Atomic paranoia

Posted on October 25, 2007 under film, history of science

The film noir series at the revamped Parkway Theater in South Minneapolis showed Kiss Me Deadly (1955) this week.  Based on a Mickey Spillane novel I’ve never read, it seemed like a conventional film noir at first, with a stoic private eye hero, fast-talking dames, and so forth, it soon showed itself to have (slightly preposterous) history of science content.

The mysterious object that everyone was looking for, that folks were being killed for, was a box with a leather cover, with straps.  The box felt warm to the touch.  When the box was opened, a bright light flashed out, and Mike Hammer found himself with a peculiar scar on his hand.  The weary cop, when he tells Hammer to give over the key to the locker where the box was hidden, says he’s going to tell Mike just a few words:  “Manhattan Project.  Los Alamos.  Trinity.”  Mike hands over the key.

When the lady villain, who has been warned away from the box with direct reference to Pandora, opens the box all the way, the bright light gets blindingly bright, and she can’t close it.  She catches on fire.  Mike and his lady friend run from the house to the beach and watch the house burn down.

I’m fascinated by this totally literal interpretation of ‘hot’ radiation as fire, real fire that gives people burn scars and burns down houses.  Some of the plot details strain credulity (did they really keep a kilo of uranium in a locker in the Hollywood Athletic Club?), but the film seemed like an excellent representation of real fear and paranoia about science in the atomic age.  I could even see the ending fifteen minutes or so being used in the classroom.