Robert Aldrich Essay, Research Paper
Robert Aldrich was born into an extremely wealthy family. He became an assistant director in Hollywood, working in the 1945 – 1952 period with many directors. A notably high percentage of these were in the extreme left: Jean Renoir, Lewis Milestone, Robert Rossen, Joseph Losey, Charles Chaplin.
Kiss Me Deadly
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is Aldrich’s most remarkable film. Aldrich began directing in 1953, and by then, the film noir cycle had run its course as a Hollywood phenomenon, peaking in the years 1942 – 1951. However, film noirs were still being made steadily through the 1950’s, and many of these works were classics of the cycle.
There is a remarkably detailed visual analysis of the film in “Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style” by Alain Silver, in Film Noir Reader (1996), edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini. The remarks below are simply intended to point out a few more things about this film, one of the most complex and creative of all film noirs.
3D Camera Technique
The staging in Kiss Me Deadly shows a three dimensional quality. Partly this is due to depth of field. Many scenes keep in focus far into the rear of the scene. This is a technique associated in Hollywood with Orson Welles. Aldrich is often considered to be a Welles disciple. There are other techniques that aid in the film’s 3D quality:
1) The showing of an irregular wall along one side of the shot. When Mike Hammer’s car pulls up to a gas station near the beginning of the film, we see the entire front of the gas station along the right side of the shot. The gas station facade is by no means smooth; it contains many projections. All of these are fully lit up. The gas station is shot as if it were an elaborate piece of sculpture, like one of Louise Nevelson’s friezes. As the camera moves past it, it emphasizes the station’s complex 3D qualities. The projections on the station all are “rectilinear”: they are “box” like, with flat, perpendicular walls.
A shot with even greater depth of field shows Mike Hammer knocking on a door in the Angel’s Flight neighborhood. Behind him we see first a long narrow alleyway, then a huge depth of field showing a Los Angeles city scape. This is an astonishing shot. Both the alley and the cityscape are irregular, just like the gas station. They are full of protuberances, and show a huge amount of specialized detail. The stairs view is bounded on the left by many protuberances from the building, mainly rectilinear, although there are some angular planes as well.
A third similar shot shows the left hand side wall of Hammer’s apartment. The tables and furniture form the rectilinear protuberances near Hammer’s wall.
2) Aldrich often shows scenes with an L construction. For example, take the gas station, once the characters stop there and get gas. The front of the station is a long horizontal space. Then, at the left hand side of the station, we also see a walkway going straight back from the camera. The walkway is joined to the front of the station like the letter L. The front of the station forms the long part of the L, the shorter walkway the connecting stoke at the base of the L. Hammer’s apartment is set up in a similar way. There is a long living room that is often shot so that it stretches from left to right, horizontally across the screen (just like the front of the gas station). Then at the left of the screen, a passage leading straight away from the camera leads to Mike Hammer’s bed room (like the walkway at the left of the gas station). This is the same geometry of set design and camera set up in both scenes. The gym shows a similar L, but with the passage (the staircase) on the right hand side of the shot, not the left.
The L construction shows movement in two completely perpendicular directions. This emphasizes the 3D nature of the shot. People do move along the short bar of the L: for example, at the gas station Cloris Leachman moves first down the side of the gas station, directly away from the camera, then returns the same way straight toward the camera.
One can find somewhat similar effects in Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1948). Grisby’s business office in the film contains both a wall with a safe, parallel to the image plane and close up, and areas of greater depth, containing the desk. Welles tracks from the deep region to the shallow, and back again. Aldrich shows a slightly different over all pattern, of revealing the geometry of the scene. Aldrich will typically start at the flatter part of the composition, showing the viewer nothing but a flat planar surface, parallel to the frame. Then a lateral track will reveal the deep area opening up: something that is visually quite surprising. Then Aldrich will typically show both parts of the L at once.
There are variations in this approach. At Carver’s apartment, the deep area is in the center of the shot, not the edge. The effect is of an inverted T, not an L. At first, the door leading to the central deep part is closed, and the viewer cannot see it: the whole image looks like a flat surface. Then Hammer opens the door, and the deep well is revealed. The effect is even more startling than the tracking. Here the central area includes the complexity of a staircase, unlike the corridor like wells of the L shots, so the effect is even more complex and startling.
3) Aldrich will often include different pointing planes in the same shot. This gives a sense of 3D to the scene. For example, a two shot of Hammer and his policeman friend Pete show each near a door. Pete’s door is closed, and pointing along one plane. Hammer’s door is slightly open, and pointing in a different direction, at an angle to the first door. Both men are standing along the edge of their door, so that the door underlines and exaggerates the positioning of their bodies. Each seems more macho and aggressive, with the full rectangular region of the door behind them. They also seem at slightly cross purposes. Like the directions of the doors, they seem both nearly in the same direction, but also skewed on an angle to each other. The geometry of the scene also suggests things about their personal relationship. It also helps characterize Mike Hammer: he is a man who likes to have his back scratched, like a cat. Some people like to stand so that a door is rubbing them in their back: Hammer is one of them.
The hospital scene shows an astonishing composition formed by tilting the camera. One component of this composition: a screen. The screen is placed at an angle jutting out of the wall. This is not so unusual if the scene were filmed straight on, but tilted as it is, it makes a very unusual planar projection into the surface. One is reminded of the early three dimensional reliefs of Picasso and then Tatlin, which also use a basically flat background, such as Aldrich’s hospital wall, with other planes jutting out at slight angles, such as Aldrich’s screen.
4) A scene in a bedroom shoots a table and its contents at an angle. The camera is turned at an angle that does not align with either of the perpendicular axes of the table. But, a clock on the table is turned so that it is exactly parallel to the plane of the shot. The clock is a very small space, but it becomes the center of the shot, because it is in such geometric alignment with the camera frame. The effect is to underline visually the various planes of the shot. It emphasizes the contrast between the camera plane, and the planes of the room and the table. The viewer becomes much more conscious of them then if the table were merely shot at a slightly off angle.