Kubrick’s ‘Killer’s Kiss’ is raw and seductive

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Killer’s Kiss
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Howard Sackler
U.S.A, 1955

Just as last week’s column entry took a look at one of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest works, The Killing, this week yet an earlier piece of cinema from the director is explored. One year prior to making his real breakout film and equipped with what amounted to a micro-budget, Kubrick and his limited cast and crew filmed around the streets of Manhattan to tell the tale of two lovers in Killer’s Kiss. Any production values are incredibly minute (artificial sets, special lighting) when compared to the master’s later work, and even tonally the film differs very much from almost everything he did later, yet the curious may still want to discover this one.

Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is man whose potential never fully materialized. He is a boxer, and while young relatively young by most people’s standards, it would appear that his genuine chance at fame within that specific sport has past. As the film opens he has walking to and fro nervously at a train station in New York. He is waiting for somebody, Gloria (Irene Kane), a dancer, and as the minutes pass Davey becomes increasingly fearful that she may not come at all. He begins to recall the adventure which led him to this point. In reality, he and Gloria had only fallen for each other a few days ago despite that they could see each other through the windows of their opposite apartment buildings for the better part of a year. It was on the night that he returned from yet another defeat in the ring that he overhead Gloria’s cry of horror. Jumping out of his slumber, he discovered that Gloria’s lover and employer, Vincent (Frank Silvera) with whom she tried to end a relationship was physically abusing her. Davey dashed across the building to her room, although not before Vincent could escape. The act of comforting Gloria leads to unexpected feelings, which she in turn reciprocates. However, just as the two plan to visit Davey’s uncle and aunt in Seattle, Vincent, unwilling to let Gloria go so easily, decides to put a grisly end to their plans.

As much as was written that The Killing felt like a different sort of Kubrick film, it was also argued that said film dropped hints as to what the director’s stylistic preferences were and how he operated as a storyteller. Killer’s Kiss, given that it was made with particular budget constraints and before the aforementioned Killing, feels even more like an outsider in his film career. This is curious because it was one of the few films for which Kubrick himself came up with the story, as opposed to his later propensity to adapt novels which tickled his fancy. It may therefore be argued that the filmmaker was more comfortable translating interesting material from book to screen and in doing so, giving the material an entirely new life, complete with the director’s unmistakable stamp. His most powerful voice as a director originated from the voice of others. Killer’s Kiss is a far, far more modest affair, one that does in fact compare nicely with many other noir pictures. So in touch is it with the genre and its tropes that were one to watch the film unaware of the director’s identity, they would forgiven for not guessing Kubrick was behind it. This is noir through and through, complete with the down on their luck protagonists and slimy, dual faced enemies.

It has been written and argued (most notably by film historians and critics on the Killing Criterion blu-ray) that the film’s plot and overall script is what suffers the most. After re-watching the film, that criticism feels only partially accurate. Where Kubrick does indeed fails to impress to the fullest degree is in the depiction of the central figure, Davey, played by Jamie Smith. There is not much of notable interest happening with his character. He is, in essence, the archetype, the figure anybody who has seen at least a couple of noir picture will immediately recognize. Lonesome, handsome, lower class, chasing a dream, etc. The actor’s performance is adequate, although nothing that commands immediate respect. Smith is rather quiet for the most part throughout the film and even though it is supposed to be his story, most of the time he comes across as someone who reacts to what transpires around him as opposed to performing in any action, save some exceptions. Rather, it is the two supporting players who shape this dramatic episode of Davey’s life which strike the viewer’s curiosity much more. Vincent, the owner of the dance club where Gloria works, is evidently a troubled man. True enough, he had earned Gloria’s scorn, although the exact reasons go unexplained. Was Vincent’s behaviour the true reason for the sudden tension building between the two? Vincent’s more villainous tendencies later on in the picture lend credit to that hypothesis, yet other peculiar details about Gloria confuse matters somewhat. For one, she shares a story with Davey about her past, more specifically what her family was like. The story is a tragic affair and seems to have shaped Gloria’s perception of love as well as how she manipulates it. It is rather telling that, just prior to the film’s climactic chase, when Gloria is at Vincent’s mercy and Davey is beaten up on the floor in a dingy warehouse, she tries to weasel her way out of trouble by saying she loves Vincent, not Davey. Is this a ruse which will lead Vincent into a false sense of security or is Gloria genuinely terrified of death and willing to abandon Davey to the hands of his newly found enemies? Vincent himself is more complicated than one initially suspects. Before employing his more forceful tactics, he appears as genuinely remorseful of how sour things have gone with Gloria, pleading that she take him back. It is only when Gloria returns to his offices later on defiantly suggests that she and Davey are leaving together that Vincent really becomes what one might call an antagonist. Both Gloria and Vincent are shape shifters and as such the most interesting characters in the film.

Where more common ground can be found is in the aesthetic qualities of Killer’s Kiss. Once again, to reiterate, this is completely different from anything Kubrick did afterwards, a caveat which needs to be considered, but the film benefits from a very accomplished look, albeit a terrifically gritty and dirty one. Kubrick reportedly had to be as subtle as possible when shooting the film so as to not disrupt life in the Manhattan streets. This sort of restraint, coupled with that of a modest budget, presumably forced him to capture his story on camera only when he understood that he had the very best, most accurate and richly texture angles and lighting. The film feels simultaneously small and quite large. The visual of Davey looking out his apartment window and into Gloria’s is one of the film’s signature images both for its look and its capacity to shape the story and its characters. Then there is the quietly epic climax near the harbour. On a dreary morning Davey attempts to save Gloria from Vincent’s clutches as he holds her captive with some goons in a part of town filled with dark, gloomy apartment complexes and factories. The wonderful foot chase, which does not last very long, when Davey flees a now enraged Vincent, is a thing of beauty, with the juxtaposition of the dimensions of the people running through the streets with those of the buildings themselves emphasizing how small the former are and how ominous and unfriendly that section of Manhattan is, at least in the film. Killer’s Kiss has a raw, mean look, but one that a viewer cannot take his or her eyes away from. What can be written about the eventual fight between Davey and Vincent in the mannequin workshop? The scene carries just as much ferocious energy as high-octane battles sequences of more modern pictures. The sweat of the actors is practically flying onto the viewer’s face, with their panting and the terrific thumping and clanging of their unorthodox weapons used as the soundtrack to wonderfully visceral effect.

The fact that the film is presented as a ‘supplement’ on The Killing‘s Criterion blu-ray release is a testament to how it is remembered and appreciated. On the one hand, it has a beautiful high-definition presentation courtesy of one of the home video industry’s leading companies. On the other, it does not even receive its own Blu-ray release, relegated to one of many choices in the bonus features section in the main menu. The important thing is that it is available and accessible to all. The only thing left is for more noir fans to seek it out.

-Edgar Chaput

5 Comments
  1. Solomon says

    It’s sort of like if you have to ask then you will never understand, but I will try. Marlon is saekping in a dialect that is not his own. I’ll bet you’re willing to admit that when the camera is on Marlon it is often mesmerizing. Third, he directed this picture and I think you will admit that the whole movie is genuine, which it seems is what Marlon wanted. I think you’ll admit that you can detect what Marlon is feeling when he wants you to and then not know when he doesn’t..

  2. fazsha says

    I don’t agree with the comment that Jamie Smith’s character was uninteresting. I found it quite engaging that he was not particularly bitter about not being successful as a boxer, or losing the fight, and was still able to engage with the world around him. He even was philosophic about ‘losing’ the girl at the end. So many characters are written narcissistically, and he was written where he was acting in the world but also a mere observer. Well done.

  3. Edgar Chaput says

    @Staindslaved: Excellent point about the final fight which I did not get into in my review. The fear in their eyes is unmistakable, which makes the battle all the more intense. One can tell that neither knows how to fight exactly but they’re both going at it anyhow in very sloppy manner. It,s a great moment.

  4. Kris says

    I agree, yet, to my taste, this was better than The Killing, his slightly more famous noir. The Killing seemed impersonal, and the documentary look he was trying to achieve bored the hell out of me for most of the movie. The ending, though, is brilliant, abandoning the doc-attempt for an apartment shootout ending with the bruised and bloodied antihero (a desperate man, walked all over by his cheating wife) pumping rounds into his wife, who can be accurately be described as a bored, unsatisfied, abusive bitch.

  5. Staindslaved says

    It took me forever and a day before I finally got around to watching this. Considering its short run-time, low budget origins and complete lack of fame for a Kubrick film I had little to no expectations for this thing. It is, as Edgar points out, raw but its a fascinating look in at a director who just simply gets it. Killer’s Kiss could have been a completely forgetful and unnecessary film and no one would have criticized Kubrick in the least. But even at his humblest of beginnings, with such challenges like lack of production value/creative control, Kubrick still manages to direct scenes with lasting imagery. The final fight sequence specifically stands out. The length is unnaturally long, the authenticity of the fight (aided by long camera shots and little editing work) and the general feel that both men are trying to kill the other but are deeply scared of dying themselves, all make the scene grab our attention and stay with us long after viewing the film. That is 100% Kubrick and the difference between a filmmaker who thinks through and analyses what he’s crafting verses someone who just shoots a scene ‘like it says in the script’.

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