Killer's Kiss: A Kubrick Kind of Noir


It is my understanding that every film noir was under an obligation to include a monologue where the protagonist reflects on the triviality of life and the events which we humans hold most important, and Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss takes care of that right off the bat. “It’s crazy how you can get yourself in a mess sometimes and not even be able to think about it with any sense, and yet not be able to think about anything else”, boxer Davey Gordon reflects as he smokes a cigarette and waits for his train, and if this philosophical contemplation alone coupled with the soft jazz the genre is notorious for doesn’t grab your attention and keep you hooked for the remainder of this sixty-seven minutes long movie, maybe film noir isn’t for you, my friend.

The story, as mentioned above, starts off with protagonist Davey Gordon, now retired boxer, contemplating the strange events he was forced into the previous three days. And then, naturally, we’re back in time to a scene of him getting ready for his fight with Kid Rodriguez, while in the apartment directly in front of his, Gloria Price, a dancer for hire, is getting ready for work. Gloria is picked up by her boss, Vinnie Rapallo, while Davey heads to his fight, which he loses terribly. His fight is being watched on TV by none other than Gloria and her boss, who in isolation, tries tenaciously to kiss her. At night, back at their respective apartments, Davey and Gloria are both exhausted, although probably for different reasons. Gloria is visited by her boss once again, who in desperation, becomes a bit more unfriendly, and her screams awaken Davey who runs to her rescue, but not before Vinnie makes his escape. A romantic relationship develops quickly between the two neighbors and they decide to skip town together, while Vinnie tries to prevent them from doing exactly that.

Pretty much just like his first feature film, the 1953 Fear and Desire, Killer’s Kiss was financed mostly by friends and family. Discouraged by Fear and Desire’s poor revenues, Stanley’s uncle refused to fund his nephew’s second film, so he instead turned to a pharmacist by the name of Morris Bousel, who was rewarded with a co-producer credit for his financial contributions. The cast consisted mostly of some very unknown actors, like Frank Silvera, who had a lead role in Fear and Desire, and even Kubrick’s wife at the time, playing a minor role. The movie had significantly better reception than its predecessor, but Stanley Kubrick never spoke about it much, neither in praise nor disdain, and perhaps we owe that to the fact that, against his wishes, the United Artists required the film to be recut with a happy ending, an ending that is as disappointing as it is pretentious.

The story is nothing revolutionary, and maybe even a bit plain compared to noir classics such at The Maltese Falcon, but what really stands out about Killer’s Kiss is its photography and mise-en-scène. Once a photographer for Look magazine, Stanley Kubrick’s talent with the camera was very distinct here. Three scenes that are notable for their cinematographical brilliance are the fight scene, where the camera moves just as unsteadily as the fighters do, creating a feeling of turbulence and uneasiness for the viewer, the scene where Vinnie’s thugs corner the man in the alley, and the camera stands still while the man cowers and the thugs tower over him is shot so masterfully that you feel the imminence of danger and the fright of the prey, and last of all is the pursuit on the rooftops of those abandoned buildings, a scene which doesn’t emphasize fear, but merely the randomness of murder committed by amateurs.

While his debut resembled to a large degree an independent film, Stanley Kubrick’s second feature film saw him venturing into more conventional territory. Film noir was the trend at the times and Kubrick’s take at the genre is both unique and familiar. Killer’s Kiss tells a story that is interesting but not groundbreaking, yet still manages to keep the viewer hooked with its gripping jazzy score and some of the finest photography of the era, hindered only by a slightly dissasitfying ending. Verdict? Great movie.

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