“The thumb isn’t good enough for you. You have to use your whole body.” Naked underneath her trenchcoat, frightened hitchhiker Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) gets private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) to stop his car by standing in the middle of the highway with her arms outstretched in an X pattern. This is the first time we see the X shape, a visual motif that recurs throughout Robert Aldrich’s classic noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Director Howard Hawks had employed a similar device in his 1932 gangster film, Scarface — an X shape somewhere in the frame to indicate that someone had died or was about to die. However, in Scarface, the recurring X patterns were hardly more than a gimmick. The X shapes used by Aldrich in Kiss Me Deadly carry a deeper meaning and resonance. This becomes apparent when Mike checks out the deceased Christina’s apartment and finds it filled with books and objets d’art, including a painting with an X shape (frame center) that echoes the hitchhiking Christina. Christina’s last words to Mike, conveyed in a letter delivered to him after her death, were the title of a poem, “Remember Me.” Aldrich’s X shapes, recurring throughout the movie, are like a visual nudge from Christina, something scratching at the back of Mike’s thick skull, reminding him (and us) to remember something — to remember her.
Mike finds a woman, Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), who claims to be Christina’s former roommate. Physically, she is almost a double of Christina, and the X shapes on the curtain behind her subconsciously reinforce the connection.
The hoods leave a new sportscar outside Mike’s apartment, a bribe offered to him in exchange for minding his own business. Suspecting the hoods have planted a bomb somewhere inside the car, Mike and his Greek mechanic pal, Va-Va-Voom, drive the car — very carefully — to Va-Va-Voom’s garage to look for the bomb. As they approach an intersection, Aldrich cuts unexpectedly to a high angle that turns the intersection into a big X.
At Va-Va-Voom’s garage, they find the bomb. Aldrich uses a low angle, all the better to display the X-shaped wooden crossbeams of the garage’s ceiling.
Mike’s investigation, the search for the “Great Whatsit” he believes will make him rich, takes him to the Beverly Hills mansion of gangster Carl Evello (played by Citizen Kane‘s Paul Stewart) where he flirts with Evello’s sister (Marian Carr). Note the X-shaped crosshatching on the mansion’s windows, as well as the two stone sphinxes, one of the film’s many mythological references.
Mike is captured again and taken to the Malibu beachhouse of the criminal mastermind, Dr. Soborin. We cut immediately from a shot through the beachhouse’s X-shaped structural supports —
— to a shot of Mike tied face down on a bed, his body forming an X. He has, in effect, taken Christina’s (Xtina’s?) place.
Mike escapes again and returns to his apartment where he has stashed the faux Lily Carver. In search of further clues, she reads to him the poem “Remember Me” by Christina Rossetti (after whom this film’s Christina was named), while in the background, a lamp, center frame, casts an X-shaped shadow on the wall.
At last, Mike finds the mysterious hissing box known as the “Great Whatsit,” but it is stolen from him by the faux Lily Carver who brings it to the beachhouse of her lover, Dr. Soborin (Albert Dekker). In this shot, Dr. Soborin, the girl, and the box form a triangle around an X-shaped liquor table.
Ignoring Dr. Soborin’s warnings, the curious girl opens the box, resulting in Kiss Me Deadly’s most iconic image, the exploding beachhouse on its X-shaped structural supports (an image carefully replicated by David Lynch in his 1997 noir, Lost Highway).
Aldrich’s X shapes are just one recurring element in this densely structured film. There are also recurring references to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane in the casting (Paul Stewart, Fortunio Bonanova), the plot (the search for the “Great Whatsit” paralleling the search for “Rosebud” in Kane), and the promiscuous usage of Wellesian camera angles and lighting. The film is also filled with mythological references, particularly in the dialogue of Dr. Soborin who at various times invokes Lazarus, Lot’s wife, Cerberus, Pandora, and Medusa’s head. We are continually reminded of Christina, not only by the recurring X-shapes, but by her association with culture — Mike Hammer is a cultureless thug, but the film is filled with references to art, poetry, classical music, everything that Mike tries to ignore. This is Aldrich’s portrait of a decadent fallen world, and within it, Christina stands for all the civilized values that have been forgotten or lost.