Sound, Woman and the Bomb: Dismembering the “great whatsit” in Kiss Me Deadly

Uploaded 30 June 2000

The Fifties surely exist as one of film scholarship’s more intriguing and overdetermined sites. This period is routinely constructed as a hotbed of (choose one): political paranoia, fear of atomic annihilation, anti-communist hysteria and Eisenhowerian complacency, conditions which have been repeatedly “read off” a number of Fifties films. Some genres, of course, have become more susceptible than others to these interpretations: science fiction and horror films in particular have come to bear the brunt of these sorts of readings; film noir is another group also associated with the cold war mentality of the Fifties. Although film noir first emerged during the war years (with the release of The Maltese Falcon in 1941), critics have been most intrigued by the genre’s postwar permutations and perversions, attributing them to increasingly unstable structures within the American economy and within the traditional home. [1]  Paul Schrader’s influential sociological account of film noir history tells us:

After ten years of steadily shedding romantic convention, the later noir films finally got down to the root causes of the period: the loss of public honor, heroic conventions, personal integrity, and, finally, psychic stability. The third-phase films were painfully self-aware; they seemed to know they stood at the end of a long tradition based on despair and disintegration and did not shy away from that fact. [2]

Generally, films noir after 1949 (Schrader’s “third phase”) are described in terms of their “baroque” or self-conscious qualities, their increasingly “disillusioned” themes and their “psychotic” styles.

Released in 1955, Robert Aldrich’s heavily stylized film noir Kiss Me Deadly sits squarely in the middle of the Fifties, and there are strong reasons to consider it as some kind of response to the cold war – not the least of which is the atomic explosion that concludes the film. [3]  There are other compelling reasons to consider Kiss Me Deadly in light of its cold war context: director Robert Aldrich has revealed in a number of interviews that he found Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer to be a model “antidemocratic, a fascist” and that he deliberately highlighted Hammer’s ends-justifies-the-means modus operandi in accordance with McCarthy’s methods. [4] Aldrich also changed the novel so that what was initially a case involving illegal drugs became a search for stolen atomic secrets. The film’s screenwriter, A. I. Bezzerides, was among those officially blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee; Aldrich himself was graylisted. One critic at Cahiers du cinema was moved to hail Aldrich as the “first director of the atomic age.” [5]

Yet the critical discourse that surrounds it contains elements that suggest a different kind of political activity is also at work. In its 1955 review, The Los Angeles Times laments that, of all the actresses in the film, “there is scarcely a knockout in the batch.” [6]  A more recent writer lauds Aldrich for his “sensitivity” to women for featuring three small-breasted women in the midst of the bosom-obsessed Fifties; [7]  another writes that “all four of the women are near nymphomaniacs” [8]  and yet another claims that, with the exception of Velda (who, like the critics, remains loyal to Hammer), all of them “are either mad or highly treacherous.” [9]  Aldrich himself makes no bones about his own contempt for women, telling one interviewer that they “obey better but are more emotional and far more unpredictable,” [10]   and says elsewhere that “Sure, women are a pain in the ass. But I guess they think the same thing about men.”( [11]  Molly Haskell, for her part, describes Aldrich’s work as “monolithically male,” [12]  and a male critic recently situated his discussion of Kiss Me Deadly in the postwar phase of film noir – a period in which, according to him, the genre underwent an “emasculation.” [13]

Given these claims that surround Kiss Me Deadly it would be a gross disservice to the film to approach it merely as a response to cold war Fifties politics. This is not to question the importance of cold war issues in critical interpretations of Fifties cinema; it is to stress, however, that alone they reveal precious little about the ways femininity has been figured into this political and cultural preoccupation. One critic, for instance, who addresses the issue of cruelty in film noir directly relates it to the atrocities of World War II and the bomb: the misogynistic treatment of women in film noir, to his mind, is connected to U.S. soldiers’ desire for and suspicion of the women they left behind. [14]  This account tells us two things. First, it claims that film noir takes its structural cues from male desire and experience. Second, even in the moments when the genre’s cruelty is directed against woman, the source of the problem is man’s anxiety over the war or postwar political situation – gender, according to this perspective, has little to do with the problem. In short, critics of Fifties films have insufficiently addressed these films’ anxiety of “the alien” since this alien “other” which has been constructed for the Fifties has been primarily worked out in terms of political and not sexual difference. To analyze a film like Kiss Me Deadly as a product of only cold war politics deflects and ultimately obscures the fear of feminine sexuality which displays itself so lavishly across this and other examples of film noir.

Kiss Me Deadly has attracted considerable attention and provoked some rather sizable claims from critics who have approached it as a genre piece. Paul Schrader considers it the “masterpiece” of film noir [15] and Jack Shadoian claims it is “the film the genre ha[d] been leading up to.” [16]  Nearly every one of Kiss Me Deadly’s critics has made some mention of the film’s “excessive” cinematic style in one form or another. Ian Jarvie labels Aldrich’s style as both “hysterical” and “authoritarian,” for example, [17]  and Richard Combs writes that the style of Kiss Me Deadly is as “removed as possible from the classically self-effacing Hollywood model.” [18]  Yet these and the overwhelming majority of other discussions of Kiss Me Deadly’s renegade technique assess only its visual components. This bias, in fact, dominates film noir criticism at large.

Since the publication of J. A. Place and L. S. Peterson’s article “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir”, writers have directed their attention towards the genre’s expressionistic lighting, eccentric camera angles, unbalanced framing and so on. [19]  It would seem that in general critics have appeared satisfied with these analyses of noir’s visual style as a means of accounting for the genre’s well-rehearsed sense of ambiguity, futility and shakily-grounded epistemology. This perspective presumes, then, that the sense of crisis frequently associated with film noir regulates itself according to a visual economy in which desire, plenitude and knowledge can only be achieved visually. (For a genre whose central protagonist is the “private eye,” this hardly seems incidental.) And as Laura Mulvey and others after her have written, woman seldom functions in this system as anything more than object – as the visual and narrative lure for more active, masculine agencies whose desires bind themselves to the promise of visual reward and pleasure [20] Although Mulvey’s discussion is focused on classic film narrative in a general sense, it would appear that film noir participates in this paradigm since its own narrative pleasures so frequently involve “uncovering” a visually enticing woman and determining the reliability of her (often deceptive) image (see Laura, USA 1944, Gilda, USA 1946, or The Lady from Shanghai, USA 1948). Thus, as epistemologically unsteady as the male gaze may be in film noir, woman still remains by and large subjected to, and by, it. For many critics, the duplicitous “image” of woman in film noir epitomises the visual uncertainty traditionally associated with the genre. [21] But whether we accept this analytical assumption or not, the consistent emphasis of critics on film noir’s destabilized visuals has implicitly established the soundtrack as the genre’s sole anchoring device.

Yet on this level too woman has been prevented from exercising any significant discursive power. Raymond Bellour’s famous 12-shot breakdown of The Big Sleep (USA 1946), for example, contends that while Lauren Bacall dominates the image track, Hollywood editing strategies maintain Humphrey Bogart’s control of the soundtrack. [22] Christine Gledhill has observed how the male voiceover organizes the narrative and interpretive enterprises of a large number of noir films. [23]  (When woman dares to assume this role, as with the female voiceover in Mildred Pierce, USA 1945, her account is discredited and ultimately corrected by male authorities. [24] ) Consequently, the ability to reveal textual “truths” has become repeatedly aligned and realigned with masculine agencies. The convention of the male voiceover thus serves to assure that masculine law and authority remain intact in a genre that otherwise, according to most critics, destabilizes them. [25]  And perhaps this reassures critics as much as anyone else. Kiss Me Deadly, however, uses sound in a much more challenging fashion than all this, and can be read in such a way that exposes the incompleteness – the lack, if you will – of these sorts of interpretive assumptions.

Aldrich’s film noir frustrates conventional visual approaches to the genre on two important fronts. First, it conveys film noir’s skewed and fragmented “world view” aurally as well as visually, thus challenging the applicability of visually-oriented film noir criticism. Second, the film uses its female characters and elements associated with them in ways that sidestep film theory’s routine claims to femininity’s passivity. Some of the most important clues Mike Hammer receives over the course of his investigation are made by women and, just as importantly are represented aurally – through mechanical recordings and broadcasts, poetry, noises made by the human body, and so on. Not only do female characters organize (and question) much of the male protagonist’s narrative project, but with them an array of chaotic sounds and rhythms upset the sense of a coherent narrative norm or center. Mumbling, panting, dance, music – even bird noises – contribute to important thematic and narrative meanings in the film. But rather than interpret this unusual use of film sound as a symptom of noir’s unstable diegetic world, as many genre critics would, I propose that these aural signs enable Kiss Me Deadly to be read against the grain of, and as a critique of, the visually-oriented criticism of film noir. The stakes in this project are particularly high for feminists since Kiss Me Deadly frequently attaches its movement “against the grain” to feminine agencies.

To be sure, Kiss Me Deadly does convey much of its destructive, fragmented world in visual terms, and in this way responds well to traditional noir criticism (although the film’s style has been rightly labelled “excessive”). A number of shots literally dismember the human body – both male and female – into fragments (this point alone already suggests a parity between men and women normally unexplored in classical cinema, with its tendency to frame and fragment only the female body). When Christina is tortured at the film’s outset, for instance, we see only her unclad legs dangling from a countertop. And although this camera position spares us the images of her actual torture, it also denies us access to the identities of her captors, who are shot only from the waist down. All that identifies their ringleader, Dr. Soberin, is his voice and his slick two-toned shoes. (Soberin in fact, remains faceless to us throughout most of the film. When Hammer is captured and bound by his gang for a second time, the Doctor tells him, “Lie still. Why torment yourself? Who would you see? Someone you do not know,” questions which announce the futility of Hammer’s enterprise and also challenge the idea that sight can deliver knowledge.) The film makes use of a number of bizarre point-of-view shots. One assumes the position of a car as it drops on top of Mike’s mechanic friend, Nick, and another takes the perspective of Christina’s dead body as it is pulled out of a drawer in the police morgue. Other visual displays include sharply canted angles, film credits rolled up in reverse and 180-degree camera pivots.

Kiss Me Deadly also keeps within the noir tradition by characterizing its female characters as duplicitous, placing them in an array of deceptive doubles. Lily Carver is not only identified with Christina by virtue of her having been Christina’s alleged roommate, but she also resembles her physically and, like Christina, enters Hammer’s life wearing nothing but a robe tied at the waist. Lily in fact is herself divided in two, first enjoying the identity of the “lily-white” innocent who asks for Hammer’s protection and later revealing herself as the evil Gabrielle and effectively operating as Hammer’s angel of death. This sense of splitting within the character continues since the actress who portrays Gabrielle, Gaby Rodgers, shares her first name. Christina Bailey becomes linked in name to poet Christina Rossetti, which in turn evokes the name Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and so forth. Needless to say, these various divided images of woman cause considerable anxiety in the distrusting and confused Mike Hammer.

Unlike traditional films noir, however, the sense of duplicity and uncertainty which governs the image track of Kiss Me Deadly also characterizes its soundtrack. The film’s repudiation of sound as a stabilizing (line missing) force is established right from its start. No voiceover introduces or develops the film noir tale for us (curiously, Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly was narrated in the first person by Mike Hammer, suggesting a more powerful protagonist). In its absence, the film’s complex story line that unfolds is up for grabs – at the very least, it is certainly not in the hands of Hammer. After Christina hails down his sportscar in the opening sequence, her monologue establishes the fact that Hammer is somewhat out of control, that his masculinity has run amuck. She tells this man, whom she has just met:
I was just thinking how much you can tell about a person from such little things – your car, for instance. You have only one real, lasting love: you. You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself.

After this brief character analysis (which is surprisingly on target), Christina goes on to remark, in a heavily ironic tone, “Ah, woman – the ‘incomplete’ sex. What does she need to complete her? Why man, of course – wonderful man.” So shrewd is Christina’s insight into the ideas of incompleteness and fragmentation that are forced upon the female body, she tells Mike that “I had to use my whole body [to hail him down] – if I’d just used my thumb, you wouldn’t have stopped.”

These self-consciously delivered comments initiate the connection in the film between woman, lack and insight – a connection which will subsequently be re-established after Christina’s death. At this point, however, Christina’s observations point out the obvious link between Hammer’s phallic sportscars and his excessive machismo. Given this symbolism, it is quite telling that the car the two ride in ends up wrecked. As Hammer’s mechanic friend Nick later tells him, “You ought to have seen that beautiful and pretty little rod of yours. All torn up, scrapped, junk. Never gonna go va-va-voom no more. Break my heart.” Even Hammer’s colleagues on the police force extend the metaphor – a familiar one in hard-boiled lingo – disdainfully referring to the divorce case detective as a “bedroom dick.”

Needless to say, these examples drawn from the film’s dialogue are highly suggestive and are important in reading woman’s resistance within Kiss Me Deadly. Yet in and of themselves they do not mount a significant challenge to the film’s narrative or to its image track: after all, these sounds function within a conventional, synchronized – and hence, rational – relationship to the image. Yet other features of the soundtrack do upset the sense of unity and rationality that image-sound relations classically strive for. Many scenes in the film engage a number of sounds placed in simultaneous competition with one another: the roar of waves drowns out much of the dialogue at Dr. Soberin’s beach house; poor acoustics and the sound of traffic outside of Lily Carver’s apartment frustrate a clear hearing of her first encounter with Hammer; phones are ringing continually and at times we overhear conversations which have minimal bearing on the plot. Radios overwhelm the film in numerous scenes, broadcasting live boxing and racing events or emitting popular or classical music. Significantly, these diegetically motivated transmissions divide themselves according to the gender of their listeners: the sportscasts of the violent boxing matches, for example, are played for Soberin’s lackeys, who themselves operate as an all-too-savage team, whereas music, for the most part, appears in scenes delineated as women’s spaces such as Velda’s and Christina’s apartments (this association of music with woman will be developed below). Collectively these different sounds disengage the film’s auditor from any sense of a cohesive, intelligible sonorous field: it is difficult to know what to listen to, or how to determine which sounds do and do not contain important narrative information. Many prominent sounds emerge from unvisualized diegetic sources (at one point Hammer makes a getaway from Soberin’s gang by “throwing” his voice) and the film’s use of non-diegetic music (itself often harsh and discordant) further upsets the cogency of its soundtrack.

At times even human speech is rendered meaningless. This reaches its comic overstatement when Dr. Soberin injects Hammer with sodium pentathol in order to extract the “truth” from him about Christina. In an amusing play on Freud’s notion of the talking cure, Hammer talks to the Doctor all right, but in utterly undecipherable banter: there appears to be no “truth” about Christina, or about woman, that the dim-witted Hammer can unveil, just as he fails to resolve the secret of the stolen atomic matter in the film’s plot. Elsewhere in the film, human voices, which clearly have been redubbed, are not fully synchronized to the image, again destroying the unified sound-image relationship which bestows intelligibility upon the classical film text. Curiously this occurs most frequently when characters are in severe pain: at one point Hammer holds a drawer shut upon the hands of a morgue attendant in order to extract information from him, and his post-dubbed, out of synch screams have a gruesome effect that is nearly comic; when Christina Bailey is first tortured, her repeated shrieks accompany the writhing movements of her nude legs – moments later, as her legs dangle quite lifelessly from the counter, the same rhythmic screams persist; as Gabrielle opens the atomic box at the end of the film, she releases a series of screams while her mouth remains open and unmoving. [26]

Another provocative use of sound features the recorded voice of a woman that relays phone messages to Hammer at his apartment. Although it might be assumed that the voice is Velda’s, the film never visually portrays or otherwise identifies the speaker.

This is significant first because the voice releases messages that are crucial to Hammer’s enterprise. In other words, a female agent controls some of Hammer’s access to narrative information. Second, and more importantly, this detail offers evidence of what Kaja Silverman has called woman’s “disembodied voice,” a rare instance drawn from classical cinema where the female voice is not anchored to the feminine body. [27]  The unidentified voice here speaks from the space external to the female body, a space patriarchal representation only reluctantly acknowledges due to woman’s basic constitution as somatic and sexual difference. The disembodied status of the female voice here thus gives it an extra-diegetic authority normally unavailable to women: it doesn’t merely play back recorded speech here but actively produces discourse, offering messages for Hammer to either ignore or heed. The speech of this female voice, then, cannot be dismissed, in Silverman’s words, as “prattle,” or, in Christina’s, “loony.”

All of these examples from the film work against traditional uses of sound and the ways in which it has been theorized. As we have seen in our discussion of film noir criticism, scholars have been slow to acknowledge the contributions sound makes to film narrative, desire and overall signification. Sound in the cinema has been by and large “overlooked.” Mary Ann Doane has suggested there are specific ideological reasons for this:

The ineffable, intangible quality of sound – its lack of the concreteness which is conducive to an ideology of empiricism – requires that it be placed on the side of the emotional or the intuitive. If the ideology of the visible demands that the spectator understand the image as a truthful representation of reality, the ideology of the audible demands that there exist simultaneously a different truth and another order of reality for the subject to grasp. [28]

Doane’s notion of sound’s “lack” of concreteness and visual presence suggestively links its theoretical status to that of femininity. Just as woman under patriarchal structures functions negatively – that is, as absence or lack – in regards to man, film sound is said to operate in negative relation to the image. [29]  In many practical and theoretical accounts of film sound, the soundtrack has indeed functioned as the devalued “other” within an ideological and representational system that privileges the visual term. What can’t be seen, in this system, is neither trustworthy nor understandable in any conventional sense. Doane goes on to note that this realm of film sounds – and the threat of disruption it carries along with it – is classically “silenced” in film practice by subordinating it to the allegedly more truthful image. Yet the prominent place enjoyed by many different kinds of film sounds in Kiss Me Deadly demonstrates that this need not always be the case. Here, the operations on the soundtrack actively engage with those of the image track, creating meanings that in many ways challenge the claims made for the film image’s closer association with knowledge and truth.

At this point it is worth distinguishing the human voice from other kinds of film sounds. As theorists have noted, while the voice functions in discourse as a form of interdiction (the non/nom of the father), participating as it does in a highly organized and rational linguistic system, the sounds and rhythms of music, on the other hand, operate on what some have termed a poetic or maternal register. [30] Meanings in this alternate register do not submit themselves to representational systems as we know them, that is to say, although this system produces signs, these signs cannot be rationally analyzed. The cinema constantly relies on a number of these kinds of elements – non-representational signs such as music, color, texture, rhythm, etc. [31]  Kiss Me Deadly shows how these various non-representational sounds and rhythms do come to generate meanings, even if their significance is lost on Mike Hammer. With this in mind we might here reconsider the film’s important opening scene.

Before the opening credits even begin, Christina Bailey’s heavy breathing is heard as she runs down the road from her pursuers. The sound is loud, sensual and strange, the strangeness enhanced through the use of imperfectly synched sound. What is more, the raised volume of these noises makes them appear spatially closer to us than they “ought” to be. [32]  It would seem, then, that Christina introduces a break in cinematic verisimilitude and sense of disruption into the text. Her quirky visual form and manner, and the uneven quality of her panting, threaten Hammer with their disorder and potential madness. Aware of his contempt for both her condition and her speech, Christina tells Hammer, “You forget I’m a loony from the laughing house. All loonies are dangerous.” [33]  Although the film’s story, in fact, partially actualizes this threat – after all, his run-in with Christina eventually leads Hammer to the destructive atomic escapades of Dr. Soberin – it seems to me that the “danger” this woman represents is one of a competing form of signification and an epistemology that eschews easy visual truths and rationality. The film tells us, for instance, that Christina had been held at the asylum against her will, but it never definitively establishes either her sanity or her “looniness.” Rather than view this as an invitation to discredit Christina, as some critics have, [34]  I would argue instead that this ambiguity in the text is crucial to the kind of knowledge Christina comes to embody. In this light, Christina’s ironic efforts to invalidate her own words as “loony” in fact articulate the standard response to woman’s speech.

Christina’s groans, screams and mumbles enjoy a special significance in this first scene since they appear to be directly emitted by her body. In other words, they are noises that seemingly by-pass the intervening paternal word. Completely ill-disposed to understand this non-linguistic form of communication, Mike Hammer dismisses Christina from his thoughts until, significantly, he recalls her written words, “remember me.” Assured that language will lead him to (as he puts it) “something big,” Hammer rushes headstrong to his own destruction, ignoring all of the other warnings Christina has relayed to him. After this scene, and after her death, Christina becomes realigned with other non-linguistic components of speech when a character compares her voice with her canary’s. Her affiliation with poetic language is made explicit when Christina tells Mike she was named after Christina Rossetti; later on, Velda’s recitation of a Rossetti poem gives Hammer, who doesn’t read poetry, the key with which to crack the case. Woman comes to occupy a realm in which rhythms, music and poetry relay meaning while logic, narrative and language do not. The association between woman and the irrational, sensual, poetic register finds further support in the film’s reference to Christina’s fondness for classical music – and here, the appearance of music in women’s rooms carries special weight. The sounds of Beethoven fill Christina’s former apartment; Velda dances in hers to the strains of Tchaikovsky. The fact that Velda dances here draws attention to the sensual pulls of music rather than to its intellectual or rational charms. Hammer’s inability or unwillingness to participate in this system reveals itself in the scene where he meets a male friend of Christina’s, Carmen Trivago. The film’s musical relay extends itself to this character, dubbed a “poor man’s Caruso,” and when Hammer questions him, he bullies him into speaking by breaking one of Trivago’s treasured opera recordings. Clearly, Hammer believes that music must be rejected – here, violently – in order to get at the “truth,” which, for him, can only be verbal. Trivago’s participation in this heretofore “feminine” register might initially seem to complicate its status, as might the fact that the music with which woman becomes associated emerges from an established male-dominated canon (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc,). Yet rather than insist on strict male-female divisions here, I prefer to read these details as a means of suggesting the complex interrelationship of allegedly non-signifying musical forms with the rational, male dominant culture in which they actually circulate. The eclectic amassing of “high” and “mass” cultural artifacts and themes adds another dimension of confusion and uncertainty to the text. Not only does the film portray a “Poor man’s Caruso,” but Hammer himself weaves in and out of the worlds of classical music, poetry and high art as well as the Spillane-styled underworld of the sleezy private eye. Nick, Hammer’s working class friend, speaks with a heavy foreign accent yet somehow exhibits flawless English grammar, and, at one point, likens Hammer to Lazarus. These mixed discourses suggest the extensive range of Kiss Me Deadly‘s themes of guile and duplicity: for Hammer, there is no respite from uncertainty and deceit, even in the culturally sanctioned agents of “high art” (in fact, the aesthetes are the most criminal). Their collective effect is unsettling; their cacophonous mix of discourses further de-centers the narrative core of the film. These various elements, along with the idea of femininity, avail themselves as a force that disrupts the “law and order” of traditional narrative and visual representation.

For all the aurally rendered “insights” we might read off of these elements and off of the film’s female characters, the place of these women within the diegesis is far from secure. Throughout the film, male characters insult and scorn them – Hammer, for example, is continually lewd and sleazy, remarking at one point as some women walk by him, “Mmmm. Look at all those goodies”; one of Soberin’s thugs tells us that “dames are worse than flies,” and the cops refer to Velda as “real woo-bait.” (Of course, the correspondence between these characters’ dialogue within the film and the commentary of male critics reviewing it is striking indeed.)

Kiss Me Deadly‘s critics have long been intrigued by Dr. Soberin’s verbal ejaculation towards the end of the film when he guards over the box of stolen atomic material. In but a matter of minutes he draws analogies between Gabrielle (the nominally transformed Lily who is watching him carefully to make sure she gets her fair share of their deal) and the likes of Pandora, Lot’s wife and others. His cliched diatribe contains some of the film’s more overt misogyny: he tells his curious, young accomplice that she “deserves what’s in the box for all the creature comforts [she] has given [him] ” implying that her sexuality warrants this monstrous punishment. Furthermore, all of the mythic references he makes involve narratives which justify the punishment of women who either were seeking knowledge (Pandora) or who gained brief possession of the gaze (Lot’s wife). Thus, these pagan accounts of femininity – potentially disruptive in their very paganism – merely replicate the lessons of traditional Oedipal narrative – a narrative prototype which has blamed woman for man’s tragic fall from as far back as the legends of Jocasta and Eve up through 1955, when an updated Pandora unleashed her boxful of atomic secrets.

In spite of Hammer’s own lack of power within Kiss Me Deadly‘s complex narrative structure, the film’s misogynistic denouement nonetheless seems to be a foregone conclusion in many regards. By placing the literal “key” of the narrative (i.e., the key to the locker where the atomic box is hidden) inside of Christina Bailey’s body, woman’s sexuality (her own “hot box”) is constructed as the film’s final object of inquiry and ultimate source of terror – hardly a departure from more straightforwardly classical narrative strategies. [35] In fact, the film doubly associates woman with the destructive bomb: first, through Christina’s lifeless body and second, through Gabrielle’s ambition and curiosity which lead her to open the box at the film’s end. It would seem, then, that Kiss Me Deadly‘s morbid conclusion successfully fuses the widespread fear of atomic destruction in the Fifties with the equally widespread fear of woman, effectively mapping the former onto the latter. [36]  The film’s conclusion would appear to reconcile the two approaches to the film discussed earlier, that is, the fascination with film noir’s femmes fatale found in generic approaches meets up with the fear of the A-bomb that prevails in socio-historical approaches to Fifties films. The meeting point of these two approaches is found on woman’s body.

In spite of the grim and apocalyptic “vision” which closes Kiss Me Deadly, the film opens up many sites of resistance – a resistance put forward by women and in women’s terms. An especially important scene in this regard occurs late in the film and features Velda asking Mike to drop his investigation after a number of people have been killed and no answers have turned up in the search. Her discussion here of the “great whatsit” advances one of cinema’s most interesting and articulate challenges to Oedipal narrative. She asks, “What is it you’re after, Mike? Is it worth Nick’s life, or Romando’s, or Kowalski’s, or mine?” Hammer, already distraught over the recent death of his friend Nick, tells her that “they tried to get Lily, too,” and Velda responds, with her voice (very significantly) post-dubbed in voice off, ” ‘They.’ A wonderful word. And who are they? They are the nameless ones who kill people for the ‘great whatsit.’ Does it exist? Who cares. Everyone, everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search – for what?” Many critics of the film have interpreted these lines as an indictment of the thug-like McCarthyism on which Aldrich deliberately erected Mike Hammer. While this may be an accurate assessment, it is clear that Velda’s speech addresses more than just that. Emerging as it does from the exterior beyond the film frame, and, momentarily severed from its bodily source, Velda’s speech expresses the attitude of woman towards classical narrative at large, refusing to endorse the violence with which Oedipal victory is normally gained. Metaphorically summing up narrative’s often destructive progression Velda gibes, “First you find a little thread. Little thread leads you to a string, and the string leads you to a rope. And from the rope, you hang by the neck.” Velda’s cautions and predictions, like Christina’s character analysis of Hammer at the beginning of the film, prove to be surprisingly accurate. (Hammer of course, ignores Velda’s warnings, just as he ignore virtually everything else she says and does in the film.) Hammer not only ends up bungling his quest, but he is extinguished in the process, a fact which reveals the destructiveness of his compulsion to master and attain the “great whatsit.”

Both Christina and Velda are in control of a special kind of insight and knowledge: curiously, Christina’s is intimately linked to and relayed through her body, while the strength of Velda’s “great whatsit” speech is gained in part through its relative disembodiment. In the same way that Christina is self-consciously aware of her lack and “incompleteness” as a woman, Velda recognizes the equally conspicuous lack of masculinity and its narrative enterprises. Furthermore, if Christina can be said to defy conventional modes of representation during the film’s opening scenes, Velda can be said to threaten its narrative trajectory towards the end. It is no accident, for instance, that as Hammer approaches the climax of his investigation, Soberin’s’ men kidnap Velda. Imprisoned, her ability to interfere with routine denouement (read: getting the “great whatsit”) is diminished and, indeed, the tale ghoulishly moves on to its destructive conclusion without her.

Yet the film’s atomic finale can be read differently. In many ways it provides the only “rational” means of concluding a narrative with a protagonist so obsessed with simple, rational truths – a narrative that, like its protagonist, is characterized by excessive violence. The logic of this conclusion, in the words of Teresa de Lauretis, is “Oedipal with a vengeance.” [37] With all its false starts and dead ends, Kiss Me Deadly‘s strange narrative progression reveals the obsessiveness – indeed, the illogic – of Oedipal logic. Its apocalyptic finale places the “great whatsit” of narrative definitively beyond the grasp of its heroes. In this vein, the atomic explosion might be more effectively read as an unleashing of woman’s revenge or as her condemnation of Oedipal narrative and her indictment of western knowledge, based as it is on the perversity of its greatest scientific achievement. If we situate this critical moment alongside elements in the film that were previously associated with woman, this blast also comes to undermine the traditional privileging of the rational over the irrational, and of sight over sound.

Kiss Me Deadly not only rejects the supremacy of the film image over the soundtrack, but it also challenges the idea that the two are mutually opposed fields at all. In other words, the film demonstrates that both sounds and images generate meanings, however differently these meanings operate from one another. Kiss Me Deadly‘s clever exploitation of the soundtrack also suggests ways in which the theoretical concept of lack can be readdressed. Since the term organizes itself according to specific anatomical metaphors, “lack,” as we have come to know it, constructs the idea of a visualdeficiency, the appearance of being “stunted” or incomplete in phallic terms. Consequently, the argument goes, that which has no contribution to make to this visual system receives little in the way of epistemological or representational privilege. For film theory, this frequently results in the assertion (however implicitly made) that woman and sound cannot “mean” and are considered to be literally in-significant due to their lack of phallic presence or visibility. Our discussions of signification in film would do best to re-examine the idea of lack and to consider the meaningful contributions made by film sound – or, more properly stated, film sounds, including human voices and sounds as well as music, noise and rhythm. How sound – and woman – come to generate signification is certainly different from their visually-oriented counterparts, and yet these invisible others do carry meaning in culture. If woman has been “lacking” in discussions of the cold war in films of the Fifties, she is absent only to the eyes of male critics who have displaced their fear of sexual difference onto a highly visible landscape of political paranoia.


I would like to acknowledge my thanks and appreciation to the late Ed Lowry, who not only provided me with careful criticism of an earlier version of this essay, but who inspired me to write it in the first place.

[1] This paper will be referring to film noir as a genre, although debates continue regarding this group of film’s historical and critical status as genre, style or movement. Some of the critics who consider film noir as a film type or genre are Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, Panorama du film noir (Paris: Editions du minuet, 1955) and Christine Gledhill, “Klute 1: a contemporary film noir and feminist criticism” and “Klute 2: feminism and Klute” in Women in Film Noir, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: BFI Publications, 1980); those interested in discussing film noir either as a style or as an historical movement include Raymond Durgnat, “The family tree of film noir,” Film Comment 10, no. 6 (1974), 12-13; Paul Schrader, “Notes on film noir,” Film Comment 8, no. 1 (1970), 8-13; and Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres (New York: Random House, 1981)
[2] Schrader, 12.
[3] Adapted from Mickey Spillane’s pulp novel of the same name, Kiss Me Deadly opens with Christina Bailey, a woman escaping from an asylum in nothing but a trenchcoat, hailing down Mike Hammer in his sporty car. Begrudgingly, he picks her up and during their ride she ridicules his self-absorption and mockingly suggests that woman is the “incomplete sex” in need of “wonderful man” to complete her. The ride ends in an “accident” in which the two of them are tortured (Christina is killed) by a group of men represented only from the knees down. When the police grow suspiciously curious about the incident, and after they force him off the case, Hammer doggedly goes searching for scattered clues on his own. He discovers Lily Carver, who claims to be Christina’s former roommate, and offers her his protection. Velda, Hammer’s alleged secretary, obtains information for him by “dating” a number of men who harbor information and addresses. When an increasing number of uninvolved people are killed in a continuing series of “accidents,” Velda implores Hammer to relinquish his quest for what she calls “the great whatsit.” Yet Hammer persists, believing that Christina’s plea to “remember her” will eventually lead to “something big.” In fact it does, but not in a way that Hammer anticipates: he and Velda are presumably extinguished in a tremendous atomic blast that is unleashed by the duplicitous Lily Carver, now known as Gabrielle
[4] Quoted in Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films, trans. Peter Morris (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972), 178.
[5] Charles Bitsch, “Surmultipliee,”. Cahiers du cinemaNo.51 (Octobre 1955), 3. Translation mine.
[6] Philip Scheuer, review of Kiss Me Deadly, by Robert Aldrich, Los Angeles Times, 19 May 1955.
[7] Harry Ringel, “The Director as Phoenix,” Take One, 4,5 (1973), 14.
[8] Ian Jarvie, “Hysteria and authoritarianism in the films of Robert Aldrich,” Film Culture, No.22/23 (Summer 1961), 110.
[9] Gavin Lambert, review of Kiss Me Deadly, by Robert Aldrich, Monthly Film Bulletin, No.259 (August 1955),120
[10] Ringel, 14.
[11] Ibid., 9.
[12] Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape (New York: Penguin, 1974), 271.
[13] Schatz, 140.
[14] Colin McArthur, Underworld U.S.A.  (New York: Viking, 1972), 66-67.
[15] Schrader, 12.
[16] Jack Shadoian, Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), 267.
[17] See Jarvie.
[18] Richard Combs, “A director and his doubles,” in Robert Aldrich, ed. R. Combs (London: British Film Institute, 1978), 3.
[19] See J.A. Place and L.S. Peterson, “Some visual motifs of film noir,” Film Comment, 10, 1 (1974). Work on film noir continues to approach the genre as a predominantly visual phenomenon. Some of the prominent examples of this tendency include Schrader (whose essay actually preceded the one above) and, in discussions of Kiss Me Deadly, George Robinson, “Three by Aldrich,” The Velvet Light Trap, No. 11, 46-49 and Alain Silver, “Kiss Me Deadly: evidence of a style.” Film Comment, 11, 2 (March/April 1975),24-30, One recently published article on the film offers a welcome alternative to this trend and concentrates on the film’s soundtrack. See J.P. Telotte, “Talk and Trouble: Kiss Me Deadly’s apocalyptic discourse,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 13, 2 (1985), 69-79. In his analysis, Telotte argues that Kiss Me Deadly’s irregular use of the soundtrack dramatizes a cultural crisis that is intimately connected to the idea that people’s need to speak directly to one another is continually frustrated through a number of social and technological barriers. My own analysis differs from Telotte’s through its stress on the film’s non-linguistic sounds and my assertion that this activity mounts a welcome challenge to traditional notions of communication and representation.
[20] Laura Mulvey, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema,” Screen, 16, 3 (1975), 6-18.
[21] For an interesting discussion of this, see Mary Ann Doane’s analysis of C. Vidor’s Gilda, “Gilda: epistemology as striptease,” Camera obscura, No.11 (1984), 7-28.
[22] Raymond Bellour, “The obvious and the code,” Screen, 15,4 (1974-75), 7-17.
[23] Gledhill, “Klute 1…”
[24] See Pam Cook’s discussion, “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce,” in Kaplan, for an extended analysis of the film.
[25] Although this point is widely accepted in critical discussions of film noir, it is by no means an uncontested claim. William Siska and Marc Vernet, for instance, though dramatically different in their methods, concur that film noir clearly and unambiguously reaffirms traditional delineations of good and evil and that it solidifies the ideology of the American middle class.
[26] 0ne scholar has suggested that this activity is a form of textual censorship in which the explicit depiction of violent scenes on the image track displaces itself onto the soundtrack. Yet it is worth adding that the unconventional sound-image relationships produced by this displacement, as well as the very withholding of visual information do not reduce the spectator-listener’s sense of displeasure during these scenes. My thanks to William Boddy for his clever observations on the film.
[27] Silverman argues that, unlike the seldom-heard female voiceover, authoritative male voiceovers with no corporal referent are relatively common (consider, for instance, the “voice of God” constructed in many anonymous voiceovers in documentary film). Silverman writes that this system usually dismisses woman’s speech as “gossip” or “prattle,” since the female voice so rarely enjoys the authoritative “disembodied” status of male speech. In a metaphor that is particularly suggestive in regards to Kiss Me Deadly, Silverman writes that “[woman’s] linguistic status is analogous to that of a recorded tape which endlessly plays back what was spoken in some anterior moment, and from a radically external vantage.” It is appropriate to read the recorded voice in Hammer’s apartment as coming from this “radically external vantage,” although here it modifies rather than merely repeats the words of others. Another example of the dis-embodied voice in fact occurs in the film’s opening scenes when a female disc jockey introduces the song “I’d rather have the blues” which plays over the radio in Mike Hammer’s car as the opening credits are rolled up. Silverman’s discussion appears in her article, “Dis-embodying the female voice,” in Re-vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, eds. M. Doane, P. Mellencamp and L. Williams (Los Angeles: American Film Institute, 1984), 131-49.
[28] Mary Ann Doane, “Ideology and the Practice of Sound Editing and Mixing,” in The Cinematic Apparatus, eds. Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980), 48-49.
[29] I have developed this argument elsewhere in conjunction with the issue of film music. See my essay, “The ‘problem’ of femininity in theories of film music,” forthcoming in Screen.
[30] For a discussion of the former point, see Mary Ann Doane, “The voice in the cinema: the articulation of body and space,” Yale French Studies, No.60 (1980), 33-49. Julia Kristeva has developed the latter point in her collection of essays, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans. T. Gora, A. Jardine and L. Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1980), see especially her chapter “From one identity to another.”
[31] Richard Dyer explores the idea of non-representational signs in relation to the Hollywood musical in his important essay, “Entertainment and utopia,” in The Musical, ed. Rick Altman (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 175-89.
[32] Alan Williams discusses some of these codes of aural verisimilitude in his essay, “The musical film and popular recorded music,” in Altman, 147 -5 8.
[33] In Spillane’s novel, a male police officer tells Hammer that “All loonies are dangerous,” stripping the line considerably of the ironic and critical weight it enjoys in Aldrich’s film.
[34] 0ne critic wonders, “Is she crazy? Quite possibly – at any rate, she is bizarre.” See Bitsch, 42.
[35] The key yielded by Christina’s body resolves the film’s narrative in a way that recalls Freud’s sessions with female hysterics, in which woman’s body would be literally read for signs or keys with which to unlock certain narrative “solutions” to the problem.
[36] This idea is rigorously explored in Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance  (USA 1985). Throughout the film, the character modeled on Albert Einstein is visited by a series of visions and flashbacks of the atomic bomb destroying Japan. Needless to say, this causes the character great anguish, as does the arrival of the Marilyn Monroe figure at his hotel room late one night. When she finally departs, he literally projects these destructive visions onto her body, reducing her to a gruesome, fleshy image. The man is both intrigued and horrified by this destructive spectacle (of woman/of death). As a whole, the scene operates as a disturbing pun on Monroe’s status as feminine “bombshell.”
[37] See Teresa de Lauretis’ chapter “Desire in narrative” in her book Alice Doesn’t (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984) for an extended discussion of woman’s position vis-a-vis traditional Oedipal narrative.

About the Author

Caryl Flinn

About the Author

Caryl Flinn

Caryl Flinn is an Associate Professor of Media Arts at the University of Arizona. Her work includes Strains of utopia and articles on film music, sound, feminist and gender theory, German film, and camp in anthologies such as Queering the canon; Melodrama:stage/screen; Documenting the documentary; and Camp: a reader’s guide. Her essays have appeared in journals such as Arachne, Camera obscura, Screen and, with the essay here, Wide angle.View all posts by Caryl Flinn →