Killer's Kiss

Kubrick's second feature is certainly an improvement on his first, but much of that improvement is sourced in increased savviness. After post-dubbing the sound on Fear and Desire, Kubrick intended to shoot live sound on Killer's Kiss (development titles included Kiss Me, Kill Me and The Nympho and the Maniac, perhaps one of the greatest unused titles ever), but when mounting microphones caused too much agita for the director's elaborate lighting setups, he resorted once again to recording and dubbing all dialogue and sound effects later.

This contingency was well-provided for, however, as multiple sequences unfold without the necessity of live sound, with even dialogue scenes frequently involving characters speaking when facing away from the camera -- or not even being on-screen at all. Other sequences of potential dramatic and/or logistic complication are simply recounted to us in our protagonist's (boxer Davey Gordon, played by Jamie Smith) voiceover; it's a clumsy device, but effective when trying to shoot a thriller on a shoestring budget.

Fear and Desire was an existential sludge, so in response Kubrick devised a simple plot that linked together some action sequences. The story is padded; the actual narrative content could easily take half as much screentime as what we're given, and a sequence in which the female lead (Irene Kane) unnecessarily recounts her backstory in voiceover over a sequence of her sister (played by Kubick's then-wife Ruth Sobotka) dancing is dramatically ludicrous. A good chunk of the film's first third borrows heavily from Kubrick's debut documentary short, "Day of the Fight", with several shots in Gordon's boxing match and his preparation (including, most strikingly, an image of him looking in a mirror, pushing down his nose in contemplation of how his face could be rearranged if the fight goes badly) directly lifted from the earlier work.

Still, there are some thoughtful moments. Early crosscutting gives us parallels between Gordon and Kane's Gloria, as both try to make their livelihood off of trading their bodies -- Gordon as a fading boxer, Gloria as a dancehall partner lusted after by her boss (Vincent Rapallo, played by Frank Silvera, for the second film in a row giving the best performance in a Kubrick production and, while at it, embodying the first of the director's gallery of grotesques). An incongruous nightmare sequence famously provides the first example of a trademark Kubrickean tunnel tracking shot, and the fact that it is shot in reverse negative gives us a precursor of 2001's Stargate sequence. The final bit of physical combat, between Gordon and Vincent, takes place in a mannequin factory, an absurd yet picturesque setting that almost feels like the origin of A Clockwork Orange's early balletic brawl in an abandoned theater, supplemented by the villain wielding an axe (pace Jack Torrance) and the hero countering with a spear that would not have been out of place in the gladiator duels of Spartacus. A repeated track across a dance floor anticipates both Paths of Glory and Eyes Wide Shut. Gerald Fried's percussive and jazzy score makes an impact, despite its budgetarily-imposed repetitiveness. Several of the images are striking, and a handful of shots are used today by TCM as their bumper between late-night movies.

A key sequence near the end of the film is shot surreptitiously on New York streets, providing an off-the-cuff naturalism that hereafter was foreign to Kubrick's work. The method invokes the French New Wave that kicked off a few years later, though the mood and tone are entirely different. Godard noted, after the fact, that when he made Breathless, that he had intended to make Scarface but found that he had made Alice in Wonderland. This disconnect, to me, defines the balance of Godard's career: he started off wanting to be one of the Hollywood auteurs he praised in the pages of Cahiers, but when he found his skills and abilities comported very little to that ideal, he branched off into his own self-reflexive conception of what movies could be. Kubrick, who was never a darling of the New Wave crowd, instead took his early shortcomings as a challenge. Killer's Kiss demonstrates a directorial cleverness, an improving sense of pacing and cutting, and a comprehensive technical faculty (Kubrick recorded and dubbed the sound effects himself, and the mix is effective even without knowing the meager means by which it was generated) that showed Kubrick was poised to take a giant leap creatively. But he identified his shortcoming as being unable to, by himself, develop original stories that suited the cinematic feature form. By aligning himself with a producer with means (James B. Harris) and adapting a pre-existing story (Lionel White's novel Clean Break), Kubrick was able to apply his skills as a dramatic editor and his emerging skills as a cinematic dramatist to his next feature, The Killing, which would prove to be a classic of the late noir period and a springboard for his medium-altering career.