Stanley Kubrick, 1955
Starring: Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Frank Silvera
Davey, a washed up boxer, and Gloria, a struggling taxi dancer, are neighbors in an apartment complex. They can see into one another’s rooms across a courtyard and become attracted to one another. The night that Davey loses a fight, Gloria’s boss, Vincent Rapallo, follows her home and attacks her because she continually repels his advances. Davey rushes to save her, causing Rapallo to flee. Davey protectively stays the night and he and Gloria strike up a sudden, intense relationship. They decide to go out of town, but Rapallo is determined to keep her, even if it means murder and kidnapping.
This is director Stanley Kubrick’s second feature film (though he tried to hide and repress his first effort, Fear and Desire), which he also wrote and produced. It’s certainly an early American independent effort; he borrowed money from his uncle to make the film and the budget is noticeably very low. Due to its mainstream subject matter and noir stylings, Kubrick expected it to be mainstream enough to garner him some success. Though it was mostly ignored, he was able to sell the film to United Artists, though they insisted on a happy, romantic ending where Davey and Gloria are reunited at the last possible moment at the train station. Despite this minor setback in his vision, it allowed Kubrick to make a bigger budget follow up – The Killing – which was his first true cinematic success.
I’m not overly fond of Killer’s Kiss – and it has a lot of flaws – but it is a worthwhile look at the developing skills of an auteur director. The grungy, sleazy view of ‘50s New York definitely makes the film worth watching and the shots where Kubrick breaks up the plot to show New Yorkers in action are wonderful (keep an eye out for the people who refuse to ignore the camera). This gives it more than a hint of Cinema verité and a sense of realism found in later independent film. If you like Godard or, more appropriately, Cassavetes, this might be worth checking out for the visual similarities.
Killer’s Kiss isn’t quite film noir, but Kubrick includes plenty of noir tropes that are used well. The main characters are a boxer, a taxi dancer (loosely a sexless, in-club escort, a young woman who is paid per dance by men at a dance hall – an earlier, more wholesome counterpart to the strip club), and a gangster and his thugs. The story is told with flashbacks and voice overs, both Davey and Gloria have had rough lives with little hope for the future. People hang around in alleys and worn out buildings thick with shadows, where they smoke cigarettes and brood. I don’t think this is really a spoof of noir, but Kubrick either cleverly used the tropes to make a dark and violent melodrama, or he just really bumbled his way through this film.
Make no mistake – despite its interesting elements, Killer’s Kiss is deeply flawed. Probably the strongest element is an excellent chase/fight sequence, which takes Davey and Rapallo through the city, into a mannequin factory where they struggle (with an axe) against faceless, life-sized white dolls. Aside from this somewhat brilliant moment, the story is little more than a loosely sketched love triangle where an honorable, though struggling boxer and a successful, though sleazy nightclub owner fight for the ownership of a young dancer. The performances are incredibly basic. Frank Silerva (Viva Zapato) is a dead-ringer for Burt Lancaster, though he can’t quite muster the same brooding charm. Frank Silvera (from Kubrick’s Fear and Desire) often seems like little more than a cartoon villain. The beautiful if blank Chris Chase, billed here as Irene Kane, had a brief acting run (which included a role in All That Jazz), but became known for her career as a writer. She was also the sister of Kubrick’s then-wife, prominent New York ballet dancer Ruth Sobotka. Sobotka appears as the ballerina in Killer’s Kiss, Gloria’s dead sister, dancing in flashback.
I can’t say that the film comes recommended, but Kubrick fans will definitely want to check it out. Killer’s Kiss is available on DVD, but you should really pick up the Criterion release of The Killing – a must see film – which includes Killer’s Kiss as a special feature. Though I didn’t love the film, you certainly wouldn’t be wasting your time with it. It has a fairly short running time, moves at a good pace, and is full of some wonderful New York scenery.