Killer's Kiss (1955)

- by Andrew Baron

Stanley Kubrick's second feature film, Killer's Kiss (after 1953's Fear and Desire), is an ambitious if flawed effort. Made in 1955 on an anemic budget, it contains many of the signature techniques that he was to utilize with greater authority in his later and more prestigious work. To suggest that Killer's Kiss is an embryonic effort is somewhat misleading, as this film clearly shows a developed aesthetic and thematic sense already firmly in place. Despite the no-name cast and some weak writing (Kubrick is the sole writer of Killer's Kiss, a situation he was to wisely rectify in subsequent films), Kubrick is clearly attempting to transcend his material. To his credit, he often succeeds.

Irene Kane & Jamie SmithThe film opens with a shot of the protagonist Davey Gordon (played by Jamie Smith) pacing the platform of a train station as his voice over frames what is to be one long flashback. It's a clumsy device, if for no other reason than it erases any uncertainty over his eventual fate. But after this misstep, Killer's Kiss kicks into high gear.

The film cuts to Davy's face as seen through the distorting effect of a fishbowl. The image is darkly comic in its blunt loopiness and serves as a portent for the physical and psychic mayhem to follow. As the camera pulls back, we see his low-rent apartment and are neatly introduced to Gloria (Irene Kane) living in an adjacent apartment, as seen through a window. And, while the scene effectively establishes the two leads and their similarly straightened circumstances, it enhances the gulf between them, made more poignant by their relative proximity.

We learn that Davey is a boxer on the down side of his career (described later as "a once promising fighter with a weak chin") and looking to start a new life. Gloria works as a taxi dancer (a now defunct occupation where women would dance with lonely men for small change). As we see Davey taking a beating during a prizefight, the scene cuts to the taxi dancing establishment where a different kind of confrontation is about to take place. As the scene cuts back to the ring, the point of view of the camera is often from Davey's eyes, and every brutal thump registers on a very real, visceral level. Back at the taxi dancing establishment, we see Gloria's boss (Vincent Rapallo, played by Frank Silvera), sadistically leering at the image of Davy's defeat on television and beginning to grope Gloria in his office (the spectacle on TV acts as a turn on for him). It's a parallel humiliation - after Davey is almost mercifully knocked out (for him and the viewer) the scene once again cuts back to the office where Gloria trying to fend off the advances of Rapallo. The scene quickly segues to Davey's apartment.

As with subsequent work by Kubrick, the formal aspects (as the preceding may indicate) are doing double and sometimes triple duty in carrying the narrative and thematic weight of the film. As convoluted as the plot becomes, the visual strategy is even more so. Kubrick's attempts at investing scenes with a thematic and emotional complexity by way of formal technique and symbolism often pay off, although the parts are often more compelling than the movie as a whole. So what emerges (in this case) is a kind of cinematic fever dream (in beautiful high contrast black and white) that sometimes defies easy logic, but whose images continue to resonate long after viewing.

When Gloria recounts (as a sort of flashback within a flashback) her sad tale of sibling rivalry, her father's death and eventual suicide of her ballerina sister, Kubrick eschews the usual hackneyed convention of showing a younger version of Gloria and her family simply acting out the voice over. Instead, we get a more symbolic and emotionally incisive rendering, as we see a ballerina dancing on a noticeably barren stage, juxtaposed with Gloria's spoken narrartive. Although the voice over dialogue becomes a bit stiff at this point, the scene is undeniably haunting.

Other metaphors for death and loss in the film display Kubrick's noted penchant for the grotesque. After Davey saves Gloria from being raped, the camera lingers on the image of a pathetically worn baby doll attached to Gloria's bed, a representation of past trauma that she has been unable to discard. And, in a related iconic flourish, there is the climactic fight scene between Davey and Rapallo in the mannequin factory, where the dummies function literally as tools for battle and metaphorically as corpses (a point underlined by the camera cutting away from the dying Rapallo, replacing him with the expressionless face of a mannequin).

There are a surfeit of compelling images in this film - the Shriner conventioneers who make off with Davey's scarf, a startling shot of Davey running across an enormous rooftop (a nearly invisible speck against a vast cityscape)- really too many to mention, and all informed with a unique and inventive sense of composition characteristic of all of Kubrick's work.

Although this very same formal assuredness often masks the deficiencies of the film, it also serves to occassionally set them off in relief. Kubrick is often criticized for reductivist tendencies in regard to characterization, a criticism I often find irrelevant, but a fair criticism in this case. The dialogue often serves to just keep the story moving, reducing the three principals to archetypes - Rappallo as devil, Jamey as savior, and Gloria as tortured soul. Insofar as Killer's Kiss is a story of redemption, these archetypes are useful but are finally too schematic, too one dimensional. The performances often reflect this, Jamie Smith's uncharismatic portrayal of Davey Gordon being especially tepid. And, although the film takes place in New York City, there is a feeling in the film (at times) that the world is inhabited by five people, and only three of them have faces.

For all of its flaws, Killer's Kiss remains a riveting work. Kubrick's unique and expansive use of cinematic grammar clearly elevates the film beyond its modest pedigree, showing us a talented director with creativity to burn.

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