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Robert Aldrich’s film, Kiss Me Deadly, has been referred to as, “the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time.” The film was produced in 1955, during the time of the classical Film Noir era’s spread throughout Hollywood. The term, meaning “black film,” was originally applied to thriller and detective films made in the mid-1940s to 1950s. A group of French critics designated the term to a group of well-known directors, including Orson Welles and Fritz Lang. The film noir genre is known to emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations and the use of lower lighting to create the effect of chiaroscuro, contracted light to create shadows. According to Belton, the genre depicted a unique American experience of wartime, post war despair, and alienation as disoriented Americans adjusted to a new social and political reality after World War II. After German expressionism peaked during the Cold War, a new era of cinematography techniques, powerful femme fatales, and a new reality created an uncomfortable malaise in viewers that came to be known as film noir.
The end of World War I left Europe in complete ruin and people lived in fear with the threat of darkness and destruction luring over them. The invention of the H-bomb and other nuclear weapons sparked both anxiety and fascination in people across the world as it established a new, powerful post-war reality. Kiss Me Deadly displays the interest in nuclear weapons when Hammer finds the box that Catherine left for him, but only opens it enough for the audience to see light coming from the box. Film Noir turned this fear into a form of art in the cinema that people had never seen before. “That aforementioned sense of threat found in early Film Noir manifests in any number of ways from crime lords to dangerous debutantes, but in the films chosen to screen this quarter that dread is reflective of the genre’s shift with early 1950s cold war anxieties”. In, Kiss Me Deadly, suspense and mystery is established as the audience waits to find out what the box contains after mike opens cracks it open, only to reveal small light coming from inside. Aldrich builds suspense by not revealing what remains inside the box to the audience. The film ends with the villain, Lily Carver, being smothered in flames after opening the box to reveal the mystery that Christina had left behind. Belton says, “It requires only a single character, situation, or scene that is noir to produce the disturbance or disorientation that is necessary to give the audience an unsettling twist or distressing jolt”. The wretched screams from Carver and the explosion of the beach house in the end of the movie and it causes the audience to feel uncomfortable, wondering what happened to Lily. The realities of post war life for people are continuously demonstrated in the darkness and fear Mike Hammer experiences throughout, Kiss Me Deadly.
After Nazi occupation halted the screening of many films in France, German expressionism was introduced to viewers through new aesthetics in films. One of the most recognizable noir techniques, low-key lighting, uses light to enhance shadows in the scene in black and white films instead of focusing on the characters. This technique evokes a feeling of coldness and hopelessness focusing on the setting and how it sets the mood for the scene. This style differed from early American films as they glamourize the star, commonly using lights on actresses’ eyes and eyebrows to accentuate their beauty. In, Kiss Me Deadly, Mike Hammer enters his apartment with the feeling someone might be inside, and Aldrich’s use of the shadows of the two men established suspense in the audience as they wait for what’s about to happen next. Wide-angle cinematography was also used to make the space of the room distorted, and thus the audience as well. The wide angle shot would also replace horizontal lines with vertical, sloping ones to create an uneasy feeling throughout the film while keeping the audience intrigued. The aesthetics of film noir reflected the darkness and fear that lived throughout the war and continued after. “Narratives had changed, lead characters were less heroic, (sometimes called antiheroes), plots had become darker, riddled with crime, violence, corruption, and sometimes erotic tones,” according to John Abbott who writes about the history behind this well-known genre. The use of new filming techniques and the new style of narratives mirrored the effects the Cold War, thus allowing the film industry to develop new genres and appeal to a greater audience.
During the Cold war, many men left their families to go to battle, where they were turned into hard-boiled soldiers in a violent environment. Like the soldiers, film noir established the character of the male protagonist, but as an anti-hero rather than a hero. According to Lee Horsley who writes in a film noir blog, these characters are “often antisocial loners, cynical, disillusioned, morally ambiguous, flawed or tarnished in some way by their past. They may have their own moral code but they will be out of step with society and ultimately powerless. This character also displays some sort of flaw or darkness from their past and is not very socially involved.” Mike Hammer, for instance, has good intentions when trying to discover the message left by Catherine, while his personality somewhat separates him from the rest of the characters. He does seem selfish at times and emotionally uninterested in the death of his friends, but takes priority in avenging the death of Nick when he intentionally crushed by a car. Other well-known actors such as Humphrey Bogart, who played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, seemed unaffected by death of his partner, but made sure to give payback with the killer. Spade quotes, “when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it”. Sexuality was also introduced in these films when men who chose to stay home as a father and husband became attracted to the infamous femme fatale while living with their “dull,” wives. This paved the way for a new interest in the erotic, which usually ended poorly for the male protagonist. In, Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer has many sexual encounters with beautiful women which he uses to solve the meaning of the message, remember me? The villain, Carver also uses her sexuality to repeatedly try and seduce Hammer into falling for her, even though he repeatedly shows no interest in her. Overall, film noir recreated the male protagonist killer in a way by adding the moral dilemma, darkness, and increased sexual desire soldiers experienced during war.
Men returning from war were faced with both anxiety and finding out that their wives had left the house for the workplace brought around the creation of the femme fatale character. This woman is strong, manipulating, and powerful, which was uncommon as most films cast the part of the damsel in distress. In Kiss Me Deadly, Gabrielle’s alter ego Lilly Carver embodies the femme fatale by using her sexuality to pose as another woman and eventually tricks Mike into giving her the location of the mysterious box that Christina left the clue to. The creation of the femme fatale character is interesting as it reflects society’s mixed feelings towards women leaving their household duties in search for a job. This had never been heard of before as men were sought to be the only gender competent enough to work in factories and financially provide for their household. Women had to conform to the stereotype of completing household duties and raising the children while they waited for their spouse to return from war, and eventually work in factories. Belton states, “the powerful women in film noir presented a psychic threat to the noir hero. Film noir registered the antifeminist backlash by … transforming women into willful creatures intent on destroying both their mates and the sacred institution of the family” (Belton 222). The end of World War II proved to be a time of significant change in the reality and stereotypes that both men and women once accepted.
The appearance of the film noir genre from 1941 to 1958 was indeed influenced by the end of World War II and the new reality it brought to people. Anxiety and darkness spread through many people as the destruction and idea of rebirth of war weighed down on many. The occupation of Nazis in France halted the production of films as Germans thought they would be used as propaganda and brainwashing. The release of these films brought around a new genre, film noir, which contained new characters, plot structure, and cinematography techniques that had been basically unheard of before this time. Film noir, or black film, was a style marked by pessimism, fatalism and menace. Filmers developed techniques such as low-key lighting and chiaroscuro that used shadows to create a mood of suspense and mystery. The use of shadows established an uneasy feeling in the audience as films before had highlighted and exaggerated the facial structure, eyes and eyebrows, or actors and actresses. Film noir also developed a new male protagonist character which was classified of more of an anti-hero rather than a hero. This character was usually a detective, not usually an intellect, who came off as socially alienated to the audience. With the increase of erotica and sexuality came the well-known character, femme fatale. This woman was powerful and fearless as she embodied the women who chose to leave the household for the workplace while their husbands served in war. The end of World War II was able to break stereotypes in society and inspire a new kind of art in the cinema that displayed the reality and gloominess of war.
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