KUBRICK-BY-BRICK | Killer’s Kiss


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After an ambitious soiree to a mysterious island in the middle of wartime, Stanley Kubrick chose to move in more domestic circles for his sophomore effort. Killer’s Kiss is set in the apartments, warehouses and dank alleys of the Bronx-born director’s New York City, in a story where the film’s landscapes and settings do more for the storytelling than its characters.

killerskiss2Davey Gordon, a boxer played by Jamie Smith beginning to feel the creep of age and its subsequent obsolescence, finds himself enraptured by his beautiful neighbour Gloria Price (Irene Kane). Wishing to escape the city together, the two get caught up in the affairs of Gloria’s possessive manager Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera, returning from his stint in Fear and Desire), leading Davey into big trouble with the wrong people. Kubrick’s plies noir stylings for this technically impressive second feature, but is it a great film? Sadly, not really.

But first and foremost, this is a vast improvement over Fear and Desire; Kubrick’s and returning writer Howard Sackler’s screenplay is much tighter in terms of pace, and supplies characters who inspire genuine empathy. But it didn’t come without its obstacles, naturally; Kubrick had to borrow $40,000 from his drug store-owning uncle, and had to fire his sound-man after he became increasingly annoyed with how the microphone interfered with his delicately designed lighting schemes. Kubrick overcame such problems, delivering a surprisingly accomplished feature – even if it wasn’t a particularly groundbreaking one. But by far its strongest aspect is how it captures its subjects through finely-attuned cinematography and then, by proxy, ideologically condemning or condoning them. Take the scene in which Davey’s manager is mistaken for the aging boxer by two of Vincent’s hired goons, and concurrently taken out in a dark alleyway; the encroaching sinister figures and the helpless, squirming man are shot from a non-moving point of view at the entrance to the alley, as if killerskiss1bystander were looking in and deciding to observe instead of intervene. Gigantic shadows are thrown by the men against the grimy walls, creating a frightening, impressive image – even if it may be one that doesn’t quite tie up thematically to what comes before or after it. Like most amateur, wide-eyed filmmakers, Kubrick was clearly in love with the moment, letting off the small, loud firecracker opposed to taking the time and thought to set up his own firework display (to use a convoluted yet apt analogy). Another example is the final fight scene, set in the midst of dozens of mannequins; it makes for an aesthetically rich, idea-potent setting, but whiffs of the distinct notion that they thought ‘this would look cool’ help to ruin any true suspense. Nonetheless, he knew how to shoot his home city – especially during the penultimate rooftop chase scene, in which the reluctant hero Davey is chased across a the top of a vast building, the smokey NY light framing his tiny figure in one long perspective shot, set to a brilliantly minimal score. This would also be Kubrick’s first foray into being inventive with music, his instrumentation rising and falling in tandem with the tension in numerous scenes.

Further on the plus side, Stanley portrays a fantastic quality that wouldn’t necessarily show up in later works: kinetic camera movements give punches and beatings a brutally visceral impact, opposed to the famously static, slowly creeping shots Kubrick would be known for. Killer’s Kiss would also signal the last original screenplay Kubrick would direct; each film from The Killing onward would be based on existing literature.

Just what is Killer’s Kiss in Stanley Kubrick’s back catalogue? Fundamentally, it’s a wall mounting, a core piece of a more interesting jigsaw, something to appreciate rather than actively love. It’d be difficult to imagine putting it on for enjoyment. If Fear and Desire was a baby step, this was the confident stroll of a toddler; The Killing, Kubrick’s first truly great movie and the first of many such great movies, would metaphorically be an adult’s glorious, fully-formed sprint. But if Killer’s Kiss means anything at all in cinema, it means that you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run.


> Next: The Killing would solidify Kubrick’s noir leanings, and turn out to be Kubrick’s first classic film. FilmOnTrial investigates its success as both a landmark for the director, and as a brilliantly plotted crime flick of its own.

< Previous: As Kubrick’s first feature proper, Fear and Desire signalled box office failure, middling reviews and the director’s own lamentation over the entire affair. But FilmOnTrial looks at why it’s a worthy Kubrick oddity, and at its true place in cinema…

About GaryGreenScreen

Freelance film critic.


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