Synopsis: Stanley Kubrick’s second film, KILLER’S KISS, made the world take notice. The young moviemaker won acclaim for this dazzling film noir about a struggling New York boxer (Jamie Smith) whose life is imperiled when he protects a nightclub dancer (Irene Kane) from her gangster boss (Frank Silvera). “Using his camera as a sandpaper block, Kubrick has stripped away the veneer from the prizefight and dancehall worlds,” the New York Mirror proclaimed.
KILLER’S KISS not only lends considerable insight into future Kubrick classics – such as ‘The Killing’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’- but is also a remarkable film in its own right: the boxing match may be the most vicious this side of ‘Raging Bull’, and the famed final battle remains an action tour-de-force.
Killer’s Kiss 6.5
Aside from ‘Fear and Desire’, which is not yet available on home video, ‘Killer’s Kiss’ was the last remaining Stanley Kubrick movie to watch on my list, after re-watching or discovering all the others in close succession some ten years ago. Then I picked up the DVD at a Record Convention (for what was then a very nice price), and quickly proceeded to discovering the least-frequently mentioned film in Kubrick’s oeuvre.
I’ve seen it 2 or 3 times since (both because I’m Kubrick fan and due to its relatively short length, making it an effortless watch) and it hasn’t grown on me at all. I don’t hate it, but it’s certainly not a masterpiece. In fact, it’s by far my least favourite of all the Kubrick films – and there are a few that I feel pretty ambivalent about (i.e. Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut).
It’s just that ‘Killer’s Kiss’ has very little else to offer other than style: the acting is decent but pedestrian, the characters are hardly endearing and the sketchy screenplay wouldn’t be out of place on a television programme of the era. If it weren’t for the fact that it is a Kubrick film, it would likely be forgotten by time like so many others.
But Kubrick brought style to it. Being a photographer, and a perfectionist, his eye for framing a picture was already evident here; the deep black and white shots of New York City made it appear three-dimensional, larger than life, gritty, dirty, dangerous. It perfectly evokes its “Concrete Jungle” epithet and sets the tone for the story nicely.
He had previously made a few short documentaries, including a boxing one, and that approach is exemplified in the way that he shot the boxing match at the beginning of ‘Killer’s Kiss’. Boxing is a revolting “sport” to me, but I admire just how exceptionally well this was put together; one would be hard-pressed to watch that sequence and think that it was staged. In fact, it looked so real that almost everything else in the picture wilted in comparison.
Of course, had it a few powerhouse performances, perhaps ‘Killer’s Kiss’ would have been invigorated. Unfortunately, all of the actors are of middling quality, getting by but not contributing much to their roles or to the picture. The only standout was Frank Silvera as the dancehall manager. He wasn’t exceptional, but at least he had some sort of presence – whereas the others were featureless, as appealing as plaster.
Even the final, drawn-out, chase and fight left me wanting; the most interesting part of it was the landscape, because Kubrick made each setting larger than life, dwarfing what should have been the focal point of those scenes: the protagonist and antagonists. Unfortunately, even in the final moments, in the most involved combat, the mannequin factory was more of an eye-catcher than the duellists: I was always looking around this bizarre room filled with plastic people.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
All in all, though, ‘Killer’s Kiss’ is hardly a terrible film. But it’s neither an example of great storytelling or a good indicator that Stanley Kubrick would eventually become one of the world’s most accomplished and respected filmmakers. It shows glimmers of skill, granted, but I have no doubt that Kubrick would have done considerably better even 5 or 10 years later. As it stands, however, ‘Killer’s Kiss’ is mostly filler with little killer.
Post scriptum: I was planning to watch and write up ‘Fear and Desire’, Kubrick’s first film, but my (unofficial) copy is so poor that the dialogue isn’t synched properly. Although Kubrick himself hated the film and wanted it destroyed, I can’t wait to finally see it – but I want it to have the best possible chance when I do.
Ironically, I was sitting down to watch it the very day that it was announced for release on home video later this year – for the first time! So, given the terrible shape my copy is in, I decided to wait until the fateful day that the Blu-ray is finally in my eager hands.