Killer’s Kiss (1955)
Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Specific names in filmmaking have power & weight to them. Stanley Kubrick is one of them. In the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a backlash of sorts about Kubrick’s place in the pantheon of great directors. I get that, though. The prevalence of some names over others allows lesser-known, yet equally deserving directors to be overshadowed. I would counter that I think part of what has led to this annoyance with Kubrick is that he intentionally made films that created division in audiences. Furthermore, his influence on the craft of filmmaking resonates across time, and I suspect will continue into the far future, should humanity survive and keep making movies.
Kubrick was born in the Bronx in 1928 and was drawn to the photographic image from a young age. He studied movies and magazines and taught himself the basics of film production and photography. After high school graduation, Kubrick got a job as a photographer for Look magazine through the 1940s and 50s. Using the money he made and saved up, the young man started making short films & independent features, including the one I’m reviewing today, Killer’s Kiss. Kubrick made one feature before this, Fear & Desire, a well-intentioned but ultimately messy first effort. Killer’s Kiss finds Kubrick a bit more refined and already starting to showcase intelligence in how he uses the camera.
Davey Gordon is a boxer who finds his career is ending just before he turns 30. Gordon decides it’s time to get out of New York City and return to his hometown of Seattle. Life in NYC is just too dark and lonely, and he needs his family again. Gordon crosses paths with his neighbor Gloria who is also at the end of her rope in the city. Gloria works as a taxi dancer, a paid dance partner, which allowed lonely men a bit of non-sexual companionship. Gloria’s boss Vincent has become obsessed with her and is increasingly more and more violent. Gordon and Gloria spend the night together and decided to leave for Seattle after putting their financial affairs in order. However, Vincent refuses to let this woman go.
Killer’s Kiss is a classic noir story, beaten down people facing a system that they are just not going to be able to defeat. Vincent isn’t a monolith, but he has enough money and thus enough hired muscle that he can strike back hard. Kubrick does eventually take these advantages away from Vincent in the finale, which has he and Gordon fighting it out in a very primal, messy manner. This style of combat goes perfectly with the urban jungle Kubrick is attempting to create in the backgrounds of his canvas.
Kubrick’s photographer brain is already working at peak performance here, and the composition of his shots is always interesting with layers and play with perspective. New York City looms over the characters as the director places his camera low and angled up, building towering and almost blotting out the sky. The position of Gordon and Gloria’s apartments to each other, their lone windows facing the other, allows for layers of action to occur. Kubrick is already employing the use of mirrors as a motif in his work. Gordon faces himself before his last bout in the ring. Vincent shatters the image we see, revealed to be a mirror in a bit of camera trickery.
Two thugs corner a man in an alleyway in a sequence told almost entirely in shadows. We feel the claustrophobia with the camera almost blocking the escape, never seeing the street beyond. The shadows grow long across the brick walls and almost look illuminated as if by firelight. Director Martin Scorsese cites the boxing sequence at the start of the movie as an influence on his filming of the fights in Raging Bull.
The final sequence, a cat & mouse pursuit, leads to a warehouse full of mannequins. Kubrick flexed his eye for composition, creating layers of human forms in various states of decapitation and dismemberment. It’s no coincidence that this is the setting of that final primal scene, where one man wields a fire ax, a symbol to return in a later picture. In a sea of artificial humans, two people fight to be able to keep breathing the next day. The film ends in a surprisingly non-Kubrick, non-noir manner allowing space for a happy ending. I was a little surprised about that one. Killer’s Kiss is not yet the masterpiece Kubrick would one day make, but it is a clear indication of an ambitious filmmaker and an eye for how the camera should be used to get the most out of every shot.