The film noir genre arose in the wake of the Second World War. Some say it has not ended, while others insist that it ended with the development of Kiss Me Deadly (1955). In many ways, this film was the apotheosis of film noir since it managed to combine many of the features of film noir, including the femme fatale, the aesthetics of noir, the presence of crime and an attempt to resolve it, and an overall dark and pessimistic view of the world. The film does not necessarily spell out the death of noir, however. While it may represent a nearly hyperbolic engagement with these features and characteristics, it also leaves the door open for additional films.
First, what is a film noir? This question has kept critics busy for decades. According to Paul Schrader, one of the foremost film noir scholars, “…film noir is not a genre…it is not defined, …by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle [sic] qualities of tone and mood. It is a film ‘noir,’ as opposed to the possible variants of film gray or film off-white.” (Schrader 53). Therefore, this film uses its style to comment on moods and aesthetics of the era. However, the style is embedded in narrative as well as in the film’s aesthetic. Yet the boundaries are amorphous. For example, some have even defined Kiss Me Deadly as a horror movie (Wood 195).
One major recurring theme of a noir is the presence of crime. “It’s the presence of crime that gives film noir its most distinctive stamp.” (Borde et al. np). Yet the key feature of noir, according to Borde et al., is that these films are focalized through the criminals and not the police. Since focalization encompasses the way the story is told, who learns what and when, and the power of the narrator (Genette 70–74), to focalize a film through the perspective of criminals was a bold statement in the 1940s, the era of the Hayes Code. In Kiss Me Deadly, crimes occur on many levels. From the very beginning, social order is wronged as Mike picks up Christina, is assaulted, and then follows her trail.
The web of intrigue thickens over the course of the film as the exact object of horror, the so-called “great whatsit,” is discussed but never fully represented. Mike gets drawn into a mystery that is never fully explained, and he inadvertently ends up on the wrong side of the law. Kiss Me Deadly diverges from some traditional noirs because of how Mike is neither fully a criminal nor on the side of the law. In this way, perhaps it represents a solidification and conclusion of the genre. Yet the film moves forward with its criminal narrative because of its engagement with two dangerous women.
The femme fatale is a psychoanalytic projection of and engagement with the (presumably heterosexual male) viewer’s visual pleasure; it also connects with larger discourses on psychoanalysis in film. The idea of scopophilia, first proposed by Laura Mulvey, reflects pleasure in viewing, and she argues that in the case of watching films, the figure of the woman’s body is meant to be the central object of this pleasure. That way, men remain the privileged subjects and women remain objects: “The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world.” (Mulvey 6).
In film noir more generally, the femme fatale works as both a way to engage the male viewer as well as to offer cautionary tales about women. The femme fatale reinforces the idea that women can be beautiful and dangers, and that women who are not wholly innocent are women who will get the protagonist into trouble. The presence of the femme fatale links to the influence of psychoanalysis on noir: “If psychoanalysis examines the relations of the subject in discourse, then psychoanalytic film theory meant integrating questions of subjectivity into notions of meaning-production” (Stam 124).
Stam points to the way that films could consider how audiences created meaning from images, which is why the dynamic of the femme fatale is successful if not for the characters, then at least for the audience. Film itself is caught between its multi-channel medium and the language that is used to describe it. Given that psychoanalysis is closely tied to language and how it expresses things that people want to hide, it is especially important to consider how stigmatized ideas emerge in film. “Critical language is therefore inadequate to its object; the film always escapes the language that attempts to constitute it” (Metz 106). This escape is part of the expressed desires that are seen in the genre of film noir, and, in particular, the two femmes fatales in Kiss Me Deadly.
In this film, there are effectively two femmes fatales, Gabrielle and Velda. They both seem to engage with the concept of the femme fatale, however. Gabrielle represents a problematic femme fatale because she is more emotionally complex than the one-dimensional femmes fatales of earlier films. Although she is certainly dangerous, she lacks the sexualization that is present in Velda’s character. Gabrielle seems to lack the traditional characterization of the femme fatale as cunning and scheming in how she treats men and uses her sexuality; instead, she seems vulnerable at times.
Perhaps most importantly, she is “coded” as bright and innocent with her blonde hair and brighter clothes. In contrast, Velda is the darker and more “dangerous” of the two, at least in terms of visual coding. She is also more sexual and survives the end of the film thanks to Mike rushing her to safety. Yet she is coded with darker hair and a greater interest in Mike for sex, in contrast to Gabrielle’s seemingly intrinsic desire to manifest power without using sex. Where Velda is the sexual temptress, she inverts the idea of the woman on the screen as existing only for the male pleasure because she seems to find pleasure in sex. In contrast, Gabrielle comes across as more of a sociopath because of how she is doggedly interested in pursuing violence.
The visual coding of these two femmes fatales segues into another major aspect of both noir and of Kiss Me Deadly. Film noir was known for its use of black, white, and grey, which was often achieved through dramatic and expressionist lighting and set design techniques. “…light in post–World War II American films noir is not only an aesthetic feature but a thematic and ideological one as well” (Hillis 3). The typical noir used canted angles to create dramatic shadows, which reinforced the idea of how noir was both sinister as well as a hyperbolic engagement with grotesque exaggerations.
According to James Naremore, this is a function of modernism’s influence on noir: “…the modernist-inflected film noir of the 1940s and 50s made use of the grotesque, as did several of the American directors who worked slightly against the grain of classic Hollywood…” (Naremore 7). In Kiss Me Deadly, the grotesque occurs on a narrative as well as on a visual level. The fetishization of mass destruction is grotesque, and so is the desire with which Gabrielle approaches this mass destruction.
Kiss Me Deadly might be understood as culminating the entire process of noir because of how it managed to combine nuclear war and sexual desire. The film seems to hint at Gabrielle’s sexualization of the “great whatsit” as a means of reinforcing the punishment she is given. For those who argue that the film is a culmination of the genre, its engagement with rationalism and science contributes to that view since the symbol of the “Great Whatsit” “…culminates the cynicism central to the enlightenment project, critiques the will to power to which he articulates …. nuclear technology” (Hillis 13). In this view, the entire project of film noir is a critique of reason and it would come to an end with global destruction in this film.
However, noir is still possible after Kiss Me Deadly. The notion of camp shows how the relationship between style and perspective work, especially within the noir dynamic.
Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not…Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater. (Sontag 515)
From this view, perhaps Kiss Me Deadly is nothing more than a camp approach to film noir. If this is the case, then there remains a strong possibility for noir after this film. Kiss Me Deadly might offer a hyperbolic take on all of the characteristics of noir itself, but this is just one perspective. Within Sontag’s framework, the project of camp is performative, which would mean that Kiss Me Deadly is trying to perform or ape noir.
Kiss Me Deadly may have been the culmination of the genre, but film noir has persisted to this day. It continues to thrive. Perhaps this is because the genre is embedded more in a mood than in specific aesthetics, but noir continues to push the envelope. Kiss Me Deadly is just one chapter in its story.
- Borde, Raymond, et al. A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953). City Lights Books, 2002.
- Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse Revisited. Cornell University Press, 1988.
- Hillis, Ken. “Film Noir and the American Dream: The Dark Side of Enlightenment.” The Velvet Light Trap, vol. 55, no. 1, 2005, pp. 3–18, doi:10.1353/vlt.2005.0004.
- Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. University of Chicago Press, 1974.
- Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6–18.
- Naremore, James. “Stanley Kubrick and the Aesthetics of the Grotesque.” Film Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 1, 2006, pp. 4–14.
- Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight, 1998, pp. 53–64.
- Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Picador, 2001, pp. 275–92.
- Stam, Robert. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics. Routledge, 2005.
- Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Movies and Methods: An Anthology Vol 2, edited by Bill Nichols, vol. 2, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 195–220.