If you’re watching a movie and someone puts the kettle on, you can bet your buttons that tea of both the literal and figurative variety is about to be served. British films present some exceptions to this general rule, as tea-making is so widespread there that sometimes a kettle makes an onscreen appearance with no deeper significance. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a kettle is just a kettle — but usually not. Especially in movieland, there’s a high probability of cigars being phallic symbols and of whistling kettles being a warning to let you know shit’s about to hit the fan. What kind of shit? The possibilities are endless. Sometimes it’s a relationship in trouble or an individual’s emotional state. Other times it’s a conflict about to come to a head. There’s a wide range.
While some tropes tend to stick to a particular genre or culture or time period, others are free-range opportunists, and the natural habitat of the whistling kettle of rising tension spans the entirety of audio-visual storytelling. To use the technical term, it is every-fucking-where. Like spilled glitter. The second you think you haven’t seen any in a while, whoop, there it is. If you haven’t noticed this trope before, trust me, now that I’ve pointed it out you’re gonna run into it pronto.
This is probably a good point at which to address the question of why it is so popular, especially considering that nowadays most folks use more convenient and considerably less dramatic electric kettles that just turn themselves off and wait quietly once they’ve reached a rolling boil instead of shrieking for your attention. The simple answer is that basically any story ever worth telling features tension of some sort. Do you know what you call a story with no tension? You don’t call it anything, because that’s some real boring programming doomed to die in obscurity.
Beyond the fact that it’s basically always handy to have a good metaphor for narrative tension up your sleeve, the analogy is already well-established in literary tradition, things “coming to a boil” in a figurative sense and whatnot. And to top it all off, in adding sound to the mix, you’ve got an added bonus because the whistle of a tea kettle is a tension-inducing sound. No one hears it and goes, “Ah, this relaxes me.” That’s the whole point. It’s a loud, shrill noise designed to aggravate so that you prioritize turning off the stove to make it stop, lowering the risk of you forgetting that kettle you left unmonitored (because you know those things never boil if you watch them) long enough to accidentally burn your house down.
Trying to gather a comprehensive list of instances of this trope is beyond the scope of this article and quite possibly human capability, considering the sheer number of films and TV shows that have been made over the years. As such, I’m just going to share a few select examples. If you’ve been to the movies in the past few months, you might have noticed a recent instance of the whistling kettle of narrative tension in Ready or Not when Grace hides from her batshit in-laws’ equally batshit butler, Stevens, in the kitchen. TV drama enthusiasts might recall that the tense concluding scene to the Season 3 finale of Breaking Bad, in which Jesse kills Gale, is heralded in with a whistling kettle. For the more action-inclined, Layer Cake depicts all the freshly boiled water in the featured kettle utilized as an assault weapon and poured over the head of a poor unfortunate.
This example actually makes for a somewhat natural transition to my personal favorite use of the trope, seen in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It appears not quite halfway through the film when the hair tonic fraudster Sr. Pirelli confronts Sweeney Todd in his barbershop with intent to blackmail. Just as Pirelli has finished revealing his dastardly plot, the film cuts to Sweeney’s enraged eyes just as an unseen kettle starts to sing the song of its people — which the vengeful barber promptly uses to bash Pirelli’s skull in. Ergo, the kettle represents both the problem in a metaphoric sense and the solution in a very literal one. Symbolism at its finest.
The intended function of a kettle is quite narrow: it boils water. But metaphorically, it’s a veritable goldmine. So next time you see one on the big screen, get ready because some serious tea is about to be spilled.