restricted access 6. Kiss Me Deadly: The X Factor, or The “Great Whatsit”
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6 Kiss Me Deadly The X Factor, or The “Great Whatsit” Reading the Mike Hammer of the early ’50s today is still a powerful experience: the violence . . . still shocks, and the sexual content remains potent. . . . It is not hard to imagine the furor Spillane caused in those days of Howdy Doody and Ike. Spillane was to mystery writing what Elvis Presley was to popular music. —Max Allan Collins, “I, The Intro,” Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer: The Comic Strip (1982) The first man-made nuclear explosion would be a historic event and its designation therefore a name that history might remember. Oppenheimer coded the test and the test site Trinity. “Why I chose that name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: As West and East In all flatt Maps—and I am one—are one, So death doth touch the Resurrection.” —Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986) Teaser In part because of its notorious, Mickey Spillane provenance, Kiss Me Deadly has been interpreted as an anticommunist film, yet it’s arguably better interpreted as an atomic or apocalyptic noir with the proviso that in the 1950s, as I remarked in the preface, the discourse about the red menace is frequently imbricated with 145 Kiss Me Deadly the discourse about “the bomb.” While there may be some ambiguity about the film’s exact subgeneric status (Is enigmatic mastermind Dr. Soberin a free agent or a fellow traveler?), there’s little doubt that Robert Aldrich’s picture is a film noir since, unlike The Thief, The Atomic City, Shack Out on 101, and City of Fear, it features a hard-boiled investigative narrative as well as a private detective whose moral sense and relationship to the law are even more compromised than Sam Spade’s in The Maltese Falcon. At the same time, the police and FBI are even less efficacious than the members of law enforcement in the above nuclear noirs because in the final analysis they’re unable to prevent an atomic detonation that, paradoxicallyenough, can itselfbeinterpreted as both destructive and orgasmic, cataclysmic and regenerative. * * * Poetry/pulpfiction.Bezzerides/Spillane.Aldrich/PCA.Anti-bomb/anticommunism . Sex/violence. Death/resurrection. If the above dyads are some of the binary oppositions that Kiss Me Deadly generates, the film itself stages and self-consciously thematizes the process of interpretation. This is the X factor, where “X” refers to the object or mystery of thequest,the“GreatWhatsit,”andthe“cross”orchiasmusthatmarksthehermeneuticactasactioninwhichformiscrossedwithcontent ,aestheticswithcultural politics, style with “structure of feeling.” One consequence of this crisscross is that Kiss Me Deadly represents a highly allusive, savagely satiric take on Spillane’s crypto-McCarthyite novel Kiss Me, Deadly. Thus, while Aldrich’s film mobilizes theconventionsofclassicnoirsuchasthe“privatedick”(MikeHammer)andthe femme fatale (Lily Carver), it also subjects these very same “pulp” elements to a poetic critique that is one part John Donne, one part Howdy Doody, one part Christina Rossetti, one part Elvis Presley. Another consequence of the authorial and institutional preconditions of Kiss Me Deadly—for instance, screenwriter A. I.BezzeridesandtheProductionCodeAdministration,respectively—isthateven asAldrich’spictureraisesthespecterofthermonucleardestruction,itgesticulates, via the trope of resurrection, to another, better world beyond the complacent narcissism and materialism of 1950s Eisenhower-era America. Spillane: Ike’s Laureate, or “I Like Mike” Mickey Spillane began with the “slicks” and “pulps,” then became a “story-writer for comic books.”1 When he was unable to place a private-eye hero named Mike Dangerwithapublisher,herenamedthecharacterMikeHammerandthelaureate of the Eisenhower era was born.2 The first Hammer novel, I, the Jury, appeared in 1947—not so coincidentally, at the advent of the HUAC investigations—and by 146 ’50s Noir in the Atomic Age 1952, when Kiss Me, Deadly, the seventh Hammer novel was published, Spillane had secured his reputation as, in his own self-deprecatory words, “the chewing gum of American literature.”3 InHardboiledHollywoodMaxDécharnéwritesthat“criticsabsolutelydespised Spillane and his creation, but with hindsight it seems clear that at the time of the McCarthy witch-hunts, an All-American, gun-toting, Commie-hating, one-man attackforcelikeMikeHammer. . .wastailor-madetosellbooksbythemillions.”4 And sell books Spillane did. In 1953 New American Library boasted that “over 15,000,000 copies of [Spillane’s] books have been published in Signet editions.”5 TheHammerphenomenonwasnotlimited,however,tobooks.Eventually,there wasaradioseries,TheMickeySpillaneMystery:ThatHammerGuy(1953);acomic strip,FromtheFilesof. . .MikeHammer(1953–1954);anLP,MickeySpillane’sMike Hammer Story (1954); and a television series, Mickey...


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