BLIND SPOT: ‘Killer’s Kiss’

Killer's KissSome Blind Spots aren’t very embarrassing in and of themselves, but rather only in a certain context.  Like Killer’s Kiss for example.  If you were to tell someone that you hadn’t seen it, they’d probably look at you funny and say, ‘Well, I’ve never even heard of it!’  Which is fair.

But when I tell someone that Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director—which I tend to do in casual conversation, at parties, on dates, in line at the bank, at job interviews, while getting prepped for major surgery, etc—they immediately assume I’ve seen every Stanley Kubrick film ever made.  Because if you’re calling someone your favorite director, that assertion should probably be based upon the whole of their output.  And, until recently, I hadn’t seen every available Kubrick.  It was completely and utterly humiliating* to admit that I hadn’t seen every single movie ever made by my favorite director—a director whose oeuvre spans a scant thirteen (!) films.  In the words of the immortal George Eliot: ‘WTF?’

In part, Stanley Kubrick himself was to blame for my Blind Spot.  For starters, you should know I’m not a superstitious person.  I think that superstitions are a complete load of dingoes’ kidneys, and are only ‘proven’ true when superstitious people subconsciously sabotage themselves as a result of their illogical and irrational belief.  That being said, the way Stanley Kubrick died was just a little bizarre to me, enough so that I could entertain several illogical and irrational beliefs for a finite period of time.  He had worked for years and years on Eyes Wide Shut, and the very weekend, the very weekend he delivered the final cut of it to Warner Brothers:  —BAM!  Croaked.  Belly-up.  Kicked the bucket.  Off into that good night, wandering through the Elysian Fields until finding that big celestial editing suite in the sky.  Once I heard the news that sad, sad weekend in 1999, it was incredibly obvious to me: if you finish a project large in importance and scope, you immediately die.

What could be larger and more important than examining the filmography of the greatest director in the history of cinema?**  Obviously, the very second that I finished that thirteenth (!) and final film, I would immediately slip on cow poo, try to avoid falling by grabbing the nearest object which would turn out to be a live electrical wire, and die in a sizzling fit of soaring, poo-flavored sparks.  The imagined scenario differed depending on my mood—suffocation via a too-powerful Roomba, a sudden flash mob of stampeding lemmings—but the end result was always my swift demise.  So, I couldn’t watch Killer’s Kiss, you see, for my very life was at stake.

Superstitions, we all know, are complete hogwash, but just to be on the safe side, I recently shifted my reasoning around a bit.  I now think as long as there is an unwatched film from any director widely-acknowledged as a master, I am probably safe.  And, sure enough, the very second that Killer’s Kiss ended, my dog didn’t suddenly gain sentience and slash my throat in revenge for only pretending to throw the ball all those times.  Nothing much happened, really.

Now that you know the background of my relationship to Killer’s Kiss, we can have an actual discussion of the content of Stanley Kubrick’s second film.  The plot?  It’s barely there: Davey, a boxer, becomes involved with Gloria, a woman trying to flee her criminal boss/lover, and flee they do.  This takes 67 minutes.  If I were a filmgoer in 1955 walking out of a first-run screening of Killer’s Kiss, I wouldn’t be assuming that Stanley Kubrick would turn out to be a master director.  There is little in the picture that suggests the greatness of even Paths of Glory, made just two years later.  But I would be telling people about this incredible new cinematographer on the movie scene.

Killer’s Kiss is clearly one of the best-shot films noirs ever.  In a noir, characters exist in the spaces between shadows, urban landscapes radiate darkness, the night somehow always leaks into bright spaces.  It almost seems as if Kubrick purposefully chose a film noir to cut his teeth, as it provided more opportunity for dynamic lighting choices.

Let me go on a bit of a tangent here about what I mean when I say a film is ‘well-shot.’  I suppose the average moviegoer uses it as shorthand to say that a film is has pretty scenery, or lush sets, or is very sharp, or has color filters, etc.  (Here is one of my favorite Academy Award acceptance speeches.)  But just because a film is pretty doesn’t mean it is well-shot.  Only if the pretty images serve the themes and mood of the film can the term be used.  For example, I think Slumdog Millionaire is an atrociously photographed film, because Anthony Dod Mantle’s ultra-glossy, postcard-perfect images seek to make the stomach-churning violence on the screen more palatable, so that Danny Boyle can have his ‘feel-good film of the decade’.***

Contrast this with Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.  I frequently cite this X-rated masterpiece as one of the best-shot films of all time, and not a single frame of the movie is pretty to look at.  Kubrick’s wide-angle grotesquerie subtly, brilliantly underscores his intricate layering of themes.  The photographic choices are in service of the movie’s theses, as opposed to existing aesthetically apart from them.

Okay, but what does all this mean for Killer’s Kiss?  It doesn’t have any themes, or at least none deep enough to interest me.  But it does have a mood.  Its characters exist in a typical noir world, so we can see that Kubrick’s camera choices serve to create and sustain the atmosphere required of a successful noir.  In fact, Killer’s Kiss reminded me of Barry Lyndon more than any other Kubrick film.  Consider what film critic Jim Emerson has to say about the character of Redmond Barry:

“Barry is a prisoner of mise-en-scène, trapped in a work of art.  One senses that Kubrick is ennobling and immortalizing this fictional rascal Barry through the very act of creating him on film.  Perhaps this is the closest Kubrick comes to displaying something like mercy or compassion toward one of the pitiful creatures he enshrines in his cinematic ice palaces—palaces in whose rooms the past, present, and future often coexist, as if time were not a process but a place, a maze.”

I felt much the same about the characters in Killer’s Kiss.  They seem to exist in this noirish world because it is the world Kubrick created for them, and he lords over them as God to Adam and Eve.  Which is why I particularly loved this shot, early in the film, as Davey feeds his beloved fish:

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Once I saw this image, I knew what Kubrick was up to.

Pretty much every shot in the film is similarly brilliant.  I am haunted by the immense staircase, cautioning its users to watch their step:

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The manager of Davey’s gym, lit from underneath, seeming to exist in a world separate from the players:

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Two hoods stalking a man in an alley, all characters in silhouette:

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A ballerina upon a stage, counterpointing Gloria’s narration of her upbringing:

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The climactic fight in a mannequin factory:

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(Another tangent.  There is a masterful scene where Davey is talking on the phone in his apartment.  Gloria’s place is just across the way, close enough to illuminate his own.  As Davey moves about his apartment, we see Gloria’s room reflected in a mirror, so not only do we have Davey in the shot, but also what he’s looking at:

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In sixty years, you’d think that cinematic technique would have progressed, instead of regressing into the one-thing-at-a-time quickly-point-and-shoot methods typical of blockbuster directors like Nolan, Bay, Berg, Favreau, et al.  And this was only Kubrick’s second film!  Okay, end of rant.)

From a purely technical standpoint, the lighting and framing are impeccable.  But every shot seems to enmesh the characters in Kubrick’s sinister, murky world—just as Lyndon is trapped within a stately work of art, Jack Torrence is trapped within the twisted tangle of the overlook, Gomer Pyle is trapped within the confining rigidity of the US Marine Corps, etc.  So even here, in Kubrick’s sophomore effort, a shot was never crafted simply to be a well-crafted shot; Kubrick’s recurring theme of characters overwhelmed by their environments was already in full swing, buttressed by his photographic choices.

Huh.  So now that I think about it, maybe I would have assumed that Kubrick would turn out to be a master director.  There are quite enough clues here to suggest the genius lying in wait.  The film was obviously a simple sort of experiment for the young director, but an incredibly successful one, as it goes.

I guess there was quite a bit to talk about in regards to Killer’s Kiss.  Well, that’s Kubrick for you.  Major Kubrick or minor Kubrick, there’s a lot to mine.

Kubrick - Killer's Kiss

*I’m overstating this obviously.  It wasn’t quite that bad.  It’s far more humiliating to admit that at one point I owned a Spice Girls album.  Er, hypothetically.

**Besides all of the obvious things that probably spring immediately to mind.

***I blame Boyle for this, not Mantle, who was doing his job.

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