Stanley Kubrick’s KILLER’S KISS (1955)

This article is an excerpt from “The Early Independent Features”, Part 1 of our video series on Stanley Kubrick

The release of 1953’s FEAR AND DESIRE did not bring director Stanley Kubrick the kind of career momentum he might have hoped for. Instead of jumping on another feature straight away, Kubrick took a detour with a short industrial film called THE SEAFARERS (1953) as a way to pay the rent. He wouldn’t make another film for two years, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t busy. He was actively developing the story for his follow-up and scraping the resources together, all the while navigating a divorce from his first wife Toba Metz and taking a second—a prominent New York City ballerina named Ruth Sobotka. For his follow-up, Kubrick looked back to the world of boxing, which he had depicted in documentary newsreel form in 1951’s DAY OF THE FIGHT (his first filmed effort). Working with FEAR & DESIRE’s screenwriter and aspiring poet Howard Sackler, Kubrick spun a tough, gritty yarn he ultimately called KILLER’S KISS—at once both a noir thriller and a romance whose mainstream sensibilities he hoped would bring him the success that had so far eluded him. Despite his ambitions, Kubrick’s efforts were not on the most solid of foundations—the twenty-six year old director was on welfare during production, and most of the financing was borrowed once again from his wealthy uncle, the owner of a prominent drug-store in the city. This time, Kubrick’s gamble paid off with a remarkably accomplished low-budget feature that solidified his talent and applied the lessons he had learned on FEAR AND DESIRE, paving the way for further opportunities and giving the young director a decent platform to build from.

KILLER’S KISS begins inside New York’s iconic, now-demolished Old Penn Station, with a man pacing and smoking as he waits for a train to arrive. His internal voiceover monologue (no doubt the work of Sackler, judging by a similar conceit used in FEAR AND DESIRE) introduces us to his predicament—he’s waiting for a girl that may or may not ever arrive, a girl he’s wrecked his entire life for. The bulk of the film is a flashback, with Kubrick showing us everything that leads to this point. The man is a boxer named Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), living a spartan existence in a small, dumpy studio apartment within a dilapidated New York neighborhood. The one window in his place looks out onto the apartment of Gloria (Irene Kane), a beautiful young taxi dancer that he is pining after. One night, he witnesses her being attacked, so he dashes over to save her as her assailant makes his escape. Davey helps Gloria calm down and clean up, with their mutual attraction becoming quickly apparent. Before they know it, they’ve fallen in love and are making plans to run away together and escape their hardscrabble Gotham existence. But there’s just one problem—her boss, a slick cigar-chomping businessman named Vincent Rapallo (FEAR AND DESIRE’s Frank Silvera)—loves her too, and he’s not going to let her go without a fight. Davey finds himself drawn deeper into New York’s criminal underworld as he attempts to extricate Gloria from it, and this boxer will have to fight like hell for his happy ending.

The performances in KILLER’S KISS are rough and unpolished, much like the film itself, but are leagues beyond the talent on display in FEAR AND DESIRE. Frank Silvera is the only holdover from Kubrick’s earlier effort, and he shows a decent amount of range as the seedy boss Vincent Rapallo. His worldly, weary cynicism serves as a decent foil to Jamie Smith’s idealistic, naïve boxer. As Davey Gordon, Smith plays well at looking like he’s in over his head, which adds some spice to a character with fairly uncomplicated values and ethics. As the love interest Gloria Price, Irene Kane fills a necessary void in the story with a soft-edged femme fatale archetype that leaves a lot to be desired. Kubrick’s wife, Ruth, makes a short cameo as Gloria’s deceased sister and accomplished ballerina in a flashback sequence.

Much like FEAR AND DESIRE before it, the shoestring nature of KILLER’S KISS’s production meant that Kubrick himself had to serve as both the cinematographer and editor. Kubrick’s background in photography serves him well here, with the cinematography being one of the film’s strongest assets. The 1.37:1 black and white 35mm film image might be cheap by its nature, but Kubrick imbues it with dark, rich shadows and a fantastic sense of depth that suggest a budget three times its size. Kubrick lights KILLER’S KISS like a polished Hollywood noir film, creating evocative compositions whose deep focus draws us further into his world. The camerawork matches this approach, such as in a moment when Kubrick slowly dollies down the length of a dance hall to add grandeur and scale despite the relative cheapness of the technique. Indeed, many of these shots were achieved from the back of a pickup truck, which came in handy when Kubrick’s inability to secure location permits often necessitated a covert approach.

KILLER’S KISS stands out amongst Kubrick’s filmography in that the polish is countered by a measure of spontaneity, a trait that Kubrick would abolish entirely in later works. The film cuts away to gritty street details quite frequently, giving us a sense of place and liveliness that one could see influencing a young John Cassavettes. Kubrick’s on-location depiction of New York stands as the most potent example of this dynamic—he makes great use of the dramatic skyline and looming architecture to add drama and grit, in the process capturing an authentic, lived-in cityscape. Contrast these images with Kubrick’s last work, EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), with New York streets being recreated on a soundstage so Kubrick could exert complete control over his shot. This approach extends to the boxing sequences, where Kubrick opts for a handheld documentary look and expressionistic point of view angles that predate Martin Scorsese’s dreamlike fight scenes in RAGING BULL by twenty-five years.

The expressionism on display also extends to a short dream sequence in which the camera screams down a long urban corridor at breakneck speed, the black and white image flipped to its negative. Visually arresting on its own, the shot anticipates the famous space tunnel sequence in 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and is one of the earliest instances of Kubrick’s fondness for one-point perspective in his compositions.

Much like FEAR AND DESIRE before it, Kubrick was forced to re-record the dialogue and sync it to picture in post-production due to the limitations of his production resources. As such, Kubrick relies heavily on the musical contributions of his FEAR AND DESIRE composer, Gerald Fried, to even out an otherwise-awkward sound mix. Fried’s score is not unlike his previous work with Kubrick, utilizing an orchestral, romantic, and brassy sound. Kubrick and Fried also incorporate a lively mix of jazz and samba music that provides an urban edge and must have felt very contemporary and daring when the film was released.

KILLER’S KISS serves as a neat little distillation of Kubrick’s two main thematic fascinations, violence and sex. The boxing world is inherently violent, of course, but Kubrick’s story seems to merge the two acts—one an act of destruction and the other an act of creation—until their boundaries blur ambiguously. In the world of KILLER’S KISS, sex is violent and violence is intimate. Nowhere is this blur more apparent than in the film’s climax, where the hero and the villain savagely duke it out against a backdrop of mannequins. Their cold, statuesque beauty echoes Gloria, and on a literal level, we’re visually reminded that the two men are fighting over her as the ultimate prize. However, their presence underscores the intimate, feminine aspect of violence—the aspect that requires the two fighters to lose themselves in the moment and express their feelings up close with their bodies. The climactic chase sequence also serves as an exploration of dehumanization, with the characters framed in wide shots, dwarfed by monolithic structures and cold, unfeeling cityscapes. Endless brick walls tower over them in an almost abstract fashion, heightening the hero’s need to escape the city because his relative insignificance within it threatens to consume him entirely.

For the longest time, KILLER’S KISS was Kubrick’s first “official” feature, having taken the print of FEAR AND DESIRE out of circulation and burning the negative. Despite it being shot very similarly, Kubrick did not seem as embarrassed aboutKILLER’S KISS’s roughness and lack of polish. The film itself was received modestly well, enough so that it generated significant momentum into the production of his third feature, THE KILLING (1956). It’s not hard to see that KILLER’S KISS is a marked improvement over his earlier work, with his evolution very apparent in every frame. We can see that Kubrick’s direction is much more confident, having grasped concepts like pacing and geography while coming up with creative, bold compositions. KILLER’S KISS shows us a gifted young man coming into his own and starting to find his aesthetic, solidifying tastes that would inform one of the richest and most compelling filmographies the art from would ever see.

KILLER’S KISS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray as a supplemental feature on Criterion’s release of THE KILLING.

Produced by: Stanley Kubrick, Morris Bousel
Written by: Howard Sackler and Stanley Kubrick
Director of Photography: Stanley Kubrick
Edited by: Stanley Kubrick
Music by: Gerald Fried