29 August 2007

Killer's Kiss (1955)

Written by: Howard O. Sackler & Stanley Kubrick
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Grade: B

The opening credits of Killer's Kiss announce that the love theme is by Norman Gimbel and Arden E. Clar, the ballet is choreographed by David Vaughan, and the direction (and pretty much everything else) is by Stanley Kubrick. Wait a minute—love theme? Ballet? What kind of Kubrick picture is this? Well, for practical intents and purposes, his first. (Just try finding a copy of Fear and Desire!) As a debut feature, despite its independent financing (before such a thing was common), Killer's Kiss makes a lot of generic concessions presumably in the name of potential box-office draw and, of course, budget constraints; in many ways, it's a run of the mill film noir, complete with voice-over narration, a main character who's a boxer, and a flashback framing device—which makes the happy ending apparent within the first reel—but it sports a visual sense so sophisticated that the nascent talents of a future filmmaking titan are on full display.

Sporting the keen photographer's eye that Kubrick developed during his time at Look magazine—and prominently featured in the nostalgia-inducing New York location shooting, such as the Times Square store window displays—much of the film, especially the opening and closing sections, are told with minimal dialogue. (Thankfully, as much of the actual dialogue is quite silly; cf. "you smell bad" or "can happiness buy money?") Killer's Kiss is the story of a boxer, played prosaically by Jamie Smith, who can't win a fight and is planning to hang up his gloves and move back to his aunt and uncle's ranch near Seattle. But before he can pack his trunk and make it to Grand Central, he's summoned to the aid of his screeching neighbor across the way, a sultry blonde—though not much of a femme fatale—played by Irene Kane. Once she's safe and rescued, they speedily plan to go away together, having fallen in love within a few hours (Kubrick has the sense and wit to lightly mock this ridiculous generic convention throughout), but it isn't so easy to get her away from her employer and lover, the seedy proprietor of a dance hall played by Frank Silvera.

Previously, Kubrick had filmed a documentary short, called Day of the Fight, about a pugilist, and with that experience perhaps the most impressive part of the film is the energetic and thrilling boxing sequence, captured with a handheld camera and artfully framed, whether from below (a technique used again, memorably, decades later when Jack Nicholson is imprisoned in the Overlook's food locker) or in jarring close-up. (It's also, like the rest of the film, captured in beautiful black and white, which Raging Bull ratified is the only way to film a boxing match.) The film is full of that sort of provocative imagery, such as a close-up of Smith, through the bowl water, feeding his goldfish; or Silvera becoming so furious that he hurls a tumbler straight at the camera, visibly fracturing the lens; or the black-and-white checker-tiled staircase, that leads to the treacherous dance hall, which features an enormous and cautionary "Watch Your Step" sign hanging above. (The film's dominant leitmotif is warnings from, literally, above, whether as the mean, bright eye of god, in the recurring form of a single-bulb, directly-overhead light, or the long dangling fingers of disembodied mannequin hands.)

The most stunning moment, really something to behold, is the finale, a final showdown in a mannequin warehouse that starts off as a cat-and-mouse hunt and ends in an axe duel, with each contender hurling artificial women's legs and torsos at the other as they consequently chop up countless ersatz female bodies. Also, the aforementioned extended ballet sequence is really quite stunning, as a lone dancer performs plies while Kane recites her life story, rife with jealousy, misery and death, the dance moves choreographed to coincide perfectly with the mood of the dime-novel, voice-overed tale.

If this review just sounds like a strung together series of my favorite shots and scenes, lifted, perfunctorily, straight from my notes, it's because Killer's Kiss plays out that way, as a rather boilerplate film save for the occasional bursts of personality that, arrestingly, cut through. Smith is described as being strong and a clever boxer, but unable to win a fight because of his Achilles' heel, his week chin; the same, loosely speaking, is true of Kubrick at this point in his directorial career. "I guess the whole thing was pretty silly," Smith remarks, at the end of the film, of the story's he's just annunciated. Yeah you guess right, thank goodness Kubrick was there to help you tell it in pictures, otherwise nobody'd be talking about it today.

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