Directed Viewing: “Killer’s Kiss” and the Formal Exercise

Directed Viewing is the regular series where I take a look at all the movies of a given director. Directors are chosen mostly to fill my cinematic gaps and with an eye to who might be a good candidate for broader analysis as I take in the filmography in a hopefully chronological manner. It’s very reliant upon some (sometimes admittedly facetious) presumptions about auteur theory, but it’s also a lot of fun, so hopefully I’ll be permitted some interpretive liberties.

We already kicked off this latest season with an explanation of why I picked Stanley Kubrick as my next subject, and a rather inauspicious start with his obscure first film Fear and Desire. After that movie, Kubrick went out and directed a for-hire documentary (which I’m arbitrarily deeming outside the scope of this article) to raise the money to help fund his second picture. This one has gone down as the ‘real’ first Kubrick picture, so hopefully the second time’s the charm, eh?

Killer’s Kiss (1955)

By the 1950s, noir had settled into a fairly rigid structure of strong silent men and women in distress, the kind of iterative dead end that comes in the death throes of a popular genre. There were exceptions, to be sure, like Kiss Me Deadly around the same time. And the genre was about to get a pop culture anarchic shot in the arm from the French New Wave. But for the most part American noir was done being special and mostly just was, a factory churn of the same characters and plots spat out again and again in a legacy of black and white violence and hard-boiled romance.

It’s in this culture that Kubrick’s sophomore feature, Killer’s Kiss, emerges. It is, admittedly, very much of this type. In fact, the story is so formulaic and obvious that it manages to be scant 67 minutes and still fit in an elaborate dream sequence and wildly overblown flashback and still tell a full, complete story. The tropes are ridden so hard that there’s almost no time spent necessarily telling you who these characters are. Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a boxer whose career has been “one long promise without fulfillment.” His neighbor, Gloria Price (Irene Kane) is a dancer with a gangster boss interested in her for more than employment.

They live across a thin alley gap but have never met. Yet, Gloria’s boss Vincent (Frank Silvera) points Davey out to Gloria and thus seals all their fates. He recognizes him as a boxer with potential, and in the club he and Gloria watch in the back room while Davey gets beaten up while Vincent tries to kiss Gloria, who seemingly fights him off. Narrowly avoiding the coded near-rape, Vincent tries again in Gloria’s apartment, only to be scared off by a dejected Davey, who had been watching Gloria and drinking away his sorrows from his darkened apartment. The two of them, quickly finding a rapport in their sense of helplessness, scheme to gather up all the money they’re owed by their respective employers and get out of town.

The staging of this movie is a huge visual step up, relishing in traditional noir structuring.

As you can expect, this goes poorly. Vincent kidnaps Gloria for asking and sends goons out to kill Davey. Davey, who had rushed a meeting with his manager to get his pay, manages to arrive only to discover the goons had mistaken Davey’s manager for him and killed him. Now he’s being pursued, trying to rescue Gloria, and get revenge on Vincent. It’s all so very normal and typical, and honestly barely matters. This plot exists hundreds of other places done better on every level.

So instead let’s talk about what Kubrick brings to this story, since this project is ostensibly about him and we can more or less write this movie off as an average entry of an already overplayed type. Coming out of Fear and Desire, it’s amazing to see just how better he is as a filmmaker. Having a budget probably doesn’t hurt, but Kubrick’s background as a photographer comes through cleanly here, as the movie often derails from its story to just present New York on film, the city as interesting (sometimes more so) than the story being told in it. From bustling shop windows to grimy back alleys wet with rain to rooftops foggy and desolate, terribly beautiful, Manhattan by way of Eraserhead. It barely resembles the earlier work, showing a confidence for photography and an elaborate sense of place and atmosphere that will go on to expand in his later work.

Also, he has an eye for helping the lame story along through directing the narrative. Each character is given a world to inhabit, a room that is littered with telling details, family photos or items that would seemingly be out of place, but help build up a sense of character. It’s a naturalism that would be well spent on characters that weren’t so archetypal or actors that weren’t so wooden. The humanity of it all is also fairly surprising given how rapidly Kubrick develops into one of popular cinema’s biggest misanthropes, but the obsession with detail is absolutely Kubrickian.

All it takes is a bunch of mannequins to really give your empty warehouse scene some insane flair.

This technique being greater than the movie it’s supporting carries on in some of the imagery, which is elaborate and almost surreal at times. Davey has a nightmare early on filmed in negative, a long tear down an empty New York street that instantly evokes the future psychedelia of 2001. The finale takes place in a mannequin factory, Davey and Vincent wielding pieces of female mannequins at each other as they stalk around the passive, painted faces in what I cannot believe isn’t the world’s most hamfisted allegory for the general misogyny of the noir male both hero and villain (yet it’s still strangely affecting, and probably the movie’s best sequence, just for it’s general creepiness). A lengthy backstory of Gloria’s troubles is told over an elaborate sequence of a ballerina dancing, singularly out of place and disconcerting in its jarring inclusion.

But even on top of that moment comes the worst part of Kubrick’s narrative tics. The narration in this movie continues to be oppressive and bad, delivered in monotone by an actor incapable of supporting it, telling this story with a framing device of Davey standing at a train station waiting for something until the very end of the movie. The narration swoops in to exposit away any sense of mystery the film has, and is particularly bad in the aforementioned Gloria backstory, going on for minutes about stuff that barely matters, trying to provide some sort of tragic frame for how she ended up in this situation with this bad man. It continues the fine tradition, established in Fear and Desire, of telling and telling and telling, showing nothing of interest. Eventually I just found myself tuning it out and enjoying the images. Which I enjoyed quite a bit, so at least one part of Kubrick’s skills are propping up the other.

I don’t want to make it sound like Killer’s Kiss is a bad movie, because it’s not. It would be a fine first feature from any unknown director. Even as a second feature, I suppose it’d be fine. It’s mercifully short and well shot, and that counts for a lot sometimes. I’m willing in part to give it the history pass, since the mid-50s were a very different time: directors didn’t come onto the scene like they do today, cinematic education for those just starting out wasn’t nearly what it was. But seeing as how we’re talking about Stanley Kubrick, it can only be considered a minor stepping stone in his period of growth, a jumping off point to make bigger and better movies in the future.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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