Jul 12 2011 5:05pm

Kiss Me Deadly: The Blade Runner Before Blade Runner?

There’s a point near the middle of 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly where the film changes from one of the grimmest, most brutal films noir you’ll ever see into a science fiction film. It doesn’t involve aliens or spaceships, but it does involve eerily prescient “futuristic” technology. (Full disclosure: this film was a major inspiration for my own novel Burn Me Deadly, as the similar titles acknowledge.)

Mickey Spillane’s original novel involved merely a missing cache of heroin. His thuggish protagonist Mike Hammer battered his way through good guys and bad in a quest for revenge against the people who killed a woman under his protection and left him for dead as well, all in pursuit of the drugs. From this rather pedestrian source, director Robert Aldrich and his screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides fashioned a film that deconstructs Spillane’s hero, showing him as the Neanderthal brute that he is by contrasting him with both the world around him and a hint of the world to come. (WARNING: spoilers to follow!)

Instead of heroin, the plot turns around a mysterious suitcase-sized box that, when opened, emits a bright burning light (Quentin Tarantino stole this for Pulp Fiction). The box turns out to be a nuclear bomb, although this is never explicitly stated. In the atomic-paranoid fifties, it didn’t have to be. Instead, Hammer’s cop friend Murphy delivers this classic bit of indirect dialogue:

“Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity.”

Later, chief villain Dr. Soberlin tells his accomplice Lily, “The head of Medusa. That’s what’s in the box, and who looks on her will be changed not into stone but into brimstone and ashes.”

These references would have been clear as neon to the audiences of the time.

Hammer, like the dope that he is in the film, indirectly causes the box to be opened in an isolated beach house, setting off a nuclear blast and, by implication, armageddon. He and his sleazy but loyal secretary Velda watch in dumbstruck awe as the blast grows, looking far weirder and stranger than an actual atomic blast. The film doesn’t show them being killed, but the implication is clear (when originally released, the ending was re-edited by the studio to imply that Mike and Velda escape, but thankfully that ending has been removed, reduced to a mere extra on the DVD and Blu-Ray).

So is Kiss Me Deadly (the film) true SF? If we go by one of Isaac Asimov’s definitions, then yes: “That branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.” The Bomb was common knowledge at the time, but the idea that it could be miniaturized and carried in a suitcase was pure, prescient SF. So long before Blade Runner, Kiss Me Deadly showed that the gritty urban detective genre could easily meld with futurism and science fiction.

Alex Bledsoe, author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, and the forthcoming Dark Jenny), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the first Tufa novel, the forthcoming The Hum and the Shiver.

Mark Pontin
1. Mark Pontin
I appreciated this little piece, Mr. Bledsoe.

But I don't know whether it's not a little over -- or at least orthagonal to -- the heads of most Tor.com readers. Maybe not.
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Given that the author writes fantasy noir novels, I think this was a quite interesting, appropriate and illuminating piece. I am going to have to add this to my Netflix queue...
René Walling
3. cybernetic_nomad
While the film may only hint at it, the poster states it loud and clear: "Mickey Spillane's latest H-Bomb!"

IIRC, the burning bright light coming out of the suitcase was also used with the trunk of a car in Repo Man.
Mark Pontin
4. DarrenJL
Still waiting for the link to Blade Runner...
Mark Pontin
5. Gerry__Quinn
I'm not convinced that it's correct to say Tarantino stole this idea for Pulp Fiction. Sure, it's a box whose contents glow. But in Pulp Fiction, surely this is a visual metaphor for something infinitely desirable, be it dollars or gold or heroin. At least that's how I took it. I haven't seen this film, but from your description the glow may be partly metaphorical, but the context is different.
Alex Bledsoe
6. alexbledsoe
Mark: I have faith. :-)

Jvstin: Thanks!

cybernetic_nomad: you're right about Repo Man. I cut that part out of my original piece for length.

Darren: the link to Blade Runner is that this film, like BR, is an SF/detective mashup.

Gerry: regarding Tarantino, fans see homages, haters see rip-offs. I think it's safe to say he peppers his works with allusions to other films to a greater degree than most filmmakers, and the suitcase light as an image originates (as far as I know) with Kiss Me Deadly.
Jenny Thrash
7. Sihaya
I always wonder about things like this. Did the writers actually think, "You know, ever since the transister, the trend is miniaturization! I really think an atomic bomb could fit in a suitcase one day!" Or did they think, "Hey, we need a mcguffin to be dangerous enough to frighten the pants off an audience. An atomic bomb will do it! Oh crud, an atomic bomb's not portable. Well, who cares? It's fiction, and we can pretend that a bomb *might* be portable in the hands of the right mad scientist. Let me get my story hammer and break this thing." Was it prediction on purpose, or purely accidental prediction produced by the writers' need to suit the story with the tools they already had available?
Mark Pontin
8. Michael S. Schiffer
While I'm pretty sure it was secret at the time, the Davy Crockett tactical warhead was almost small enough to fit in the box, and went into production the year after this film was made. https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Davy_Crockett_%28nuclear_device%29
Emmet O'Brien
10. EmmetAOBrien
Gerry__Quinn@5: I don't think it'as a metaphor in Pulp Fiction, I think it's literally the Holy Grail. The parallels hold up all the way through (Marsellus Wallace:Arthur, Mia:Guinevere, Vincent Vega:Lancelot, Jules:Galahad, Butch:Bedivere, Winston Wolf:Merlin) in ways that would be the weirdest coincidence ever if they were not deliberate.
Mark Pontin
11. Friend to Fwiffo
I haven't seen this in years, but I never thought it was an actual bomb, just some kind of isotope or something that emits immense amounts of radiation. It doesn't really explode, right? Just shines incredibly brightly and burns everything around it.

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