I grew up, in the Sixties, hearing the oft-repeated argument that our technology, in the form of the nuclear bomb, had developed faster than our ability to deal with it. We could build the great whatsit with relative ease, but we lacked the ethical framework or psychological maturity to keep from destroying ourselves with our creation. I’ve not seen a better expression of this thought than the Robert Aldrich movie Kiss Me Deadly. In the film Mike Hammer, a low-life private investigator whose forte is to exploit divorce cases by playing husband and wife against each other, stumbles upon the great whatsit in the form of a mysterious hinged box. When opened—only a crack, please!—the box emits a blinding white light and the sound of a thousand voices wordlessly, furiously roaring. Hammer isn’t smart enough to divine what the great whatsit is, but he knows that everyone wants it, and he also knows, as a matter of instinct, that a piece of something big is something big. So he chases the box across post-war Los Angeles with the same slashing fury that his profession always demands from him, leaving friend and foe bloodied, beaten, and even killed in his wake. The FBI is one step behind until a half-friendly agent, having tracked Hammer down, finds a burn mark on his arm. This agent has been shadowing Hammer through most of the film, attempting to warn him off the case with hints and threats—things that a smart investigator ought to understand, but Hammer is all muscle and light on the brains—attempting, at bottom, to save Hammer from himself. Nothing has worked, so it’s time to name names: “Los Alamos, Trinity, the Manhattan Project . . .” In shock, Hammer slowly reaches into his jacket pocket. He hands over the key to the locker where the box has been stored. “I didn’t know,” he mumbles, barely able to eke out the words. “You didn’t know,” replies the agent. “Would you have acted any differently if you had known?”
The rest of the movie is beside the point, for this question is at the heart of its meaning. Would Hammer have acted any differently if he had known that the box held the awesome power of the bomb? Could he have forced himself to act differently? Could he have tamped down his instinctual drives and taken the leap onto a higher ethical plane, all at once, over the course of a day or week, in the face of potentially unimaginable riches, just because of a little new knowledge? One doubts it, though in actuality, we count on it happening every day of our lives. We are now led in this country by a man like Hammer, a man who indulges as an open secret his every instinctual drive and who evinces neither the ability nor desire to subordinate his id to the demands of reason. Yet now he holds the key to the box, the box which is no longer the metaphor in a film. Is it reasonable to believe that such a man can achieve what Hammer finally did achieve, though admittedly too late: to realize that he is over his head and must hand the key to someone else?