Dr. G. E. Soberin, dubious apothecary, torturer,
        is handy with a pair of pliers or truth serum.
                Wearing pinstriped suits, he has a sideline
                trading a cube of nuclear Armageddon.
Velda calls it “the great whatsit,” done in leather
with two straps like the sample case of a vendor,
        cracked open smiling on a glimpse of doom

that sighs and raves, its celluloid radiance
        a mutation of the genre, a kind of isotope,
                the director’s knuckle-sandwich cynicism
                pummeling the film’s romantic fatalism,

noir lit by the light of a thousand suns,
being Trinity’s light and the MacGuffin’s,
        until there’s nothing left but a bloody pulp

and an ancient curiosity. At the gates of hell,
        listen to me as if I were Cerberus who barks,

                 says Dr. Soberin. Whoever looks at Medusa is
                changed, not into stone, but brimstone and ashes.
What’s in this box can’t be divided, Gabrielle.
You should have been called Pandora. I will tell
        you where to take it. But don’t . . . don’t open . . . the box.

It’s a meltdown, a real meltdown, of modern society,
        and it all plays out in a little bungalow
                 between Zuma and Point Dume on Westward Beach,
                 being as likely a place as any for such
a reversion, a dissolution into spiritual degeneracy
as Mike Hammer and Velda stumble into the primordial sea
        and The End crawls up to fill each glaring window.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 10, on page 28
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