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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1955)

2. Killer’s Kiss

Following the release of “Fear and Desire,” Kubrick would return to the world of documentary shorts. After making one more of those, he would take a second whack at feature filmmaking. “Killer's Kiss” was shot in a similar fashion as the director's debut. It was made with little money, most of the budget being raised by Kubrick himself. The film was shot in locations the crew sneaked into, as they couldn't afford permits. However, “Killer's Kiss” would be far more widely seen. United Artist would acquire the film, giving it a decent release. Later, Kubrick would also dismiss “Killer's Kiss” as the work of an amateur. Unlike “Fear and Desire,” he allowed the movie to remain in circulation, suggesting he must've thought it wasn't too bad.

Davey Gordon is a boxer but not a very good one. After loosing another fight, he decides to retire. He becomes infatuated with the girl who lives in the building across from his. He learns that her name is Gloria and she works as a taxi dancer in a nightclub. The two begin a whirlwind romance and make plans to get out of New York City. Gloria's boss, a thug named Vincent Rapalla, is also romantically obsessed with the girl. After discovering the two are leaving town, he attempts to have Davey killed. Davey's manager is killed by mistake, forcing the washed-up boxer to take the fight to Rapalla.

With “Fear and Desire,” Kubrick aimed for the art house. This release pattern did not allow the film to be seen by many people. With his second feature, it seems the director decided to make a movie in a popular genre. Broadly, “Killer's Kiss” is a crime film, full of tough guys, thugs, hoods, and floozy dames. The film is also set in the back-alleys and abandoned buildings of New York City. These elements combine to place the film squarely within the film noir genre. The result clearly didn't please the director very much and I have no idea how successful “Killer's Kiss” was at the box office. However, this did earn the filmmaker a deal with United Artist, so I'm going to say this strategy worked out better.

By taking the already precise eye he displayed in “Fear and Desire” and adapting it to the film noir genre, Kubrick creates some truly memorable images. The film is thick with shadows. When the hired thugs corner Gordon's manager, we are treated to a series of shots in an alleyway. The men's shadows are projected against an brick wall which is nearly obscured by shadows itself. A chase across an abandoned building features a masterful shot of the protagonist standing atop the structure, a barely distinct man among a black outline. Kubrick is determined to put the noir in film noir, creating a film characterized by dark corridors and shadowy outcomes.

Kubrick's visual pellucidity is apparent in other ways. The layout in “Killer's Kiss” is almost playful at times. When Davey enters his apartment, Gloria is visible through the window of the neighboring building. His apartment is dark while Gloria's room is brightly lit, which visually illustrates how large the girl looms on the man's mind. In rage, Rapalla throws something at a mirror. The audience is given a POV shot of the mirror shattering, seeing the broken glass fall over the screen. The stand-out moment in “Killer's Kiss” is almost totally divorced from the narrative. Gloria explains her backstory to Davey, talking about a sick father, a dead mother, a ballerina sister, and a sudden windfall of money. While this blatant exposition is laid on the audience, we are treated to the image of the ballerina performing on-stage. Combined with the increasingly grim words and the mounting music, a sense of unease is added to the graceful dancing. It's an intriguing way to subvert typical genre expectations – the exposition might be boring so here's a neat visual – while also establishing the movie's tone of uncertain dread.

While Kubrick's absolute control over his films is already apparent even in his sophomore film, “Killer's Kiss” is also surprisingly loose at times. While Davey waits for Gloria to exit the dance club, there's a scene of him milling about on the streets. I'm sure it was perfectly planned this way but, in practice, this scene comes off as partially improvised. There's this sense of back-and-forth in “Killer's Kiss,” with some scenes being perfectly constructed and others being more natural. The boxing scenes take place in the ring, full of quick cuts and sudden movements. The fight feels both spontaneous and meticulously executed. This contrast is present in the story too, as “Killer's Kiss” takes place in a world of both brutality and gracefulness.

Kubrick manages to put his own spin on a genre film with “Killer's Kiss.” There's only one aspect of the film that the director was clearly not invested in. The film's central love story is not entirely convincing. Davey and Gloria fall in love over the course of two days. They only have two scenes together before the story begins really moving. It's hard to believe that a couple would run off together after such a short time. Furthermore, it's hard to believe that Davey would be willing to kill to protect Gloria after such a short time. In order for the film to work, you just have to swallow certain narrative contrivances.

The film is built around three performances. Jamie Smith stars as Davey Gordon. Smith's only other film role is something called “The Faithful City” from 1952. The rest of his acting career was spent on television  In “Killer's Kiss,” Smith is a reliable lead actor. Smith mostly strikes the viewer as an everyman, a normal guy roped into something way over his head. He also gets a decent character arc. Davey goes from a underachieving boxer to a guy fighting for his life, the film's final scenes of violence contrasting nicely with the earlier boxing match.

Irene Kane co-stars as Gloria. Kane, who would go by Chris Chase later in life, also had a limited career in film. She has four television credits and would appear, years down the line, in “All That Jazz.” Kane plays a classical femme fatale in “Killer's Kiss” and is probably the film's most interesting character. As the story continues, the viewer is left wondering if Gloria actually does having feelings for Davey. Is she just manipulating him, using the naive young man as a way to escape her abusive boss? It's not until the last scene that we know for sure. Kane does a good job of playing this ambiguity.

Frank Silvera returns from “Fear and Desire” as Rapalla, the film's villain. The tough guy image Silvera displayed in Kubrick's previous film is still shown off here. Silvera is, after all, a heavy and plays his character as fittingly thuggish. Yet there's another layer to Rapalla. He's not motivated by greed or anger but love. Granted, it's a twisted, obsessive, and selfish love. Still, that characterizes him as somewhat different from your usual crime movie bad guy. Silvera adds an extra layer of grease and sleaze to his part, drinking too much in a few scenes, making the character extra memorable.

To call “Killer's Kiss” an action film is charitable. However, the movie does show the director's approach to violence changing for a more stylized direction. The film's latter half is occupied with a decent chase, Davey being run around the building This leads to the movie's impressive conclusion. Kubrick picked a mannequin factory for the climax, which was an inspired choice. Framing our hero's run around disembodied limbs and faces is effectively eerie. When Davey and Rapalla come to blows, they swing the mannequin parts as bludgeons. The weapons they chose for their final fight is an axe and a harpoon, emphasizing once again the brutality of the movie's world.

We don't know what kind of resolution Kubrick envisioned for “Killer's Kiss” originally. We just know that United Artist insisted he give the movie a happy ending. It's pretty easy to picture what the director had in mind initially. The ending rests on whether Gloria will meet Davey at the train station, whether or not her feelings are true. In the version that was released, she does arrive and the film ends with the lovers embracing. I suspect Gloria's affections were less than genuine in Kubrick's original ending. As it is, the happier ending works okay. After what Davey has been through, it's nice to see him get a positive outcome.

Considering what a deciding perfectionist he was, Stanley Kubrick being dissatisfied with “Killer's Kiss” isn't shocking. The director might have considered the film a disappointing effort but it's actually a sturdy little noir. The themes are standard but the execution is above average, Kubrick already bringing a unique visual and narrative style to his films. It emerges as a somewhat experimental take on the story of a dangerous woman and shaky loyalties, all among the seedy streets of New York City. [Grade: B] 

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