The use of sound in Kiss Me Deadly


I was wrong in assuming, after Pascal Bonitzer, that the voice of Dr. Soberin is a disembodied voice. It is in fact anchored to a body; to be more specific, to a pair of shoes, and to a lesser extent, to a pair of tweed pants. The term “shoe fetishism” almost cries out loud in those scenes where the face of this prophetic figure is withheld from us. But this withholding is only justified in the killing of Nick, whereas in other instances is rather unmotivated. The revealing shoes and pants also appear in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, where our protagonist detective is able to identify the murderer, Yusa, only by his muddy pants and shoes; his face, on the other hand, is perfectly insignificant. Similarly, the face of Dr. Soberin is entirely unsuited to exemplify an oracle.

Kiss Me Deadly[(013859)12-04-55]

Blue suede or black moccasin?

So I was angry with Bonitzer for his making a big fuss out of a small deal—which proves his superior writing skill. What makes me first notice the peculiar quality of sound in this film is a scene where our protagonist-investigator is talking to Lily/Gabrielle in her apartment whose windows open to the street. During the course of the conversation we hear constantly the street noise which constitutes a minor interference to the dialogue. When she stands up and moves closer to the window—we see it is open because the curtain flies—the background sound, especially that of the street car, becomes even stronger and competes for our aural attention. This is not something we used to find in Hollywood—something made famous by Godard’s pinball machine. When he leaves and she is alone again it is literally deafening—and definitely too long for a street car (sounds more like a freight train is going beneath her window). Like tide wave, it reclaims its victim in her most helpless cubicle.

Kiss Me Deadly[(049213)11-44-34]

Put the gun where it belongs!

What is also striking about this sequence is the fact that the dialogue sounds have a peculiar echo in it. It is far from a recording one gets from sound-proofed studio where the clarity of voices is not tempered, christen. But I am not suggesting that it is a synchronized recording, a documentary style. Besides, who would expect to see cinema-verite in a noir film? Aren’t they antitheses to each other? But here the voices are indeed raw; one can almost smell the room and feel the heat of it.

Kiss Me Deadly makes extensive diegetic use of recording devices. Unlike Double Indemnity, which reminds us of the pre-magnetic tape age—I recently saw the dictaphone again in Revolutionary Road. Here the wonderful technical achievement of tape recorder in celebrated. Several times, Mike listens to his telephone message. We see this rather giant machine that is wall-mounted (makes it an inseparable part of his apartment), in front of which our protagonist communicates with those disembodied voices. In fact, Mike relies so much on this recorder that he never answers his calls before he discovers what might be the caller’s intention. The film goes all the length to distinguish sound according to their sources, a sonic realism that is hard to come by in a B class noir. For example, the recording on the tape, the welcome message is different from what we hear when somebody is speaking from the recorder’s speakerphone. And this in turn in put in sharp contrast with the sound when Mike picks up the phone.

Kiss Me Deadly[(027352)11-41-40]

Mike’s a gadget guy

The mixture of recorded and live voice also finds its way into the scene where Mike visits Trivago, the amateur tenor, where he is, as well as we are instructed to “follow your ear”. This episode is entirely pointless, i.e., without narrative significance. We realize later that Trivago does not really know anything. Rather, the whole episode is a pretext to tell us a few facts about Raymondo: he is an engineer scientist, he is very sad because the way the world is; and he is a man of contradictions. Now how can such a sad scientist befriend a cuckold opera lover is totally beyond me. But ultimately what makes this scene interesting is its colorful details: Caruso’s Pagliacci and Flotow’s Martha; and that the guy’s first name is Carmen.

The film uses a variety of musical pieces, from pop to classical. We know that in the early 1930s, immediately following the conversion of sound, Hollywood experienced a brief period of taboo on the use of nondiegetic music. The ways in which a musical presence is to be justified sometimes amount to the level of ridiculousness. Therefore I am rather surprised to see that in this film made in the mid-50s, Aldrich still tries to justify the music as diegetic whenever possible.

Kiss Me Deadly[(004175)15-36-26]

The credit sequence (Star War style twenty years before) is accompanied by Nat King Cole’s I’d rather have the blues. It is understood as coming from the radio, therefore it has an ambient effect, which tells you this is not extradiegetic. But in the same time we hear an unrealistically amplified panting of Christina. One possible interpretation, then, is this is a subjective POA of Christina.

Many internal scenes use a classical piece. When Mike first enters Christina/Lily’s apartment, the first thing he does is to turn on the radio (yet another celebration of sound-producing equipment). We have to wait a while before we actually hear the piece—is it just the way these things work? Nevertheless when it does begin—the allegro moderato of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony—it does not start from the middle of somewhere, as it should be if it is indeed coming from the radio. We hear a rather complete version of it. This is more like he is using Pandora!

When Mike enters his own apartment again the first thing to do is to turn on the radio (is this a RKO production?). The music permeates the room and does not diminish when the telephone rings. But when the welcome message is played the music lowers down. When the recording actually begins, Mike walks closer to the recorder and we are shown a close-up of him occupying the whole frame. We as audience are also listening attentively. As a result the music is further lowered down. Now this is standard practice.

The next scene is in the sexy assistant’s apartment (her name being Velda Wakeman)—and she is doing a pole dance! Here the music is again diegetic—in order to make it perfectly clear there is a close-up of the phonograph, which Mike momentarily lifts the stylus—the music stops and resumes. Btw, is a Waltz really a good music choice to do ballet workout with?

Kiss Me Deadly[(061838)11-51-50]

whats the pole doing there?

But this film has more funky music choice for us. In William Mist’s gallery, when the poor is asleep, Mike almost compulsively turns the radio on. What do we hear this time? Chopin’s “Revolutionary Étude”!

It is not like there is no unjustified nondiegetic music, but when it does happen, it has a curious flavor that goes beyond the Hollywood norm. For instance, a jazz piece bridges the transition between the porter’s informing Mike (we have the music starting from the moment he whispers into Mike’s ear) of Lily’s whereabouts and Mike’s visit to her. But this music is soon inundated in the ambient noise that I described earlier. One gets the illusion (if one does not notice it earlier) that some tenant in that crappy building is actually playing this music! More conventional underscoring can be found in Evello house, when Charlie the goon is ordered to get Mike. Here the music is intense and highly illustrative. The sequence is actually very stylistic in the mood of Orson Welles. I suspect Aldrich is paying his homage here, not simply because of Paul Stewart. A similar tense underscore is found in the beach fight where Mike is captured. Notice the long shot of the sea, though.

Kiss Me Deadly[(108437)15-33-56]

Does it remind you of Antonioni

Inside the beach house we have a radio broadcasting a boxing where all actions are framed. These goons, just like Mike, can never do without a radio. Earlier in the Evello house, we have an even more complicated sonic layering of telephone, radio and live conversation. It starts with a woman’s naked back while she is moving away from the camera. What accompanies this on the soundtrack is a bugle! Then a voice announces a horse race; the camera pulls back to reveal the source of voice—a radio on the table! We realize that Charlie is talking on the phone. At this moment, Friday/Tuesday comes to the table and talks to Sugar. These speeches naturally overlap a lot, which reminds us again of the Wellesian deep sonic space (look for Altman’s excellent article on this).

Kiss Me Deadly[(076271)15-30-02]

Evello, Charlie, Sugar, and the days of the week




viagra online said...

i like all the kind of scenes. but i think the sound of the voice of Dr. Soberin is great.

Unknown said...

Does a scene from KMD remind me of L'avventura? Antonioni?! I just want to know what the model of that wall unit reel tape recorder might be. Any guesses?

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