Friday, July 9, 2021

Killer's Kiss (1955) - Revisiting Stanley Kubrick's Second Film

Stanley Kubrick pulled his first feature, Fear and Desire, from distribution after deciding it wasn't up to the standard he wanted to set, so as far as official Kubrick lore is concerned the subject of this review was his true feature-length debut...

Released in 1955, Killer's Kiss is a visually elegant, if narratively clunky, New York City film noir about a boxer, a girl and a gangster.  The girl works for the gangster, and the gangster is in love with the girl, but the girl falls in love with the boxer, and there's your central conflict.  Nothing frightfully original there, but that's okay.  Co-written with Kubrick by playwright Howard Sackler, Killer's Kiss is one of the few Stanley Kubrick films not based on established material, and its barebones story made a good fit for a novice filmmaker working from a shoestring budget and establishing his own personal stamp.  Three main characters, a few supporting characters, and the most famous city in the world providing the backdrop.  What Kubrick lacked in experience and scope, he made up for with a prodigious ability to create haunting shot compositions and gritty, Gotham-immersed underworldly atmosphere.  

The plot as I said is clumsily handled at times, with hackneyed film noir narration and flashbacks within flashbacks; we open on the boxer Davey Gordon waiting at Penn Station, his bags at his side, smoking a cigarette and lost in thought.  Davey's voiceover talks about how he'd unexpectedly gotten himself into a mess, just before his latest fight three days earlier.  We go back three days, as Davey spends his free time in a shabby studio apartment awaiting a call about his next fight and pining for the lovely young woman named Gloria across the courtyard in a similar box of a room.  It's established that they're aware of each other but have never really spoken, and that she's sort of attached to her boss Vincent, for whom she works as a taxi dancer.

Kubrick's ability to draw the viewer's eyes from one point to another is uncanny.

Davey's fight doesn't go well, as he's completely overmatched and gets knocked down repeatedly.  Kubrick had previously shot a boxing documentary and was right at home inside and around the ring, blocking the action in startlingly original ways for the time, showing us for example Davey's point of view as he's knocked to the mat.  Scorsese's fight blocking in Raging Bull must have been partly influenced by Kubrick's here.

Back at the apartment Davey falls asleep and has a vision of hurtling through the streets of New York, depicted in inverted monochrome, in hindsight almost a precursor to the legendary Stargate sequence from 2001.  He's awakened suddenly by a woman's scream, and looks out the window to see his neighbor being harassed by Vincent.  He runs up the stairs and crosses the roof to get to her place (foreshadowing a later rooftop chase), but Vincent has already fled.  After an awkwardly scripted flashback where Gloria explains what just happened at the window (Vincent persistently came on to Gloria after she asked him several times to leave), Davey offers to stay with her while she sleeps.  

New York Stargate

The next morning they finally have a chat and get to know each other, and we dissolve to a surrealist sequence depicting Gloria's sister Iris ballet dancing, over which Gloria's narration explains that Iris was their father's favorite daughter, their mother having died suddenly just after Gloria was born.  Iris became a successful ballerina, but gave up her career to marry a rich suitor when her father fell ill.  Iris spent a full year at his bedside, but when he passed on she didn't react, infuriating young Gloria who accused her of faking her affection for their father.  Crushed, Iris ran upstairs and slit her wrists.  Thus is Gloria's harrowing backstory, told over this strange ballet montage (performed by Kubrick's first wife Ruth Sobotka).  Davey explains that he was raised by an aunt and uncle on a farm near Seattle and since his boxing career has hit the skids, he's decided to move there in a couple of days.  Gloria agrees to go with him despite their having just met (Via narration, Davey's accepts the possibility that she's simply taking the first opportunity to run away from her problems in New York), and they each plan to collect their final pay from their ex-employers.

I so want to visit 1950s NYC...

Some nice visuals aside, this is all pretty standard noir stuff up to this point, but it's in the film's second half that Kubrick's singular visual elegance is given center stage.  Davey's manager agrees to meet them in front of Gloria's dance hall, and Davey waits for him as she goes upstairs to deal with Vincent.  The dance hall staircase is punctuated by a large sign reading Watch Your Step, a clever visual cue that can be read as a PSA or as a harbinger of impending misfortune for the characters, but more notably as a sardonic nod to both the customers and the employees at the sketchy taxi dance hall.  A spiritual cousin of sorts to future Kubrick dialogue like "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the War Room!"  Meanwhile outside we get a feel for seedy 1950s Times Square - its flashing neon, its numerous unseemly establishments, its bizarre street performers, a pair of which steal Davey's scarf, forcing him to chase them down for blocks.  Thus Davey misses his rendezvous with his manager, who waits at the door and is mistaken for Davey by Vincent's goons, who chase him into an alley and attack him.

Watch your step indeed...

The alley shots are textbook film noir - bathed in shadow, angular, deep-focus.  There the goons accidentally kill Davey's manager and flee.  Davey and Gloria return home to pack up their things, but by the time Davey gets to Gloria's apartment she's disappeared, and across the way he watches his landlord show the police into his apartment, as he's now wanted in connection with his manager's murder.  

Looks right out of a Universal Monsters film...

Davey arms himself and tracks down Vincent, who takes him to the warehouse where Gloria is being held.  Davey attempts to free Gloria but is overpowered by the goons and beaten unconscious, while Vincent threatens to kill Gloria.  Coming to his senses, Davey jumps out the window to distract the bad guys, and two of them go after him.  In another gorgeously photographed sequence, Davey leads the gangsters on a chaotic chase down the alleys and up over the rooftops of the New York waterfront, its utilitarian terrain shrouded in aqueous dawnlight.  One of the goons injures himself in the chase, leaving only Vincent, who tails Davey into a mannequin warehouse, the final masterstroke from Kubrick.
Nothing like a rooftop chase while the sun comes up.

A shadowy game of cat and mouse ensues, culminating in a desperate fight amid throngs of lifeless artificial bodies, visually echoing the earlier boxing match.  This fight however involves Vincent's axe and Davey's pole hook, and the two men knock over and destroy dozens of mannequins in the melee before Davey finally stabs Vincent to death.

A visual motif used again in the A Clockwork Orange milkbar.

And with that, we're back to the present, with Davey somberly awaiting his train to Seattle, recapping in voiceover the story's aftermath (much of it shoved in at the last minute so United Artists could have their insisted-upon happy ending).  The police have cleared Davey and Gloria of all charges, and just before Davey goes to board his train, Gloria suddenly appears, running to his side so the film can end on a kiss.

Like I said, not the most enthralling plot for a film noir, particularly coming at the tail end of the genre's heyday, but Stanley Kubrick injected so much gloomy atmosphere, such wonderfully inventive visuals, and such palpable "voodoo of location" that Killer's Kiss often jumps off the screen, its images sticking in the mind long after the credits roll.  Filmed without recorded sound so as to free Kubrick of having to work around a boom mic (all the dialogue and sound was looped later), the film is a near-masterclass in Expressionist cinematography, from a 27-year-old wunderkind director.  It's obviously not among Kubrick's greatest works - how could it be compared to the rest of that filmography? - but Killer's Kiss is a fascinating study of a gifted young filmmaker discovering signature techniques and visual style, on his way to becoming an all-time master.

On balance I give Killer's Kiss *** out of ****.

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