will also develop a beautiful friendship. In their final scene together, as Bone is dying, the emotions spring forth. Callahan moves his body over Bone's, then holds him in his arms. Later, he makes a movement as if he were going to hug him or kiss him. Callahan jerks back - this is 1954. Still, the scene is very emotionally rich.
There is a doubling effect in Bone and March. Both men look very similar, being 40ish British men of similar appearance. March actually impersonates Bone early in the film, as his main contribution to the plot. Both men are associated with maps of Singapore at some point in the plot, underscoring the doubling. There is a suggestion later in the film that Bone is a replacement for March in Callahan's affections. Both men are clearly Callahan's type. But Bone has the integrity and character that March lacks, and which Callahan is desperate to find in other people.
Several other shots in the film involve masks. City shots are done through arches, windows or doors. Two city shots are done through elaborate screens: a complex masking effect recalling the bed frame in the heroine's room. Lee Wong's dark room is filled with machinery and film in the foreground, through which we see the actors. There is an elaborate window screen filled with hexagonally arranged slits, through which the heroes peer in the final shoot out. Outdoors, vegetation is also used as a mask over the foreground. A shot of soldiers talking on a radio in the jungle is shot with a branch spread out over the upper region of the screen. It has several branchlets pointing down from it. This branch is part of a composition that involves elaborate vegetation in the background.
There is also a notable shot towards the beginning, in which the camera points down through a long staircase. We see the actors in a great depth of field, as small beings surrounded by the giant staircase. The staircase is very minimalistic compared to most noir staircases, and the image is not baroquely complex. However, the stair does have a ceiling, and the long held shot is claustrophobic, and unusual. A still of this staircase is used as the background for the film's credits. Aldrich puts Mike Callahan on the left side of the staircase, and a thug on the right. The thug starts out in the foreground, and gradually moves down the staircase. It is a spectacularly composed shot. Later, during the chase scene after the hero escapes from the police, Aldrich will stage some shots with a similar depth of focus.
An exterior staircase leading to a roof of a small building is used by Aldrich to produce many interesting compositions during the final shoot out. One of these is taken from a very low angle, and includes the corner of a building. This corner, jutting out into the screen, promotes a 3D effect, as in the later Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich also uses an interior staircase from which Duryea descends during the final confrontation.
The camera is rarely tilted to the left or the right, unlike the later Kiss Me Deadly. One such shot does occur, outside, showing Reginald Denny and Duryea around the tropical vegetation. There are trees behind the two, echoing their verticals. The whole image is tilted slightly to the left.
There are many interiors taken at 45 degree high angles. The compositions here rely heavily on fans. Some of the rooms have ceiling fans. We see both the fans themselves in motion, and also their rotating shadows on the walls. These fans have an unusual effect. They seem to be sources of energy within the composition, dynamos of constant movement. They attract the eye, in compositions that also include complex rooms filled with furniture and wall coverings. Aldrich also uses table fans, in cheap apartments. These do not create shadows, but they do serve as a source of movement.
The shot where Duryea parks his car in the jungle, and stands up and looks at the trees is very beautiful. It reflects all the joy and wonder humans feel when they are encountering tropical trees. Aldrich clearly loved trees. Later street scenes in Kiss Me Deadly will include them in their compositions. World for Ransom also includes the scene with the adorably cute little kid presenting Duryea with a branch of plum blossoms. Such blossoms symbolize his romance with the heroine. The kid here represents hope for the future. This hope is badly needed, but seems absent in the later film.
It is unclear if Aldrich filmed these apparent long takes all in one shot. He could have done this, then inserted the close ups afterwards. Or he could simply have locked down his camera, and shot the apparent long takes in several pieces. I do not know.
Some scenes have two long takes. For example, a scene in the Governor's office has one take in which the police and government officials are all discussing the case among themselves. When the villainous Lockhart arrives, Aldrich starts a second long take, one from a completely different angle, that lasts for the remainder of the scene. These two takes separate the scene into two parts, each with its own feel and staging.
A more complex effect is found in the first scene in Julius March's office. Here there are two long takes, as well. However, the first long take resumes towards the end of the scene, after the second one has finished. The effect can be diagrammed as Take1 Take2 Take1. There is an "aria da capo" effect here - such opera arias have a similar ABA construction.
The camera movements in these scenes do not tend to be continuous, in the manner of Ophuls. Instead, the camera tends to move then pause, then move then pause. The movements frequently complement similar movements of the characters within the set. The overall camera movements can be quite complex and creative. Aldrich will move his camera backwards or forwards, to get closer to the characters or to build a long shot. He will raise and tilt his camera to an over head angle, or drop it down to a level, non-tilted face on shot of the actors.
I thought the non-bomb dramatic passages were much better than the bomb sequences.
There are baroque shots of staircases, that form elaborate compositions. One such shot combines this with looks at the repeated spiral metal work on the banister.
Later, a different scene shows a metal spiral over Chandler's head.
Other metal work shots, show people's faces through a series of round holes.
There are also mirror shots in the heroine's bedroom. These take advantage of the elliptical central mirror, and the rectangular side mirrors, to make good compositions.
Deep focus also appears, notably in one of the last shots, showing Palance move forward through an outside corridor, with Chandler in the deep background.
Follow-up scenes, in which Palance presses for the team to get a deeper understanding of the problems, rather than just sitting around in despair, are also worthwhile.