Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly opens with a woman—whom we later know by the name Christina—running on a highway, desperately attempting to convince any car to pick her up. She is lit well against the dark highway as the sound of her rough breath becomes meditative. Eventually, she runs into the highway, forcing Mike Hammer to abruptly brake and save her from an unknown monster. The film then cuts to the credits and all the audience hears is the sound of Christina’s breath. Her breath modulates between sounds of deep fear and crying to what almost sounds like sexual pleasure. It becomes impossible to distinguish the tone of her breath: one of pleasure or one of pain. From the outset therefore, Aldrich links sex and fear in Kiss Me Deadly.
This connection sets the tone for the film’s weaponization of sex. Hammer is described soon after this scene as a “bedroom dick:” a private investigator who pits husbands and wives against each other by setting up extramarital affairs. Hammer seduces the wife and Velda—his sectary of sorts—seduces the husband. This seduction, and potential sex, for money could be classified as prostitution, even pornography if cameras are used to ‘catch’ the affairs in action which they hint to in the film. In Kiss Me Deadly, sex is a weapon characters use to manipulate, seduce, and destroy—just like any other weapon.
Hammer later goes to the grand mansion of the gangster Carl Evello, the elusive villain referred to as “they” throughout the film, in search of answers about Christina’s death and this box of fortunes. As he pulls up to the grand home, Evello’s sister greets him in the driveway. A bombshell beauty, the sister and Hammer have a seduction face off of sorts. Both are seducing each other—both are weaponizing sex—as the blonde immediately embraces Hammer, asking him, “Are you sure we haven’t met before?” Hammer seems to win in the end and convinces the sister to take him to the pool and meet Carl Evello. But as the sister agrees, she does so in a voice dripping with sex, saying: “Sure. Just get all wet.”
A deeper analysis of this primitive invocation of sex and fear in the film would connect this weaponization to the Freudian subconscious. I do not have the space or knowledge about Freud to eloquently make that argument, but I would be remiss to avoid even the mention of Freud. Near the end of the film, the gangsters use a “truth serum” to place Hammer in a fitful sleep, hoping his subconscious would reveal truths that his conscious did not. There’s a layer of dream-like—or nightmare like—element to the entire film, including the weaponization of sex. Sex and fear both live in our subconscious—Freudian feelings that Kiss Me Deadly forces viewers to recognize and further identify with.
The film ends with a final scene of sexual manipulation—Lilly Carver / Gabrielle demands that Mike kiss her with a gun in her hand. Aldrich binds Gabrielle’s kiss to her gun: communicating that one is synonymous with the other. Hammer fears Carver’s kiss just as much as he fears her gun, both have become the ultimate weapons of the subconscious.
From the Jazz Mike Hammer plays as he picks up the crazed Christina to the classic radio playing as Hammer searches the now dead Christina’s room to the fight broadcasted while Evello and Sugar Smallhouse are killed, sound creates an evasive undercurrent in Kiss Me Deadly. These sounds provide textual contrast–the playful, sexy jazz in tension with the harried sounds of Christina’s breath or Evello’s gasp as he is killed in contrast with the all-American game in the background. Silver explains that while the sounds can be appreciated as textual noise, they are also “conscious metaphors and puns.” Think of the Christiana Rossetti Poem or the fight manager explaining that “they said they’d let me breathe.” The sound of Evello’s gasp suddenly seems like a critical statement on mortality and power in that light, especially when compared to the “hiss of the car jack in Nick’s murder.” By creating such palpable tension, sounds in Kiss Me Deadly reveal much deeper tensions: that between the everyday man and a fear of communism, the red scare and Hollywood, between our great American democracy and our great American invention–the atomic bomb.