While enjoying Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite I was reminded, surprisingly, of Kiss Me Deadly – a brutal noir from 1955 shot on location in Los Angeles.  In Parasite, Ho uses elevations as a metaphor throughout the film: from a subterranean shelter to a high-ground wealthy enclave reigning over a below-the -sewer-line slum. The protagonists move up and down in a vertical world that mimics their aspirations as well as their attempts at survival.

               Kiss Me Deadly also sets up a vertical world. Dana Polan noted, “The hard-boiled detective is a cartographer, who finds that the spaces of the city are not random but are traversed by networks of class, power and privilege.”  In Kiss Me Deadly the networks negotiated by Mike Hammer are signified by various stages of decay or luxury: a marble floor in an upscale art gallery or classical statuary flanking slate steps contrast with cracked wall plaster lit by a single light bulb in the ceiling. 

A prominent architectural feature throughout is the staircase.  Sixteen distinct stairways, interior and exterior, are seen in Kiss Me Deadly.   Staircases exploit all the spatial characteristics of cinematic space (landscape within a frame): width, height, depth, elevation, and density.  In Kiss Me Deadly, they run the gamut from the softly curved concrete steps that lead from hospital to street, to the worn-out wooden stairs that crisscross the façade of a boarding house to narrow, interior stairways deep in shadow.  They are stylish, softly curved, physically taxing, steep and dangerous, dark and sinister.  They go up, down, across, and reverse direction.  Where a staircase begins and ends is rarely visible.  For example, the stairs at the base of 121 Flower Street are hidden by shrubs.  In the cheap hotel where Lily Carver lives, camera work suggests the deeply shadowed, turning staircase leads to an infinite abyss. 

 

 

 

The first staircase we encounter is a treacherous set of multi-story concrete steps leading out of an alley down which Hammer throws an assailant. That perilous tumble foreshadows Hammer’s own downfall and the implied fall of humankind building throughout the film.

Staircases are a metaphor for the twists and turns in Hammer’s quest, the physical and psychological spaces that must be navigated from one witness or clue to another.  The physical attributes of each staircase match, of course, the social status of its location.  More importantly, as David Hockney noted, “The way we depict space is connected to the way we behave in it.”  Staircases become locations for controlled and intentional action vs. uncontrolled actions based on fear and panic.   Camera work and lighting intensify these experiences. The dangerous stairways that stitch together Hammer’s movements across Los Angeles are metaphorical conduits through a psychic landscape in hell. Human life emerged from the sea and so the cycle closes there as a nuclear fire sends Hammer and Velda down the rickety steps of a criminal hideaway and into the surf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kiss Me Deadly Inventory of Stairs

Cue Description Int/Ext Notes theme
27:40
 
Hammer throws his assailant down steep concrete stairs that descend from an alley EXTERIOR
Height
Night, deep contrast, shadowy, almost infinite, spiked posts Urban squalor, danger
28:11 Ray Diker’s boarding house – the beginning of the steps are hidden by shrubs, wooden steps emerge EXTERIOR
Traversing across
The stairs twist around and up in one direction, then reverse direction, ornate but the paint is old and rough  Genteel
urban decay
31:20 Cristina’s apartment building, beautiful white, carved balusters and a dark rail  

INTERIOR

Depth

Deeply shadowed by overhead landing Genteel middle class
33:01 Short set of brick steps to the street, full view of Victorian façade EXTERIOR    
33:40 The stairs between storefronts (Aldezma shoe repair) are straight up, steep  and narrow, leading to Lily Carver’s decrepit apt. INTERIOR
Height
shot from above we see Hammer’s shadow grow larger, the staircase turns 3 times with 2 landings Poverty and crime, sinister
45:47 Camera follows black man descending wooden stairs to the street as Hammer ascends INTERIOR
vertical transition
transition into a boxing gym Violence as a vocation
51:00 Slate and stone stairs to Evello house, flanked by statuary EXTERIOR decorative Upper class, pretentious
52:37

 

Stone staircase from back of house to pool, wrought iron railing EXTERIOR
vertical transition
decorative Upper class, fashionable
55:28 We see the curved staircase inside Evello’s mansion INTERIOR decorative Money for luxury
56:00 Hammer parks his car underneath Angels Flight, twin concrete stairs lead up to Hillcrest Hotel EXTERIOR
height
trashy Urban decay
56:51 Inside staircase of Hillcrest Hotel, painted, simple balusters INTERIOR
vertical transition
Functional but not fashionable or modern Cheap construction
1:00:06 Back to the stairs at Lily’s apartment, views through bannisters and landings INTERIOR
height
creepy, twisting Poverty and crime, sinister
1:00:55 Overhead shot as Hammer descends Lily’s apt. stairs to street INTERIOR
height
Surreal camera work menace
1:01:07 Shot looking up as Lily descends those stairs INTERIOR
height
The shot reverses 3 times vertigo
1:14:51 Beach house stairs – wooden, utilitarian, no balusters, unfinished unpainted EXTERIOR
height
Rickety, unsafe Criminal hideout
1:26:25 Behind Hammer we see a modern staircase at Hollywood Athletic Club INTERIOR
height
Mid-century modern Upscale modern, members only
1:29:05 Short set of concrete steps under an awning of the Athletic Club lead to the street EXTERIOR
transition
The protective awning ushers members in and out of the club privilege
1:33:47

Back to the stairs of Flower Street

 

EXTERIOR

The stairs twist around and up in one direction, then reverse direction, ornate but the paint is old and rough 

Genteel urban decay

1:36:20 The stairs of Mist Modern Art Gallery

INTERIOR

Stairs not shown, we see only Hammer’s movements upward and the fantastic modern art

For the wealthy consumer

1:44:44 Stairs inside the beach house lead to an exit

INTERIOR

back lit by nuclear fire

 

Extreme mortal danger

Final scene

Hammer and Velda struggle down the wooden stairs of the beach house

 

EXTERIOR

Armageddon

the culmination of greed, violence, lust for power

On Location in Los Angeles

Hammer’s investigation takes him to the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles, a turn-of-the-century prosperous neighborhood that had devolved into a slum of rooming houses by 1940. In the 1960s urban renewal razed Bunker Hill and rebuilt it as a civic area. The Los Angeles Times has an excellent timeline with photos here.

Bunker Hill in 1901. By 1955 most houses had become rental units for immigrants.

Bunker Hill today.

 

 

 

Copyright 2020 Alice Gebura All Rights Reserved

Cinematic stills are copyrighted by their respective owners.

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