Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.2: Stanley Kubrick's Killer's Kiss

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 56 (B-)

Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire, didn’t set the world on fire, but it received some positive notices from critics who recognized the talent beneath the murk. The young director then got another shot at a feature narrative with Killer’s Kiss, a noir that built off of Kubrick’s debut short Day of the Fight. The film is more often looked at as a dry run for The Killing than a film unto itself, and not without reason. The quality jump between Kubrick’s second and third film is exponential. Still, Killer’s Kiss is hardly a bad movie, and it shows a more confident and assured director than the one on Fear and Desire.

Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a down-and-out boxer living in a cheap flat, and his life doesn’t look like it’s about to improve. His neighbor, Gloria Price (Irene Kane), is a taxi dancer (a woman paid to dance with men in clubs) who’s boss, Vincent Rapello (Frank Silvera), sexually harasses her. One night Vincent follows Gloria home, where he attacks her. Davey protects her, and the two start to fall in love and plan to leave New York for a better life. But when the jealous Vincent kidnaps Gloria and arranges to have Davey killed, Davey must fight back to save the day.

Killer’s Kiss is Kubrick’s second and final original screenplay (co-written by Fear and Desire screenwriter Howard Sackler), and while the film doesn’t strain for profundity the same way Fear and Desire did, it has the same problem with on-the-nose dialogue. But where Fear and Desire was at least going for something different, Killer’s Kiss doesn’t do much to distinguish itself in terms of story or structure. Kubrick is working in well-trod territory, and the characters and story are so thin that the film feels overextended even at 67 minutes. And while Kubrick’s use of narration in later films was frequently essential, Killer’s Kiss’s narration is over-expository.

The film’s most desperate ploy involves Gloria describing her ballet dancer sister’s suicide while the film cuts to a woman dancing. The sequence is almost mind-bogglingly inessential: none of the information gives any insight into Gloria’s character, the images and the narration are only very tenuously tied together, it mostly gives information about a character who is otherwise never mentioned again, and the ballet sequence itself is dull as dishwater. It’s a clumsy piece of exposition, storytelling, and filmmaking that’s jarring in its lack of elegance (ironic, considering the inherent elegance of ballet).

Killer’s Kiss plays best as a demo reel for what Kubrick could do with the camera, which is already considerable. The young director plays well with spatial dynamics and shadows. Early on we understand Davey’s sense of isolation- a shot of him looking into his fishbowl as if he’s searching for any sort of companionship, regardless of how absurd it might seem. Kubrick’s use of deep focus in the scene is also impressive: attentive viewers will notice Gloria’s apartment outside Davey’s window before she’s been properly introduced, giving a sense that the companionship Davey seeks is just within reach. It’s not a great love story or noir (and the upbeat ending rings false), but Kubrick tells it rather well. More impressive still is Vincent’s introduction in a gorgeous chiaroscuro shot, framed as a predator in waiting.

Killer’s Kiss is at its best when Kubrick keeps the action moving forward and the dialogue at a minimum: a fight scene that more or less restages Day of the Fight is well-edited and show’s Kubrick’s willingness to play around when the camera takes Davey’s perspective after he’s been knocked down.  Also exciting, if not entirely successful: the use of a negative rather than developed footage during a strange dream sequence, a dry run for a technique Kubrick would later use for 2001. The film’s final foot-chase is particularly strong - it has a feeling of gritty immediacy that Kubrick would build on in The Killing’ it makes great use of New York alleys, streets, and buildings; and the final fight between Davey and Vincent in a mannequin shop is an early example of his mastery of the medium, at once unsettling and striking. Killer’s Kiss isn’t half as strong as Kubrick’s later work, but it’s a sign of a growing artist figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

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