Classic Film Review: Kubrick’s “Killer’s Kiss” (1955)

You can look at Stanley Kubrick‘s second film as a director, “Killer’s Kiss,” as his sizzle reel, an introduction/audition for all the great films to follow.

His low-budget feature filmmaking debut, the opaque and amateurish “symbolic” war picture “Fear and Desire,” was nothing to show to producers, financiers or studios he might want to work for. But this lean, dark and stunningly-photographed follow-up, a 1950s New York film noir, has scene after scene that showcase his director’s eye, his ability to tell a story with pictures and skill in handling action sequences.

The touchstones of his career and biography are all here — the self-taught photographer tuned documentarian and filmmaker, the control freak who obsessed over tiny details.

He’d already made a boxing documentary, and he takes what he learned there to give us a fight unlike any we’d seen before.

The violence of the film’s signature set piece is both visceral and allegorical, two men going at it with sharp weapons in a mannikin warehouse, with pieces of fake bodies flying into the frame.

The mise en scene and production design on a budget are startling — simple, carefully decorated sets, oddball pieces of foreshadowing. Why our boxer-hero has a machete hanging on the kitchen wall of his studio flat has hints of “The Shining” to come.

The street scenes, grabbed on the sly with handheld cameras often hidden in cars, are immaculately composed. There’s a nightmare sequence developed as a negative image race down an empty New York street.

The idea that “an artist is someone who pounds the same nail, over and over again” is never far from your mind watching “Killer’s Kiss” and Kubrick’s next film, “The Killing.” Images, framing, sequences, faces, lots of things he repeated over the decades first appeared in these two black and white crime pictures.

The music — much of the action is set to a taxi dancer ballroom’s Latin band beat — and sound effects are used in the same way, to give the picture its pace. The sound is looped because the premature auteur couldn’t compose his shots without getting his experienced sound man’s boom mike shadow in the frame. That’s how anachronistic steam engine noises made it into electric subway and elevated train-era Pennsylvania Station’s soundscape.

And his “photographed, edited and directed by” credit is as telling as his not listing Howard Sackler as the screenwriter. Stanley K. was a credit thief who cared more about images than words, but he needed the words. Although voice-over narration is something he’d decry, he used it here, in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Barry Lyndon,” and allegedly wanted this crutch included in “Eyes Wide Shut.”

The story — a welterweight (Jamie Smith) smokes and waits at Penn Station, opaquely narrating what happened the last three days to put him there. A ring veteran with a “glass jaw/weak chin,” his last “big fight” is set up in a clever, efficient and cheap montage of fight posters fluttering on light poles, taped into windows and the like, and Danny getting oiled up to go into the ring.

There’s a pretty blonde (Irene Kane, whose voice was dubbed by a radio actress because she was no longer available) in the apartment across the alley that Danny notices, who barely notices him. Gloria’s a taxi dancer at a ballroom on Times Square. Her boss Vinnie (Frank Silvera) is the one who recognizes Danny when he drives up to take her to work. He makes her watch the fight on TV.

Notice the surprised look on Danny’s face every time he gets knocked down. Perfect.

Vinnie has designs on the much-younger Gloria, and that night, he gets rough with her and Danny wakes up to respond to her shrieks. That sets in motion their love affair and the ill-fated events to follow.

Danny considers going to visit an uncle on his ranch in Washington. Gloria tells a sad story of her ballerina sister, complete with ballet sequence.

Coincidence, unhappy accidents and mob violence set Danny up for a murder he didn’t commit and trap Gloria with a monster whom she just might have to learn to live with.

Screenwriter Sackler, who also wrote Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire,” would go on to write the play “The Great White Hope,” and the script for Martin Ritt’s film of it. “Killer’s Kiss” is mainly a series of sketches, snatches of dialogue or voice-over used to decorate Kubrick’s documentarian view of New York life and grit in the 1950s.

What’s most startling all these years later is how even the shortcomings of the screenplay and the film’s production — the disembodied voices and canned sound — seem like artistic choices, and triumphant ones.

Few filmmakers other than Welles or Hitchcock invite the kind of obsessive, close-reading of details that Kubrick does. The documentary “Room 237” just scratches the surface of the OCD Reddit rabbit-holes of Kubrick arcana you can fall into.

Young men especially are lured into the Kubrick illusion of dominance, mastery and complete control, the obsessive filmmaker who’d torment actors with take after take after take, who’d immerse himself in every technical detail of a film but often downplay the scriptural contributions of others and even the acting, the control freak who’d later spend years and years prepping projects that never came to pass.

Does one outgrow Kubrick, the way one ages out of Ayn Rand, heavy metal, Hemingway or libertarianism? I think so.

Still, a film buff can’t resist revisiting the endless easter eggs that close-readings of his films offer. I dare say Tarantino’s heading towards that same sort of long-term cinephile obsession. And he’s doing it on purpose.

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Frank Silvera, Felice Orlandi

Credits: Directed by Stanley Kubrick, scripted by Howard Sackler. An MGM/UA release on Tubi, Amazon, other streaming platforms.

Running time: 1:07

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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