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Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #17: Deadly Kiss Me (Opening Scene of Kiss Me Deadly)

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Based solely on the opening scene, Mike Hammer is a mystery. He's rude, even mean to the obviously distressed woman he picked up (in, incidentally, a ludicrously fancy car), He talks casually of tossing her off a cliff. But as soon as they get to the roadblock, he acts nice and friendly to get her out of trouble. Although we've only seen the character for a minute, we feel that the smile is phony and the scowl is real. But if the character were really as tough as he acts, would he have done anything to save her? In a couple of minutes of screen time, we've established the character as a tough guy with a remote soft spot.

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Much like the opening credits crawling up the screen in reverse, a lot of this opening scene is opposite to a lot of the openings and introductions we viewed thus far. Rather than a slow, subtle build-up with symbolism and hidden meanings, we're thrown head-first into the action, with Christina breathlessly running down the street, away from something, and ultimately towards Hammer. Unlike the other leading ladies, or femme fatales, we have seen introduced, there are no glamorous shot, but one of helplessness. No shoes, no clothes other than a trench coat, and at first unable to flag down any assistance from passing motorists, Christina is forced to practically thrown herself in front of the leading man in order to get his attention. And Hammer is none too impressed with Christina, he is severely cross with her and at one point threatens to throw her off a cliff, however inevitably he offers her a ride. In a film noir, a man never can turn down a woman.

 

It's almost a teenage fantasy, a half naked woman, throwing herself at you, and you are the only one who can help her. Of course, this being film noir, dream-like conditions almost always turn nightmarish. Christina's gasps over the opening credits are a mixture of anguish and sensuality, the perfect combination for a film noir. The whole opening sequence feels raw, and unpolished, getting back to the grittiness that has been a staple of film noir, and not as stylish as some of the recent daily doses. But as we are in a film noir, all it takes is for Christina to grab Hammer's hand while pleading with her eyes, and Hammer decides to cover for her and help her get through the police blockade. Christina doesn't follow the usual methods of our femme fatales, but she is just as successful in turning the man to her favor, and leading him on a path otherwise best left untraveled.

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"Summer Of Darkness" students-- I don't suppose anyone can name an opening scene, or at least in the first few minutes, that have the "scrolling" style of introduction or credits? Certainly, the "Star Wars" franchise comes to mind, but that is the only one in my memory banks. It is so clever and disorienting, you are not only distracted by Ms. Leachman's running and erratic noises ( which border on forced, maybe she should have done some endurance running/cycling beofre filming the sequence.) Not only does her exhaustion and fear sound forced and unauthentic, but there she is, not a drip of perspiration nor hair out of place. If done more genuinely, it would have made the disorienting, captivating scrolling of the credits even more dramatic, as we are being forced into viewing a world that is not unfolding in a conventional way, as indeed as nothing we have experienced before. Everything is out of synch-- the appearance of a running woman at night down a deserted highway, her cryptic message to Mr. Hammer, compounded by the police road block,  the churlish and misogynistic wise cracks of Hammer, the scrolling credits all tell us we are in for at minimum an unusual, and most probably dangerous, trip.  I think we can accurately surmise George Lucas at least saw the film... RJM

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"Summer Of Darkness" students-- I don't suppose anyone can name an opening scene, or at least in the first few minutes, that have the "scrolling" style of introduction or credits?

 

A few movies do interesting things with their credits. Stoker, for example. Irreversible runs its credits in total reverse (seen

).

 

Every time I've seen such credits, it always comes with a movie that's all about messing with perception.

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I think that both of these characters are mysterious in their own way.  Christina is naked except the trench coat, running at night on what can only be described as the middle of nowhere.  Mike nearly runs over her but yet still decides to let her in. When they come up to the road block she silently signals him not to give her away, and he does so even though he has every reason to want to give her away and be through with her.  Maybe he wants to know more.  He is mysterious because he is willing to lie to the police so he can find out what is going on for himself.  

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Themes:  One’s last breath, last acts of desperation, this Noir world’s last … something.
 

The sense of finality derives from Cathy’s constant inability to catch her breath.   Her breathing echoes sex and death.  She is so desperate she throws her entire self in front of Detective Hammer’s car.  And yet, this still is not sufficient to save Cathy.  Hammer tells her:  “Thumb isn’t good enough for you - you gotta use your whole body.”  The meaning is in the metaphor:  Cathy can’t save herself - she will sacrifice not a thumb but her life.  Hammer won’t stop his car, his world for minor sufferings of Cathy.  But he ultimately will stop his car, his entire existence because Cathy dies.

 

I love the point at which Nat King Cole’s I’d Rather Have the Blues starts playing – the moment Cathy enters Hammer’s car.   It is foreshadowing and meaning in that Hammer would rather explore the dark, Noir ‘somethings’ that ultimately reveal themselves by virtue of Cathy, than play it safe.

 

I see the opening credits as not only moving in reverse, but descending into Noir.

 

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In many ways, this opening scene of 'Kiss Me Deadly' exposes the world's mood at that time. The despair, the bad mood and the paranoia are all there. Not only Christina Bailey is desperately running from something we still do not know, but the society back then were also running from more possible wars and the threath of Communism. Just a little later we see clearly that she's running from the police, but the real motives of that are not presented. And the detective Mike Hammer prefers to be an accomplice than to just give the woman back to justice. Maybe because the ordinary arrengement of things in that society were not good enough. The institutions were not playing its part on this new emerging society. The pessimism was really running things back then, and both characters are infused by that sentiment on this brief sequence. Christina prefers to me killed on the road than to be caught by the police (the justice), and Mike Hammer prefers to lie to them this first time and take chances with the girl.

 

Just a note: the opening title sequence is just amazing for its time, and I actually can see similarities here that could be seen much later on, in George Lucas' Star Wars (1978).

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Ok, so we find Christina running down the road, at night, wearing only a trench coat.  And after the opening credits are done, we then find out that she may be an escapee from a mental hospital.  Instead of turning her in, Mike decides to help her.  Christina is definitely in some kind of trouble and is very afraid.  She may even fear for her life and she would do anything, say anything to keep from going back to where she escaped from.  Mike is obviously interested by her predicament, though he only knows that she escaped from a mental hospital.  She doesn't appear to be insane or mentally ill to Mike, so there must be something behind what is happening to her.  And of course, the lady in distress and the knight in shinning armor coming to her rescue is what is happening in this small opening sequence.  Like other noir films, this one sets the audience up for a detective case from the start.  During the opening act, we hear music, see the two characters driving in the car at night, and we can hear Christina crying and trying to catch her breathe.  Then when she grabs Mike's hand, really begging him not to turn her in, we can see Christina is desperate.  She would rather get hit by a car then go back where she came from.  The feeling is sympathy and curiosity.  I want to know all the details.

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I'm sorry but I just couldn't get over the heavily overdone breathing and gasping for breath.

 

I loved the first shot of the feet and her running down the road... But please God could she just stop a minute and compose herself?

It really bothered me.

 

On a good point, I'm very curious.. Who is this woman and what's happened to make her run down an empty street without any shoes on!

Also, love the credits running in reverse.. But yes, the terrible sounds that she makes is just so off putting!!!

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The sound design certainly achieves a blunt double entendre, desperation, a moment of intensity, emotionally charged. "The night is mighty chilly" begin the lyrics, much like the reception by the driver "you nearly wrecked my car" and certainly "conversation..(is) rather thin". But the annoyed toughness of the driver belies his apparent compassion and basic 'goodness' in that he stops when others didn't, and his agile intelligent mind trying to puzzle the situation as he then swiftly supplies a cover for her to enable passing the road block, characteristics we have come to expect of the male noir protagonist.

 

I was annoyed by the discontinuity of seeing the unshod feet running along the painted centre line which cut to a long shot where the character is on the side of the road. And I'm sure she ran down the same peice of road towards the camera several times.... poor production values or part of the formalist & psychological influence that work to create a sense of dis-ease, or the noir world askew?

 

The reverse rolling opening credits worked because it seemed they matched the direction of the car's travel. I noticed deliberate direction matching & used screen geography in the scene, which to some extent aided in overlooking the discontinuities - of which a contemporary audience in the theatre to be entertained rather than analyse would have been drawn in by.

 

"I'd rather have the blues than what I've got" - what has 'she got'? Is she dangerous of vulnerable? The mental asylum being forgrounded in the orientation is consistent with the contextual interest in psychology and the 'darker side' of 'human nature'. A very pop-culture Freudian opening all in all!

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I'm sorry but I just couldn't get over the heavily overdone breathing and gasping for breath.

I loved the first shot of the feet and her running down the road... But please God could she just stop a minute and compose herself?

It really bothered me.quote]

 

Yes, designed to bother us, and make the audience uncomfortable---but 2 points: 1) it is that, while that breathing is going on that the viewer has time to ask questions, and as it goes on and on, the shift from simple crying to those **** questions begin, 2) although it bordered on overkill, as I re-watched the scene, the overwrought child came to mind; the crying so hard that eventually the crying jag takes on a life of its own, and leads to those sobs and hiccups that seem uncontrollable and can take some time to end.

So, that repetitive breathing (an opening that honors noir style) shows us she is a poor combination of grown woman physically, and still, psychologically, very child-like.

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I loved the first shot of the feet and her running down the road... But please God could she just stop a minute and compose herself?

It really bothered me.

 

She's hysterical . . . someone slap her!

 

If you watch the rest of the movie, you'll find out what she's running from. And once you understand that, you'll also understand why stopping to catch her breath was probably the last thing on her mind. She's in pure survival mode--willing even to put her body in front of a speeding car and to climb into a car with a strange man. She is beyond mere fright or agitation--and the fact that her breathing persists once she's no longer running and is seated in a car shows that her worked up state is not just about physical exertion.

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The thing that really stands out to me here is the audio--is she crying?  Is she panting?  Is she intentionally making herself sound both sexual and helpless?  Does she even realize what she sounds like?  I also thought that, combined with the audio, the first thirty seconds or so where she tries to flag down a passing car really built up this feeling of desperation and need to escape, and then once someone stopped, the continued gasping/panting/crying felt relieved and exhausted.  It's brilliant the way the context of what we're being shown changes ever so subtly the tone of what we're hearing.

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She's hysterical . . . someone slap her!

 

If you watch the rest of the movie, you'll find out what she's running from. And once you understand that, you'll also understand why stopping to catch her breath was probably the last thing on her mind. She's in pure survival mode--willing even to put her body in front of a speeding car and to climb into a car with a strange man. She is beyond mere fright or agitation--and the fact that her breathing persists once she's no longer running and is seated in a car shows that her worked up state is not just about physical exertion.

You are totally right,takoma1. Having only seen these first few minutes I have no idea what has happened and why she is so hysterical. I have put it on my very long "to watch" list so soon will be in the know. In the meantime I still found it very annoying and exaggerated.

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Honestly, I liked Cloris Leachman's performance. I feel like the fact that it was "over the top" and dramatic was what sets the events into motion. Her inability to calm herself is what leads to the driver deciding to help her. Had she been more collected, he might not have felt the urge to step up. It's one of those flaws you often see in films like this - wanting to be a hero to the person who can't be helped. The more they freak out, the more the hero wants to save them.

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I think that the backwards opening crawl was a very nice touch here. It signifies that everything happening here is backwards, and not exactly what it seems. We don't know what or where Christina is running from, but we know that she is desperate to get away from it to the point of jumping in front of Hammer's car to get his attention. When we learn that she has recently escaped from a mental institution, she manages to convince Hammer to keep from turning her over the highway police by holding and caressing his hand. Hammer submits to her charms, with tragic results later in the scene. From this scene we can tell Hammer is ultimately a sympathetic man, who is vulnerable to being charmed by strangers supposedly escaped from mental institutions.

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I'm sorry but I just couldn't get over the heavily overdone breathing and gasping for breath.

 

 

I think that KISS ME DEADLY intentionally goes campy/overboard in a lot of scenes, for effect. The breathing and her behavior are a good example of that. Velda and Nick both get framed in some really interesting shots during the movie, also, Velda sweaty in a kind of unappealing way, Nick making funny faces as he's in a tight close-up. It's reflective of a world gone haywire, among other things, and also I think to prepare us for the completely bonkers finale.

 

The documentary LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF mentions that Hammer is made as non-fascist as possible in the film -- the original version of Hammer in Spillane's book is often considered to be sadistic and fascist. I'm not sure I agree entirely with the assessment, but I definitely get the impression in this opening scene that some of the edge has been taken out of the original novel, to make this more palatable to film audiences. But it's already pretty edgy stuff, even though it's somewhat modified.

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What are some of the major themes and/or ideas introduced in the opening sequence of Kiss Me Deadly?

 

Themes: Nothing is what it seems. Everything happens by chance. Giving a lift to strangers may bring trouble. When you are desperate you are capable of anything. It is very hard to stay normal when you were locked up in an asylum.

Ideas: backward credits, sensual/mad gasping and breathing that makes the viewer feel uneasy, but intrigued

 

What do we learn or discern about the characters of Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) and private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) in this brief introductory sequence? .

 

Christinarunning from sth/sb, clearly desperate, panicked, wearing only a raincoat, barefoot, we could easily believe she is not necessarily normal, she stopped Hammer like he was the last driver on the planet – one way or another: you'll stop or I'll die. Whoever locked her away has clearly driven her to the edge of insanity – her ambiguous breathing is really disturbing, firstly we think she is just tired and relieved, but then it starts to get creepy...

 

Hammer – a single guy in an expensive sports car, Christina judged him quickly and accused of being a spoilt playboy, but he is the one who rescues her from the police, suspecting she might be trouble.

 

How is this opening scene an important contribution to the development of film noir?

 

Christina's breathing is obviously something new, a very intriguing motive. The titles run backwards. Together with Mike Hammer, we find ourselves in the middle of a strange situation – dropped in the middle of something we don't even understand. It's just like arriving in the middle of a show trying to catch up with previous events. This opening suggests the movie will be very bizarre.

I've seen the whole movie and was rather disappointed with the ending. The female protagonists (except Christina) are not my cup of tea, I really don't sympathize with any of those characters. The portrayal of women is „larger than life” or maybe the actresses were just poor, I don't know, I'm not the expert ;) 

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During a time when modest, respectable young women were expected to be adorned with a sensible, sophisticated style of dresses, or blouses and short skirts, hats, stockings, and gloves, Cloris Leachman as Christina bursts onto the screen of Kiss Me Deadly… In nothing, but a trench coat. Unfortunately, Christina’s fear and desperation leave her no time for modesty or conventions; to the point of using her whole body to stop the car of a disgruntled Mike Hammer and can’t even speak when he demands answers because she is so out of breath.

 

Despite the exceptional circumstances, Christina and Mike, oddly enough, seem to be predestined for this meeting. Like Christina, Mike also dispenses with pleasantries and etiquette. Except in his case, rather than time or urgency, he simply lacks the patience or capacity for them. While he seems to notice the damsel’s distress, he angrily dismisses it in favor of the condition of his car. Inspite of that, Mike still tells her to “get in.”

 

As Christina gets in, the scene shifts to behind the two characters, turning the audience into backseat passengers, as we driving through the pitch blackness with only the reverse credits for dimly lit illumination.

 

Just as Christina is catching her breath, she breaks into a sob amidst eerily uncanny lyrics to Nat King Cole’s “Rather Have the Blues” being sung on the radio. For over a minute, the lyrics and increasingly erratic reversed credits (as if someone accidentally pressed the reverse button) serve as the only way to bridge the gap between the characters and the absurd situation:

The night is mighty chilly
And conversation seems pretty silly
I feel so mean and rot
I’d rather have the blues than what I’ve got

 

When Mike finally does start talking, he doesn’t use any gentlemanly tact when it comes to addressing Christina’s method of stopping hitchhikers, her “attire,” his extreme reluctance to stop for her, or even “[throwing her]” off that cliff” that they passed along the way. Christina ignores Mike’s insulting bellowing and tells him to drop her off at the first bus stop.

 

Eventually, they are stopped by a road blocked off by officers, claiming to be looking for a “a woman escaped from an asylum upstate… Young and wearing a trench coat.” It is clear that Christina is the woman in question, so much so that no words or even a mutual, understanding glance has to be exchanged between the two before she tightly clings to him and he claims that ”[his] wife’s been asleep.”

 

Why Mike goes out of his way to help a woman he is clearly frustrated by is never made clear in the entirety of the movie. Is it merely curiosity, cantankerous chivalry, careless compliance to a fate that he anticipates, but doesn’t understand?

 

It could just be a way to get the plot going without a exploring a lot of details while still keeping Mike Hammer as much of a ridiculous, thuggish Neanderthal as the director, Robert Aldrich (who hated the character), wanted him to be. But, perhaps, in the process of making (or to trying make) Hammer as one-dimensional as possible, Aldrich and, screenwriter, AI Bezzerides wound up opening a Pandora’s Box of unexplored territory within Mike Hammer’s purpose and stream of consciousness. Perhaps, the enigmatic  Christina winds up affecting Mike’s internal core in such a way that this is what drives Hammer to stubbornly find the mysterious “whatsit” even over the objections and ominous of various people throughout the movie.

 

Kiss Me Deadly is the prime example of an avant-garde noir being so effective as a result of limited time and budget rather than inspite of it. Despite the formalist shots and angles, the grainy texture of the film and the acute sound design give the movie a mystifying documentary feel.

 

As Mark Goldstein said, the “ambient” sounds are indicative of cutting-edge sound technology at the time. Instead of a pre-recording, the sound seems to be emanating directly from the screen.

Christina’s voice seeps from the screen and into the living room almost as intrusively as when she gets into Mike’s car. One almost expects Christina’s breaths to fog up the screen because they sound so close and genuine. As dynamic as the sound design is, it creates an even stronger sense of dread than it does entertainment.

 

Just as Richard Edwards says, Kiss Me Deadly is “a point of no return,” the peak of cultural explosion, cinematic technology, and evolution of film noir makes it impossible for the audience to be left alone as merely spectators. They become witnesses to the violence and conspiracies that transpire onscreen in the course of the movie’s runtime. In that span of time, they also become witnesses to the pinnacle of post WWII disenchantment and Cold War paranoia. They can no longer sit pretty or be untold of the threat of the callous brutality of human nature or the holocaust of nuclear war.    

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