The body has no head: corporeal figuration in Aldrich

Uploaded 30 June 2000

In Robert Aldrich’s The Angry Hills (USA 1959) – scripted, like Kiss Me Deadly (USA 1955), by A. I. Bezzerides – there is a rather odd and remarkable self-portrait offered by the suave, murderous political villain of the piece (Marius Goring), a true movie-Nazi by office and by ideology. These are his first words, spoken as he steps briskly and dramatically out of a shadow: “I suffer from palpitations of the heart”, he booms abruptly to a somewhat puzzled and nervous Stanley Baker. “I have strange headaches. My pulse is irregular. I sometimes wonder whether I have a pulse at all”.

The Angry Hills is decidedly a minor Aldrich film, disliked by both its star (Robert Mitchum) and its maker because of studio interference. But there are details in it which haunt me, and all of them bear, like that little self-portrait soliloquy, on matters of the human form, and the human body. In fact, I am struck by the way people’s filmgoing souvenirs of Aldrich tend to be memories of strange and grotesque body-presentations – in Attack! (USA 1956), for instance, the shot of a soldier (Eddie Albert) frozen in a death-scream; or the gruesome little girl, white pancake make-up on Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (USA 1962); or the stand-off between men about to fight as they ride atop a train – once again, seemingly caught eternally in this pose – in Emperor of the North (USA 1973). Driven sadists and screeching masochists at every turn, none of them very lovable, but all compelling in some weird way.

But back to The Angry Hills – and particularly its style. In one scene a character, talking secretively on the phone to Mitchum, is about to be killed – maybe I should say “erased”, since Aldrich uses a characteristically economical way of signifying this: he shows the character suddenly blotted out, completely eclipsed by the deeply dark shadow of the person moving to stand over him. When next we see this eclipsed guy, he is a corpse. This “death by dark shadow” business is a familiar film noir trick. But here it borders on the stylisation of an abstract or experimental movie – especially given the brevity of this visual event (the “eclipse” happens in just a few frames) and the rapidity of the montage that contains it.

Another striking quality of this little fragment is the extent to which Aldrich pushes contrasts – always the rapid contrast between dazzling white and sheer black, both across edited shots and within individual compositions. People in brilliant white suits are always stepping in and out of sinister dark patches, sliced or bisected by this or that devouring line or form. It reminds me of Anthony Mann’s similarly extreme work in his noir films shot by John Alton – and like Mann, Aldrich in another bit of The Angry Hills gives a strange new life to the oldest of noir tricks. I am referring to the overhead swinging light bulb that makes bodies too-bright and then too-dark, exacerbated once again by a rapid editing pattern. The Angry Hills, a war film, has never, to my knowledge, been listed as a film noir, or related sideways to that genre. But this is surely an interesting thing about Aldrich, that many of his movies, which cover just about all of the male action genres (even his “women’s weepie”, Autumn Leaves [USA 1956], is pretty violent), tend to exploit a particularly paroxysmic form of noir stylistics. [1]

In another scene of The Angry Hills, we see a different but related kind of spectacle which inverts the scale of values regarding bodily, physical presence. Mitchum is out in the streets of Athens, walking towards an arranged, secret rendezvous. But suddenly he stops. It is almost a David Lynch evocation of the uncanny, or what the old Catholic hymn “Soul of my saviour” refers to as one of “death’s dread moments”: in front of him, and all around him, is a silent, depopulated absence, but Mitchum knows, deep in his bones, that his murderers await him at this double-cross. This silence, this emptiness, is paradoxically invested with a thick, heavy presence. In a way, this is a variation on one of Aldrich’s most memorable and exhilarating set-pieces: the wide-open scene in Vera Cruz (USA 1954) where, on cue, the vast empty frame, revealed by the camera panorama-style, is filled with hitherto hidden gunmen lined up all over the ramparts of a town – and we, like Burt Lancaster, gasp at the showmanship of it all.

What can the cinema of Robert Aldrich teach us about bodies in cinema – their look, their action, their being? The prevailing approaches to filmic bodies tend to cluster into two extremes. On the one hand we talk about a full body, stressing the real, live presence of the actor, and the depth of his or her character. This is a tradition that runs from Howard Hawks’ rugged, outdoors adventure films to Robert Duvall’s The Apostle(USA 1998). On the other hand, we talk about people in film as fragmented or fetishised, a bunch of separate body-bits stuck together by editing, like so many Frankenstein monsters. This tradition runs from Eisenstein’s Soviet montage to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead horror movies (USA 1983-93) – where people’s own hands get away from them and attack their owners – via Willard Maas’ experimental classic Geography of the Body (USA 1943).

But perhaps we should think of the constitution of bodies in cinema as a more energetic, dynamic and varied process, and also sometimes a more gradual one: bodies that fade in or fade out, bodies brought to the light but also destroyed, obliterated by light; bodies attached in fluctuating degrees to sounds, words, emissions of all sorts; bodies pulled apart, truncated, distorted in often subtle pictorial and scenographic ways. Bodies sometimes with a character and even a soul; but at other times bodies as just husks, ghosts, wispy things.

This is how bodies are figured in cinema. I draw my inspiration here primarily from the writings of Nicole Brenez. [2]  The “figural method” used by Brenez has many dimensions, and William Routt has recently outlined them in his helpful review essay “For criticism” [3] . The sense of the term which concerns me here is figuration as sketching, erasing, drawing and redrawing. Gilles Deleuze anticipated Brenez’s work when he asked: “What does a painter create? He creates lines and colours. That suggests that lines and colours are not givens, but are the product of a creation”.[4]

Similarly, Brenez argues that bodies are not a “given” thing in cinema; contrary to common sense, bodies are not just standing or sitting or lying there or walking around, waiting to be photographed. Again, Deleuze anticipated this approach in his insistence that cinema does not “reproduce” bodies, but “composes” them. [5] Movies create bodies from nothing, just as they are created from nothing in other visual arts like drawing and painting. Dynamically, in the process of being rendered from shot to shot and scene to scene, they proceed from a line to shape to a volume to a character, and at any point they can be abstracted, enhanced or obliterated. In her essay “The ultimate journey”, [6] Brenez asks of the human body in film what she calls the “primitive”, basic questions: What texture is it? What is its framework? What destroys it? What is its story really? What creature is it at bottom?

At the very least, I believe this is a good, poetic way of grasping part of the art of cinema: as an art of constantly shifting figuration. Not just on the level of bringing bodies and people into being, but also animals, objects, imaginary apparitions – in fact an entire material and virtual world. Brenez’s prize example is the men and women in Abel Ferrara’s films, from King of New York(USA 1990) to The Blackout (USA1997) by way of Body Snatchers (USA 1994) – a kind of x-ray cinema in which bizarre, semi-human figures blink out and splutter to life, sinuously appear and disappear, both visually and sonically, like electrified cinematic apparatuses. [7] Or, on the same level of achievement, think of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (USA 1997) – a film that certainly owes something to Kiss Me Deadly. Remember its bodies absorbed and seemingly reformed by the dark, inviting, scary night; its memories living and dead; its multiple stories ignited, burnt up, left behind, and then reignited.

For Brenez as for Deleuze, a critical and theoretical approach of this sort marks a significant departure from classical mise en scène analysis. The venerable tool of découpage – shot-by-shot breakdown – depends upon the theatrical and dramatic unity of the filmic scene, which in turn rests upon the most cherished principle of mise en scène analysis: “bodies in space”, the pro-filmic reality of bodies dwelling and moving within a space defined by a set or a landscape. [8] Deleuze asserts, to the contrary, that “the cinema is not a theatre”, and that its bodies are composed “from granules, which are granules of time”. [9] This is, in a sense, analysis in two dimensions rather than the usual three; and if there is still “depth” to a movie, it will need to be a new, differently defined kind of depth.

Figural analysis, thus, is granular or atomic, a true “frame by frame” analysis which takes its model and inspiration from the fine-grain materiality and action of experimental cinema; it is less concerned with lenses and depth of field than with the mobile arrangment, displacement and pulsation of screen particles. Shot divisions, even scenes or sequences are less pertinent for this work than analytic “ensembles”, slices of text and texture that demonstrate the economy and logic of a film’s ceaseless transformation of its elements. And everything to do with character, performance and actorly presence in cinema will have to be rethought from the vantage point of this ghostly, mobile flickering of the celluloid grain as it helps to form and deform the figure of the human being on screen.

Dave Sanjek has spoken of the “purposeful avalanche of deformation” characterising, underlying and animating the cinema of Aldrich. [10] I want to take this idea of deformation as literally and physically, as corporeally as possible. I think the more we look back at Aldrich today – looking back through the prism of Peckinpah, Tarantino, Ferrara and others – the more we see how odd, how deformed, how unreassuring his stories and characters, his images and sounds were.

Let’s consider Aldrich as a filmmaker of the grotesque – alongside Stanley Kubrick, the Coen brothers, Jeunet & Caro (Delicatessen, France 1990), Dario Argento (indeed the entire tradition of Italian orrore and giallo cinema) and Cindy Sherman (Office Killer, USA 1997). Jodi Brooks has discussed What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in the context of an analysis of “fascination and the grotesque”. [11] Sanjek draws attention to the startling image of snarling, snapping dogs in a television commercial gone berserk, the sudden apparition which concludes The Legend of Lylah Clare (USA 1968). In fact, this could well be one hallmark of the grotesque in art, graphics and cinema alike: the pictorial reduction of human characters to something sub-human, animals or insects or amoeba; reduced life-forms with merely instinctual drives thrashing around trying to territorially overcome an “other”‘, or merely survive. As a form, specifically, of bodily or corporeal figuration, the grotesque is an exaggerated, expressionistic form, akin to caricature. Aldrich used it often, in grand and small ways alike: think of how, for instance, he condenses the whole character and style of Lancaster in Vera Cruz down to the recurrent flashing of those amazing, gleaming, white teeth of his.

There is a trap in this line of thought. Recourse to a grotesque mode of bodily figuration, in Aldrich or the associates I have proposed, is not simply a matter of metaphor. In other words, displacing the characters of Lylah Clare into dogs is not just a way of comparing these characters to dogs, of saying that they are like dogs, or act like dogs. There is a stronger, more literal sense to this imagery: these people are dogs, they’ve been transformed into dogs, substituted for dogs. This is not poetic licence on my part. There is a physical transmutation – of human into non-human – which films often suggest or explore, sometimes across the space of a mere cut (remember that strange, grumbling man and his large, recalcitrant dog in Cassavetes’ Love Streams,USA 1984).

The cinema as a medium and an art form regularly invites – or challenges – us to abandon the metaphoric for a philosophy of the literal. In the cinema of Aldrich, the fact that his characters so often seem to take on non-human forms should lead us to a philosophical question: just what is a human being, then? What comprises it, defines it, classifies it, limits it? How to differentiate the human being from any other kind of being or life form, animal, vegetable, mineral – or mechanical, virtual? (Recently, Errol Morris’ brilliant, extended montage Fast, Cheap & Out of Control [USA 1997] has offered a veritable manifesto for such philosophical probing.)

We are used to thinking about these questions – to an extent – in relation to horror, fantasy and sci-fi cinema. We think about the interchangebility of human and machine in Cronenberg’s Crash (Canada 1997), and all the hybrid varieties of the “new flesh”, including a virtual cyber flesh, which this director has explored in films from Videodrome (Canada 1983) to eXistenZ (Canada-UK 1999). When we watch any old episode or instalment of the infinite Star Trek saga, we think about the ambiguous mirror relations, the same-and-different relations between human and alien. If we encounter Neil Jordan’s and Angela Carter’s film of The Company of Wolves (UK 1984), we are likely to ponder the continuum of human and animal existence. Whenever we trip up against any one of a hundred variations on the Jekyll and Hyde story, or vampire stories, we cannot help but think of such paradoxes of human and animal, human and beast, human and monster. And we approach these thoughts too, from another angle, when the “fantastic” confronts us with all those artificially or synthetically created Frankenstein monsters, fly-like blobs and androids who strike us, paradoxically, as being all too human in their mysterious, equivocal expressions, reactions and moods.

But even when it comes to experiencing and discussing these kinds of horror-fantasy genres, the metaphoric reflex puts a break on our thoughts entertaining the non-human – or, as is more often said these days, the “post human”. It’s common to interpret these poor, mutated, hybrid creatures as, for instance, emblems of the effects of social, sexual or racial oppression (Barbara Creed’s work on horror movies is typical in this regard) – and that returns us to, or encases us once more within the human framework. When it comes to dramas and dramatic genres that are perhaps grotesque but not necessarily fantastic in the horror-fantasy sense – films where human people more or less still look like human people – then it becomes even harder to conceptualise this question of “what is a human being?” Nonetheless, I feel that this question, at some level, compelled Aldrich – someone who, more often than not, chose to work in these grotesque but not quite fantasy-horror story forms – as an artist.

I can think of only two other close comparisons with Aldrich on this plane. The first is Kubrick, who offers (in Dana Polan’s fine formulation) a world “where one finally is little more than blood and globs of gunky material”.[12]   And the second is Barbet Schroeder (General Idi Amin Dada, France 1974, Maîtresse,France 1976, Reversal of Fortune, USA 1990, Single White Female, USA 1992). Raymond Durgnat presciently intuited long ago that Schroeder’s principal theme is “the monstrosity of humanity and the humanity of monsters”. [13] Again, this is not only a matter of a moral metaphor, an inquiry into the morality of good and evil behaviour. Schroeder’s characters – alocholics, S&M fetishists, barbaric serial killers, transcendental hippies, card sharps, wealthy dames in a coma – all acutely pose for us the indecidable question of their own humanity. Whatever swims in their veins seems to be only partly human blood. Like in Ferrara’s movies, there’s all that booze and drugs slooshing around in there too, and further deformation due to a generous range of extreme sensations, impulses and encounters with other, equally odd, neighbouring life forms. In Schroeder’s most recent film, Desperate Measures(USA 1998), the villain is defined and explored far more in terms of his bone marrow, his broken thumbs and his ability to trick the surgeon’s knife by secretly ingesting drugs, than in terms of his supposedly evil pathology. And not defining him psychologically leaves the door open for all kinds of possible tenderness and admiration in the film’s rendering of him, and room for all manner of potential bondings, twinnings and exchanges with the other, supposedly less evil characters around him.

So, after that detour, I’ll try to think my way towards what we could call the dynamic, figural logic of Kiss Me Deadly. I am struck by the prodigious inventiveness and zaniness of this movie – as was Charles Bitsch back in 1955, reaching for the formal ways in which Aldrich could count as “the first filmmaker of the atomic age”:

For Aldrich, there are no laws, no taboos: his scenes are dizzying and diammetrically opposed (…) He makes us witness the implacable struggle between black and white: masses of shadow intersect one another, are riddled with flashes of white. The laws of editing appear to have disintegrated: the image explodes. [14]

Kiss Me Deadly is the most superficial film in the world – and yet, at the same time, it is truly bottomless. One can endlessly pick out patterns, motifs, clues, compulsive repetitions. Will Straw has referred to the film’s “lurid depth” – not the moral depth of sombre, well-meant social issues, nor the psychologicial depth of naturalistically drawn characters, but the sort of depth long associated with the pulp arts, where credits shoot out at the viewer or recede steeply into the background, where everything is sharp, severe angles and trajectories along which things can leap out and poke you in the eye. [15] It’s not a “deep” film in the conventional way but, nonetheless, things just keep coming at you in every scene. What that lovestruck fan Francois Truffaut once said was, in its slightly mystical way, true: in Kiss Me Deadly “it is not unusual to encounter a new idea with each shot”. [16]

What things come at you from Kiss Me Deadly if you’re looking to interpret or decode it? All those references to strings and threads and mazes, for starters – invoking the labyrinth-narratives characteristic of film noir. Then the unusual “highbrow” references in the film, covering mythology and fine art – Rossetti, Pandora, Cerberus, among others. All our favourite gender images and fixations are there: women as bombs and bombshells, men as irresistible slouches getting forever conked over the head and passing out in strange rooms. Or the lowbrow references, like the comic strip and cartoon strand of the film – not just our friendly Greek mechanic Nick (Nick Dennis) who talks like someone in a Lichtenstein painting (“Va va voom! Pow!”), but also the allusion by Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers) to the mythic origin of Daffy Duck: daffy, you understand, because once he was riding on a merry-go-round that broke down and kept spinning faster and faster.

But, at least for me, no pattern or thread in the film is more insistent than the odd things that are done to bodies in virtually every scene. Let me point out, firstly, that bodies are quite an obsession of this film, in even its smallest, sidelong details. Velda (Maxine Cooper) reads a magazine called Physical Culture. The charming old guy carrying his trunk up the stairs announces his philosophy of life as a matter of checking in and checking out of one’s body, as if it were a hotel. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) says to Christina (Cloris Leachman), in reference to her car-flagging technique: “A thumb isn’t good enough for you, you gotta use your whole body!” A woman out of nowhere starts kissing Hammer and remarks, “Um, I haven’t tasted you before”.

But these details are really only the start, only the icing on the cake.

From scene to scene, Kiss Me Deadly builds a particularly varied and monstrous apparatus of the human body. In an important article, Caryl Flinn began the inventory of such corporeal deformations in the film. [17] These deformations come via the framing (or “deframing”, all those luridly skewed angles), via the editing, and via peculiar plot situations. Wounds figure prominently: from Hammer’s head wound, the gash above his eye that is gruesomely emphasised in a bizarre close-up camera movement, to radioactive burn marks.

At every turn voices are torn away from bodies, somehow separated from mouths and lips and flesh. Hammer’s ability at ventriloquism figures obscurely in the plot at one point. America’s first telephone answering machines are prominently displayed as a cool design and lifestyle feature, allowing other kinds of floating, disembodied voices.

Spoken words on the soundtrack are often overlaid on unusual body parts. Think of the menacing but suave Dr Soberin (Albert Dekker), mainly identified on screen by his snazzy shoes. Christina is a strange creature, cinema-wise: she is all heavy breathing (post-dubbed in a disconcerting, quasi-pornographic sonority) during the credits, and then ear piercing, microphone distorting screams in the torture sequence – that is, until her legs (which all you see in this scene) stop kicking in spasms of pain. Gabrielle gets disfigured or transfigured in an even more radical way: after she opens the deadly, secret box, her horror-movie screams become merged with the white wall of noise seeping out of the lid, and then this double sound of hell goes around and around in a tape loop. Even when words are attached to the lips that speak them, the join doesn’t always help: Hammer himself, when filled with truth serum, merely slurs something entirely incomprehensible.

It all reminds me of a gothic song called “Witchenkopf” wailed in the dark ages of the early 1980s by the Melbourne band Plays With Marionettes, containing this refrain: “The head has no handle, and the body has no head”.

All of us who know Kiss Me Deadly know that it moves towards the apocalypse – or at least something closely enough resembling an apocalypse for the sake of a pulpy noir B-movie, no matter which slightly different ending of the film you have seen. But, in a way, I wonder if the apocalypse hasn’t already happened before the movie’s action even starts. Kiss Me Deadly is one of those extreme noir films – like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (USA 1945), Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (USA 1975) or Lost Highway– where the plot, no matter how labyrinthine or circuitous it gets, never really goes or progresses anywhere. It turns more like a bad dream, recovering and then re-losing, over and over, the image and sound traces of some absolutely horrifying and unspeakable trauma.

Kiss Me Deadly is not really a mystery story in the mode of Chinatown (USA 1974), where the plot and mise en scène move towards the acknowledgment or recognition of some tragedy, some terrible truth, some primal scene – something to make us pity the human condition, or lament the social conditions that occasionally throw up a few monsters, tyrants and fools. Kiss Me Deadly is not really a lament for any class of victim – it’s well beyond such pity. It’s one of the first post-human films of the modern, post World War Two era, and that’s why it speaks to us so directly today.

Aldrich, first filmmaker of the atomic age. But this isn’t just a movie about the Cold War terror of potential nuclear devastation; there’s something more chillingly existential about all the business that gets transacted here. All is lost before it even starts: it’s as if, from the word go, all we have left are the dislocated remains, ruins of places and spaces, bits and pieces of bodies and voices, flashes of character and insight. But the action is only ever moving backwards, back to the suppressed point of origin, back to the big bang.

And now another phrase from the early 1980s, from a melancholic, autobiographical testament by the Situationist philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord, comes back to me. It’s the title of a film, a Latin palindrome, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni(France 1978), and it translates: we turn in circles in the night and are consumed by fire.


[1] Cf. Raffaele Caputo, “Film Noir: ‘you sure you don’t see what you hear?'”, Continuum 5, no. 2 (1992): 276-301.
[2] Cf. Adrian Martin, “Ultimatum: an introduction to the work of Nicole Brenez”, Screening the Past 2 (December 1997); Nicole Brenez, De la figure en général et du corps en particulier. L’invention figurative au cinéma (Bruxelles: De Boeck, 1998).
[3]  Screening the Past 9 (February 2000).
[4] “Vincennes session of April 15, 1980, Leibniz seminar”, Discourse 20, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 78.
[5] “The Brain is the Screen” (interview), Discourse 20, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 49.
[6] Screening the Past 2 (December 1997).
[7] Cf. Adrian Martin, “Black holes”, RealTime 27 (1998): 17.
[8] Cf. Adrian Martin, “Mise en scène is dead, or the expressive, the excessive, the technical and the stylish”, Continuum 5, no. 3 (1992): 87-140. . A revised version of this essay is in my The Artificial night: Essays on Film Theory, Culture and Analysis.
[9] “The Brain is the Screen”: 54.
[10] “Fear is a man’s best friend: deformation and aggression in the films of Robert Aldrich”, Screening the Past 10 (July 2000).
[11] “Fascination and the grotesque: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”, Continuum 5, no. 2 (1992): 225-234.
[12] “Jack and Gilles: reflections on Deleuze’s cinema of ideas”, Art & Text 34 (Spring 1989): 29.
[13] “Of human bondage”, ZG 2 (1980): 15.
[14] Quoted in Jean Douchet, French New Wave (New York: D.A.P., 1999), 29.
[15] “Ornament, entrance and the theme song”, in Cinesonic: The World of Sound in Film, ed. Philip Brophy (Sydney: Australian Film, Television and Radio School, 1999), 222.
[16] François Truffaut, The Films in My Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 94.
[17] “Sound, woman and the bomb: dismembering the ‘great whatsit’ in Kiss Me Deadly“, Wide Angle 8, no. 3/4 (1986): 115-127; reprinted in Screening the Past 10 (July 2000).

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is all posts by Adrian Martin →