Killer’s Kiss 
Duration: 67 minutes.
A young man graduates in 1945, and starts working for LOOK Magazine as a photojournalist. (Find it here.) By the early 1950s, he has his sights set on motion pictures, and shoots a couple of short documentaries. He then gets to work on feature films. His first production, in 1953, is disappointing. The critics review it well but the young man is unhappy with the result. He denounced it as “bumbling, amateur film exercise” and “a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious”. He even went to great lengths to get it banned entirely. Fast forward two years, and the young man, slightly old, 26 to be precise, borrows $40,000 from his uncle and shoots Killer’s Kiss.
It passes the litmus test for the man himself, officially launching the filmmaking career of Stanley Kubrick.
One of the reasons I love Stanley Kubrick is because, apart from his legendary reclusiveness and his icy perfection, he always seemed to me as someone who loved cinema. In the ’50s, when the studio system was digging its evil roots into everything that was sacred about cinematic freedom, Kubrick was doing what the Europeans were doing at that time. He was an indie filmmaker before it was cool. Each shot rendered lovingly, a unique creative exercise. An eagerness to share those flashes that were present in his head. There is an almost documentary level realism in the film with lighting effects and a script that is not much help at all. Kubrick apparently didn’t have much invested in the story. It presents good old urban squalor starring Jamie Smith as a boxer in decline and Irene Kane as the taxi dancer he tries to save from her brutish boss.
The movie stands out from the first scene. A stark well dressed figure on a station. Not just any station though. A towering man made megalith that engulfs him. The movie starts out on a train station. We meet Boy who is waiting for someone at the train.
The story time-jumps backwards and it starts to feel like a study of urban life. Boy lives in a building, Girl lives across from him. They look at each other across a shared courtyard.
Then Girl gets hassled, Smith intervenes, and Killer’s Kiss suddenly has a love angle and chase scenes. Unusual visuals aided by voice-overs fill up the character back stories. The first thing you notice about the movie is its look.
The boxing match between Davy and his opponent is a visual delight. It is a short sequence but evocative of the best boxing films. I couldn’t help but think of Raging Bull and Rocky. A combination of camera angles and editing makes these scenes flawless. The rooftop chase scene and the final garment factory showdown between Davy and Vincent, surrounded hauntingly by hundreds of mannequins are now part of cinematic history. Vincent uses an axe in his battle with Davy, who fashions a spear out of a pole. It looks like two already beaten gladiators locked in a battle, for the amusement of their lifeless audience, the mannequins. It does result in death eventually but it also throws up arms, legs and heads of the sightless mannequins. The last 20 minutes are shots of people running, strikingly framed on top of and between towering New York buildings. Someone even trips and falls. There is a brief nightmare sequence with polarized footage before this. A character throws a glass at the camera, creating a special effect. And then there is the noir.
It is not a “masterpiece”, but you can see that the filmmaker is just getting warmed up for something far more special, beautiful and terrifyingly powerful. A naturalistic style plus genre material produced mixed results. His use of actual New York locations layers the whole thing with a darkness; a sleaziness that is hard to match. The apartment complex provides only a visual access to each other’s lives (Now, thanks to phones, we don’t even have that).
There is a wonderful shot of long gone New York City landmarks and territorial ghettos, the kind that we see in modern day films too, the signs of a cinematic motherland that none of us has ever seen. The shots of the magnificent train station open and close the film.
Hindsight can be very convenient. It is now easy to see this film as a harbinger of things to come.
Here is a promise of fulfillment of great potential.
Watch the trailer, here: