Killer’s Kiss (1955)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Stanley Kubrick: A Cinematic Odyssey. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
In the early 1950s, young photographer Stanley Kubrick disparaged the state of filmmaking and arrogantly proclaimed he could do better. He attempted with his first film Fear and Desire, which he later (rightfully) suppressed stating it was amateurish and pretentious. Only recently has the George Eastman House, who owned the print of the film, released it as an important historical document showing the filmic birth of a later master. He followed it with the second and last film he would write an original story for, Killer’s Kiss.
Said original story involves never-was boxer Davey (Jamie Smith) who falls for his across-the-way neighbor Gloria (Irene Kane). She’s a worker in a dance hall, something prevalent up through the 1950s that hired young women who danced with men for something like ten cents a dance. They had the reputation of being very seedy and in a way these institutions merged with burlesque to form modern day strip clubs. That’s how seedy they were.
Kubrick constructs the film like a film noir, using flashback and heavily contrasted lighting to convey an unromanticized vision of New York.
Gloria’s dance hall was run by Vincent (Frank Silva), a kind of gangster wannabe who has a thing for Gloria. Through a series of unfortunate events, Davey gets drawn into the underbelly of the dance hall world. When Vincent tries to kill Davey but gets the wrong guy and kidnaps Gloria, things start to go south.
Kubrick constructs the film like a film noir, using flashback and heavily contrasted lighting to convey an unromanticized vision of New York. Its clear Kubrick was influenced by the films noir of the day, before the term was coined, when he began conceptualizing this film. The film drips with the noir conventions that were so prevalent at the time. His use of New York is amazing, seldom traveling to the most recognizable parts, instead choosing to remain in the less fashionable parts of town to emphasize the poverty and despair of the situation Davey and Gloria are in.
His pacing of the film (he also served as his own editor) also shows an influence of the B-pictures of the day, except for a part that he wrote in for his then wife. Gloria starts telling Davey of her history, and of her sister Iris (Ruth Sobotka, Kubrick’s wife) who was a ballerina. The story stops the film cold because despite it being something of a character builder for Gloria, it is disconnected from everything else and doesn’t matter to any of the proceedings before or after. It ends up being padding in an already short film that is there so Kubrick can film his ballerina wife dancing. It’s also a flashback within someone else’s flashback, so it’s not exactly clear how the story is being told.
The flashback narrative is problematic from the start. Kubrick films Davey pacing back and forth in Grand Central Station puffing heavily on a cigarette when his voiceover begins. Because he’s not talking out loud, he could be going over the events in his mind that led him there, waiting for a train to Seattle, but he’s directly addressing someone, possibly us. I’ve mentioned my difficulty with voiceover narration in previous pieces, so I’ll be brief here. If I don’t know who the narrator is talking to, I assume he’s talking to the audience and if that is the case, why is he talking to us and how does he know we’re there? And if he doesn’t know we’re there, who is he telling his story to? These are things that shouldn’t be popping up right at the outset of a film and serve to distance before anything ever really begins, putting the film at an incredible disadvantage.
Another disadvantage for the film is that Kubrick decided at some point to shoot the film silent and loop in the dialogue in post. The actors clearly said their lines, but none of it was recorded during filming, it was all done after the fact and it shows.
Another disadvantage for the film is that Kubrick decided at some point to shoot the film silent and loop in the dialogue in post. The actors clearly said their lines, but none of it was recorded during filming, it was all done after the fact and it shows. The film looks like it was shot like a Sergio Leone film, each character speaking in their native tongue and a specific language was dubbed in depending on where it was being exhibited. For most of the film, the lip-sync is good but other times it’s off and the whole film feels like the dialogue is being beamed in from somewhere else, almost apart from the rest of the film. There are varying stories as to why Kubrick chose to do his sound this way. One is that he had a sound crew but the ambient noise was too much so Kubrick fired the sound team and did all the dialogue in ADR. Another is that he’d set out to do this from the start, figuring it would be less expensive and ultimately being proven wrong when there were difficulties with recording and syncing and the fact that Irene Kane was not available to record her dialogue so another actress had to be used for the dialogue. Either way, it doesn’t work.
The film looks great, with Kubrick serving as his own director of photography. He is careful to use the shadows where they’re needed but not overplay them. He uses natural lighting where possible, something that he took with him into his later pictures, most notably Barry Lyndon. People watching this film looking for hints of the master filmmaker will find them most here. There aren’t many, mostly because he was still figuring everything out and it shows, but those touches do exist. There are a lot of what would become his trademark long shots and tracking shots, as well as his way of making a fight between untrained people look as unrefined and brutal as it should be.
The things that set this apart from later Kubrick films is that naturalistic qualities of the film. Kubrick took a lot of queues from the Italian Neorealism movement, shooting all of his action in real locations instead of sets. This is born more out of necessity than conscience aesthetic, but it’s still there. One thing Kubrick has never been accused of is naturalism, so to see it here is a rarity.
Ultimately, Killer’s Kiss is more of a curio today than anything. It’s always good to see that a master filmmaker like Kubrick started off clumsy and unsure because it shows how rapidly he developed into the genius he was. A year after this, he made his first of many master pieces, The Killing, and never made a bad film again. It’s almost like he got it out of his system with his first two and never looked back. In a lot of ways, Kubrick needed this film to work out the kinks of filmmaking before he tried to make it at a studio. I’m grateful that he did, but it doesn’t make this film any more interesting or important though. It has its moments, but they are few and far between and for a film that is only 67 minutes long, few and far between doesn’t engage an audience. There’s enough here to entertain oneself if you’re looking for the touches that would come to define Kubrick, but not if you’re looking for a great deal of entertainment.
It has its moments, but they are few and far between and for a film that is only 67 minutes long, few and far between doesn’t engage an audience. There’s enough here to entertain oneself if you’re looking for the touches that would come to define Kubrick, but not if you’re looking for a great deal of entertainment.