Friday 29 March 2019

Kubism, Part 2:
Killer's Kiss (1955)

It's been an underwhelming start for a so-called visionary genius, but in the hope of digging up something watchable I hereby present the third instalment of my shallow dive into the career of tonsorially unconcerned director Stanley Kubrick. Under the Fisher Price microscope this time is Kubo's second feature film, Killer's Kiss. Is he any good yet? Let's find out! (short answer: almost)
Scene: A man impatiently paces the concourse of New York's Penn Station, smoking like it's the 1950s (which, in fairness, it is) and talking without moving his lips. No, he's not a ventriloquist: it's one of those voiceovers they do in film noir all the time, letting us know that - in what would become one of Kubrick's favourite themes - he is a man and he has fucked up. The story unfolds in flashback, and what follows is an unremarkable stab at a genre which was on its last legs at the time. Kubrick would later claim the story was irrelevant and he just needed the directing experience, and that's crystal clear on viewing: Killer's Kiss uses all the film noir tropes in a disappointingly uninspired way (smoke, venetian blinds and shadows feature heavily), but clues to the future genius of its director occasionally pop up and punch you on the nose to wake you up.

The station-based framing device is the first fumble: where, say, Double Indemnity began at the end with Walter Neff shot, bleeding out and desperate to confess, immediately hooking you into the story, Killer's Kiss has a bloke waiting for a train. Yowzers, how could he possibly have ended up in such an incredible and unique pickle, I can't wait to find out. Turns out he's a boxer by the name of Davey Gordon, played by the kind of actor you hire when you can't afford Burt Lancaster. Preparing for a fight that evening he gazes into a mirror, imagining what he'll look like when he's had his features pulped into face soup - the first of a handful of shots Kubrick lifts from his own documentary Day Of The Fight as if we wouldn't notice (tbf, hardly anyone did because hardly anyone saw it).
The setup goes on to introduce Davey's sexy neighbour, Gloria: a private dancer, a dancer for money, any old music will do - not unlike Davey himself, whose fancy footwork also regularly entertains an undiscerning audience. Naturally Gloria ends up dragging Davey into a whole heap of trouble - not for nothing does the poster's lurid tagline shriek "Her soft mouth was the road to sin-smeared violence!", although that might be over-egging the pudding a bit. Presumably "Her boss's wandering hands meant some guy ended up on platform four" wouldn't have sold as many tickets. Censor-friendly sex, violence and mistaken identity follow, until a bizarre climax that sees Davey and the handsy man lobbing dismembered mannequins at each other in a warehouse, before the tantalising conundrum of what happens at Penn Station is wrapped up to absolutely nobody's surprise.

While the content is unexceptional, Kubrick does play around with the form a little, and that's what we're here for. Unbelievably he still hasn't mastered the 180 degree rule, more interested instead in filming Cheap Burt Lancaster's face through a goldfish bowl in an attempt to find a new way to show a schnook trapped in his own tedious existence, but there are some great moments. Davey's big fight, which he loses because he is a man in a film noir and therefore a loser, is shot with gusto: Stan gets his camera right in there with the boxers and makes you feel every punch. It's not quite Raging Bull, but the desire to put the audience into a situation rather than just show it to them is born here, and would come of age inside Dave Bowman's helmet in 2001 and Danny Torrance's maze run in The Shining.

The gear change between the first and second act is our first exposure to some choice Kubrickian surrealism. Davey dreams of flying down the deserted streets of New York, and we see his point of view but it's in negative, the effect foreshadowing 2001's stargate sequence but at a fraction of the duration, which is a good job because 2001's stargate sequence is almost as long as the whole of Killer's Kiss. It's deliberately jarring but a little vague for such an unambitious narrative: does it represent the desire to escape? The interchangeable nature of light and dark? A titanic fuckup in the processing lab? And Kubrick's next trick isn't entirely original but it is unusual: a flashback within the flashback, forcing the audience to stay on its toes and making Killer's Kiss the Inception of its time.
There is some legit stunning photography in here, shot by Kubrick himself. A scene in which a pair of dimbulb hitmen whack the wrong guy is a staggering work of composition and lighting: three silhouettes shrink slowly into the disappearing perspective of a back alley, Stan cuts away while the dark deed is done, then two silhouettes return towards the camera, their job apparently done. Shooting almost entirely on location in New York, Kubrick also gifts us some lovely time capsule stuff of Times Square at night, and you wonder how someone who would become such a control freak coped with all those randoms wandering through his shot as if they lived there or something. But he does achieve a palpable sense of the city's oppressiveness, with characters hemmed into tiny apartments, narrow streets and corridors, or loomed over by pitiless architecture.

Despite those flashes of brilliance, most of Killer's Kiss is unexceptional. But Kubrick has at least lost the arse-clenching pretentiousness of Fear And Desire, and is in effect still learning on the job. Today's auteurs cut their teeth on TV and in commercials, but 60 years ago you had to do the directorial equivalent of standing in front of the class and showing your working out, which is what this is. We're watching Stanley Kubrick become Stanley Kubrick, and that's never going to be anything less than fascinating.
Next time: The Kube finally pulls his finger out and makes a film with a running time of over 75 minutes. Join me soon for The Killing! (Not the Danish TV series. Or the American TV series based on the Danish TV series. Or the film with Lee Marvin, that's The Killers. Or the 2010 Ashton Kutcher / Katherine Heigl action comedy, that's Killers. The fuck is wrong with you?)

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