The Film: Hard-luck palooka Davy (Jamie Smith) takes his latest embarrassing defeat as a sign from the boxing god that it’s time to pack his stuff and move to a new life in the Pacific Northwest. His only roadblock is Gloria (Irene Kane), his neighbor and a dancer for mobster Rapallo (played with a vague ethnic menace by Fear and Desire‘s Frank Silvera.) Davy spies Rapallo making an unwelcome pass at Gloria, thuds across the street to save the day, then hugs and makes nice with the mobster, meaning, of course, that Rapallo immediately orders his men to murder Davy. A case of mistaken identity leaves another man dead in Davy’s place and lands Gloria back in Rapallo’s custody where, since Rapallo’s team is beginning to look like the safest bet, she realigns herself with her former boss and ditches Davy. Davy flees across the New York skyline, leading Rapallo inside a mannequin factory where the men kick each other in the teeth until Davy wins. Davy soon returns to Plan A and tries to make the train to Seattle, but Gloria suddenly appears at the train station and the happy couple share a (killer’s?) kiss.
Pictured: totally not a metaphor
The Production: Stanley Kubrick’s experience on Fear and Desire could have sent him back to still photography for the rest of his natural life, but the young director wasted no time in getting his shit together back on the horse. This time, Kubrick wisely shed Desire‘s layers of message and metaphor for a straightforward page-turner about lust, murder, and, not insignificantly, boxing. Kubrick set the production up right by working within a marketable genre, tightening the story to three primary characters, and using real world locations close to his home in New York. He also focused the story around boxing, a sport he had extensive experience shooting for both Look magazine and his own short A Day at the Fight.
“Which one of these is the %*#^& bathroom!?”
Kubrick shot Killer’s Kiss as a guerrilla operation, filming in alleyways and rooftops without insurance or permits. He shot footage from moving vehicles and negotiated with vagrants to stay out of his frame, at least until he had his shot. After a new round of sound troubles, Kubrick fired his audio crew and filmed silently. This accidentally doubled the budget as a soundtrack was painstakingly laid in and actress Irene Kane, unavailable to dub her role, had her voice replaced by actress Peggy Lobbin.
Best Moment: Killer’s Kiss is a blatant attempt at film noir, already a dying genre in 1955, and by then a very easy one to imitate. In other words, Kubrick didn’t have to try very hard. A murder here, a femme fatale there, cut, print, and go home early. But right in the middle of the film, Killer’s Kiss takes a time-out to explore a moment of actual cinematic beauty.
Davy has just rescued Gloria from the evil Rapallo and the two decide to share back stories. Davy runs through his quickly, but Gloria spins a long and sad tale about her sister, a ballerina who defied their overbearing father to pursue her dream onstage, a dream that was cut tragically short when the father got sick. Gloria’s sister abandoned her career to return home and watch over him, dying early having never accomplished her dreams. Gloria hints at a link between the sisters, that dancing reminds Gloria of her sister in all the wrong ways, and that she hates herself for doing it while finding it nearly impossible to walk away.
The standard move would have been to linger on Gloria during the speech to drain maximum emotional currency from the scene, but instead Kubrick tells the entire tale while focused on a ballerina, presumably Gloria’s sister, dancing. It’s an effective moment, and one almost too awesome for the movie it belongs to.
Lasting Impact: Negligible. Killer’s Kiss hit the right beats in the proper order and rated as an inexpensive, but possibly profitable, buy for a distributor. And thus, Kubrick scored his first major sale and finally opened the Hollywood doors for himself. The film, however, is mostly forgotten and rarely appears on any list of the director’s best.
Overall: I’ve always looked at Killer’s Kiss as a humble film, a movie that proved Stanley Kubrick was paying attention to the greater world he was working hard to enter. This isn’t always the case for young directors, especially the talented ones. For every respectful, intelligent up-and-comer, there are a dozen Troy Duffys, seething with ego and entitlement while choking on their own talent. These are the guys who think they are beyond the system or, worse, that they are the system now, and when they can’t cut it, they wind up on the outside, frothing and blaming the people inside for their exclusion.
Kubrick dodged that. He was obviously talented; anyone could see it. Of course, then, he made Fear and Desire, a movie constructed for the sole purpose of announcing his arrival to the planet. But the film didn’t work, it didn’t resonate, and unlike so many filmmakers in his position, Kubrick seemed to get that. He retreated, thought through his mistakes, then returned to make a movie that people actually wanted to see. Killer’s Kiss was, if absolutely nothing else, commercial. When the time was right, Francis Ford Coppola made a little gangster picture. Kubrick made a noir.
Selling out? Not a chance, because Kubrick didn’t compromise. As I see it, the mark of a truly great filmmaker is the ability to work within a genre and to make it his or her own. Kubrick did so. I’ve already talked about the ballet sequence, but the movie is littered with great little bits, from the gloomy alley murder to the Freudian nightmare battle between Davy and Rapallo in the mannequin factory.
Unfortunately, these great moments don’t really bring the film together. Killer’s Kiss is still a bit of an amateur effort, with lighting and sound issues that show the strings but still lend a clunky charm to the proceedings. There’s some interest here for the serious Kubrick nuts, but as Kubrick himself described it: “While Fear and Desire had been a serious effort, ineptly done, Killer’s Kiss…proved, I think, to be a frivolous effort done with conceivably more expertise…”
The Stanley Kubrick Project
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire