Back when Pulp Fiction came out in 1994, heated Internet debates would carry on for weeks or even months. At the time, you need to understand, there was virtually nothing to browse—only a handful of websites existed, and most of us were experiencing the few that did exist via text only. (Netscape Navigator, the breakthrough graphical app, launched in December of 1994.) So we really had nothing to do except argue back and forth about stupid shit, without even the distraction of new content to change the subject every day or two. And the big, never-ending, boneheaded pop-culture debate of 1994, without question, was: What’s in the Pulp Fiction briefcase? That sucker went around and around and around, to no discernible use whatsoever. No matter how many times you tried to explain that Tarantino clearly meant it to remain a tantalizing mystery, people still insisted on tossing out hilariously literal suggestions, ranging from Reservoir Dogs’ stolen diamonds to Marcellus Wallace’s soul.
Then there was the film-buff joke answer, which was that the briefcase clearly contains a copy of Kiss Me Deadly. Adapted in 1955 from Mickey Spillane’s sixth Mike Hammer novel, the movie deviates significantly from its source, particularly when it comes to the nature of the item everybody’s after; screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides did the world an enormous favor when he had one character sarcastically refer to the box’s contents as “The Great Whatsit.” There’s a crucial difference between a MacGuffin—Hitchcock’s term for the all-but-generic object that drives a suspense picture’s action, usually secret documents of some kind—and a Whatsit, and that difference is encoded in the latter’s name. As a rule, you don’t really care what a MacGuffin actually is—all that matters is that it’s desperately important to the folks onscreen. Once presented with a Whatsit, however, you simply must know: What the hell is it? And you’re not alone, as the reveal of cinema’s original Whatsit memorably demonstrates.
[WARNING: This is the end of the movie, minus only the last minute or so. To say that watching the clip or reading any further constitutes a spoiler would be putting it mildly.]
Plenty has been written over the years about the box’s contents, which the movie hints at strongly but never quite explicitly reveals. We’re clearly meant to understand that it’s nuclear material of some kind, and Kiss Me Deadly generally gets interpreted through the lens of ’50s Cold War paranoia concerning what was then called the atom bomb. (I assume there’s some scientific license taken in terms of what would actually happen if you opened a box containing such material. Dying weeks later of radiation poisoning doesn’t make for exciting visuals.) But that take, while undeniably accurate, is ultimately less interesting to me than the postmodern metatext that Bezzerides and director Robert Aldrich put into play here. Kiss Me Deadly is, in certain respects, very much a film of its time; but it’s also, seen today, almost unnervingly ahead of its time. While I couldn’t ultimately find one brief scene that illustrated the connection perfectly, the movie as a whole plays like the template for David Lynch’s entire career, from its weird juxtaposition of tones to its deliberately stilted acting to its casually surreal approach to violence. It may be the most bizarrely self-conscious noirever made.
There’s little point in discussing Mike Hammer much here, even though Ralph Meeker turns in one of cinema’s most indelibly hard-boiled performances. He’s amazing, but his only function in this particular scene is to get shot (and then either die or escape, depending on which cut of the movie you happen to see—he and his hotcha secretary/girlfriend survive in the original cut, which is what’s now available on DVD). What matters is the knowing parry and feint between Albert Dekker as the unctuous, impeccably shod Big Bad and Gaby Rodgers as the most devious of the film’s umpteen femmes fatales. What most people, myself included, remember about this finale is the moment when Rodgers actually opens the box, which almost certainly inspired the infamous Nazi-face-melting sequence at the climax of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. But I’d forgotten, until I watched it again, that she spends most of the scene repeatedly demanding to know what’s inside. She asks five times in less than a minute, which is an impressive batting average given that Dekker responds each time with a pompous, verbose literary allusion.
In effect, Rodgers—an obscure TV actress who appeared in only one other feature, The Big Break—functions as the audience surrogate, while Dekker, in his tailored suit, plays the role of the filmmaker. She asks the question we’re all asking: What’s in the goddamn box? He deflects the question by elegantly citing all the previous masterworks to which the box is intended as homage. And she responds precisely as we would respond, were we in the room: Yeah, yeah, evil schmeevil buddy, now what’s in the box? (Cut to Kevin Spacey as John Doe: “He just told you.”) Obviously, the references to Pandora and Lot’s wife function first and foremost as grim warnings about the irreversible consequences of mankind tinkering with the building blocks of nature. At the same time, though, I can’t help but feel that Aldrich and Bezzerides are on some level poking fun at our need for tidy explanations. It’s not likely a coincidence that the movie simply ends in a fiery conflagration as soon as the box is opened. You really want to know? You really want to know? You sure? Okay, BOOM. Now go home.
Coen brothers fans will recall that Barton Fink, too, features a mysterious box, with almost exactly the same dimensions as this one. That box never gets opened, and the movie’s ending, with Barton and his package alone on a Hollywood beach just like the one pictured in his hotel room, is as maddeningly inconclusive as they come. Again, not likely a coincidence. Filmmakers who present us with a container and then refuse to reveal what’s inside are invariably making a statement, and that statement rarely has much to do with the film’s ostensible story. Whether we like it or not, we’re being taught to cope with uncertainty—or, for those who prefer a more romantic spin, to embrace mystery. Kiss Me Deadly got there first, and illustrates, as apocalyptically as possible, what happens when we insist upon an answer instead of just cherishing the question. Unleash the power of the atom and you may destroy the world. Open the box that contains the narrative’s intrigue and you may destroy the movie.