A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – Killer’s Kiss & The Killing

By Joe Gastineau

It’s a widely held view that Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece is Paths of Glory. That remarkable film started a run that continued with the likes of Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. No matter which way you shake it, that is quite the hot streak. This sequence of work established the view of Mr. Kubrick that continues to hold sway today, that of a meticulous cinematic maverick, who managed the staggering feat of retaining full creative control of his projects, whilst maintaining full studio backing. However, before Paths of Glory sent him over the top, young Stanley made two very different films under very different circumstances. Standing very much in the shadow of his post-Paths of Glory oeuvre are his first two films proper, the runts of the litter if you will: Killer’s Kiss and The Killing.

Choosing to ignore his little-seen Fear and Desire (as Kubrick himself would rather), Killer’s Kiss is regarded as Kubrick’s true debut. Far removed from the multi million dollar budgets and near unlimited timeframe he would later be indulged with, Killer’s Kiss was shot from the hip and on a budget of $40k borrowed from a pharmacist uncle.

Killer’s Kiss follows glassjawed palooka Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), who with his career in the ring coming to an end, has one last shot at the big time in the shape of a welterweight clash with young upstart Kid Rodriguez. As befitting of Gordon’s unfulfilled pugilistic potential, he takes what can only be described as a right royal pasting. With his gloves well and truly hung up, Gordon plans to start a new life over, ideally with his neighbour Gloria Price (Irene Kane) who works as a taxi dancer at an off-Broadway dancehall. As is invariably the way with such things, a big fat obstacle stands in the way of the young couple’s happiness – Gloria’s unsavoury boss Vincent (Frank Silvera) – who wants her all to himself.

What follows is all fairly routine as far as noir plots go, yet the film is punctuated by some rather exquisite directorial touches from the young Kubrick. Shot mostly in a hand held, raw and naturalistic style, it is at odds with the rest of Kubrick’s canon. Shooting without permits on the streets of New York lends much of this film an almost vérité feel. The short boxing sequence is absolutely stunning, using daring point of view perspective and subtle jump cuts to convey the disorientating first round battering Rodriguez dishes out. Elsewhere, Kubrick stages sequences that display, even at such an early point in his career, a total command of film grammar. Most notable are the chiaroscuro murder sequence composed almost entirely in shadow set against grim, indifferent tenement blocks and the frenzied climatic face-off between Davey and Vincent in an East Side mannequin factory.

These moments however, ultimately struggle to compensate for the sketchy script (co-written by future Pulitzer award winner Howard Sackler), the flat, uninteresting characters and the lifeless dialogue. The last fault is not helped by the fact that entire film is dubbed in post production, Kubrick having fired his entire sound crew when he found their boom mikes intrusive to his complex lighting set ups. Ultimately, the film is uneven and piecemeal, failing to quite live up to the thrilling promise of it’s poster’s hyperbolic tagline ‘Her Soft Mouth Was the Road to Sin-Smeared Violence!’ Which is a shame, as everyone likes a bit of sin-smeared violence.

Kubrick’s follow up, The Killing, sees him taking on the heist genre, with more than five times the budget of Killer’s Kiss, the backing of a major studio and a reasonable-sized star in Sterling Hayden.  The Killing marked the first time Kubrick worked from a previously existing text, adapted as it was from Lionel White’s novel Clean Break. This trend continued right through to Eyes Wide Shut, making Killer’s Kiss the only film he made from an original source.

Hayden stars as career crook Johnny Friendly, a man with a complex plan to relieve a racecourse of $2m. To pull off such a daring raid, he’s going to need help, which comes in the shape of some character actors. This motley crew includes Ted de Corsia as a bent cop, Elisha Cook Jr. as a neurotic racecourse teller, Kola Kwariani as a barely comprehensible Ukrainian wrestler and the fantastically lurid Timothy Carey as a creepy sharpshooter. The heist is elaborate and planned down to the very last detail, but suffice to say, when a greedy dame gets involved, the whole enterprise goes south.

The Killing is most notable for it’s (at the time) audacious narrative structure, choosing to build to the robbery in linear fashion, but then show the action itself from various different viewpoints. It’s old hat now, thanks to Tarantino, who tipped his hat in The Killing’s direction with Reservoir Dogs, but here it feels as bravado as the snatch and grab itself. With the script of Killer’s Kiss its biggest weakness, Kubrick brings in pulp novelist Jim Thompson to craft some fantastic barbs, which in the mouths of pros like Hayden, Cook Jr. and the delectable Marie Windsor, bring a real poetry to these underworld ne’er do wells. As fresh and vital as these elements are, the studio demanded Kubrick add a voiceover, fearing audiences wouldn’t get it. As a result, the narration at times contradicts what is happening on screen, serving to undermine the intricate narrative structure Kubrick so carefully crafted.

The Killing died on its larcenous arse at the box office and the studio buried it. It did, however, do enough to bring Kubrick to the attention of star-on-the-rise Kirk Douglas, who on the strength of The Killing, signed on for Paths of Glory. The rest, as they say is history.

So, what do these films tell us about the young Kubrick?

Killer’s Kiss, in approach at least, stands out as the least Kubrickian film in the man’s body of work, born as it was out the limitations of a miniscule budget. It feels odd watching it with Kubrick’s later films in mind. The idea of a wet behind the ears Kubrick shooting scenes on the run amongst the denizens of Broadway seems a million miles away from the same man demanding the 457th take from an exhausted Shelley Duvall on the set of The Shining. It seems that this stripped back approach to film making did not suit Kubrick and he did not care to return to it later in his career, preferring to work under almost laboratory levels of control, shooting millions of feet of film and exploring the piece in the edit.

The Killing feels like Kubrick’s straightest film. Even though it is inventive and brilliantly constructed from all the right elements, on the whole it is curiously devoid of that personal stamp. As a result, it stands as an intelligent and hugely entertaining genre piece that was a great calling card for Kubrick’s natural film making talent, rather than an artistic statement.

Neither film does anything to dispel the notion that emotionally, Kubrick is a cold fish. Both films take a detached, almost dispassionate view of the human drama unfolding on screen. The ending of The Killing certainly backs up the persistent charge levelled at Kubrick for being a pessimistic old so and so. Even the happy ending of Killer’s Kiss feels like deficiency of the script rather than Kubrick caring so much for Davey and Gloria that he simply had to see them make it to the final reel.

Both films serve to remind us of Kubrick’s natural talent, even if they don’t resonate in quite the same way as the rest of his work. It’s fascinating to see an artist working things out, toying with ideas and finding his style. Viewed through this prism, Killer’s Kiss and The Killing stand both as a monument to Kubrick’s as yet unrealised potential and as two eminently watchable genre pieces in their own right.

The lad has talent. He’ll probably go far.

Joe Gastineau is a freelance writer whose work can be found at The Wooden Kimono.  
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2 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – Killer’s Kiss & The Killing

    • Indeed – Welles was asked late in his career if there were any up-and-coming directors to watch out for, and Kubrick was the one he named.

      I admit I hadn’t seen either of these early films, but it’s remarkable how some of the photography above looks so unquestionably Kubrick.

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