Since Fear and Desire remains firmly under lock and key at the Kubrick estate, this is the earliest feature of Kubrick’s we have. A fascinatingly seedy B-picture, it has a gritty menace and impact, a strangely detached romance and an overwhelming love for the city that serves as its backdrop. Davy Collins (Jamie Smith) is a New York boxer who’s career end is visibly in sight. Living in the cramped tenements of Greenwich Village, he plans to escape to work on his uncle’s horse ranch, but soon becomes attached to Gloria Price (Irene Kane), a nightclub dancer. But the owner of her workplace, shady gangster boss Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera), wants her for himself. Trouble ensues.
An all-time favourite of mine, the film never really transcends its B-movie trappings, unlike, say, Touch of Evil or Kiss Me Deadly, but is instead a perfect model of its form. A story which holds no surprises, but has a kind of comforting familiarity, it is beautifully scripted with dialogue full of downtown streetwise anachronisms that sounds at once wholly original and vaguely clichéd. The lack of originality in the storyline can be forgiven for the film’s extraordinary execution of it. The film is painted with a grimy kind of beautiful – every bit as much of an ode to New York as Manhattan or Breakfast at Tiffany’s - filmed by Kubrick with the impeccable framing from his days as a still photographer. Visually it’s magnificent – the grainy black-and-white stock capturing the texture of the smoke, brickwork and architecture of the city, capturing both the awesome expanses of the city, over rooftops, in the streets and the intense confinement of the cramped stairwells and one-room apartments.
There is a hopeless romanticism infused throughout the whole film – a portrait of New York how you really wish it to be. An early image of the quite beautiful Gloria drinking from a coffee cup while staring out of her window, surrounded by clothes hanging to dry, small homely ornaments to alleviate the dinginess and mismatched and salvaged pieces of furniture captures something of both the lure and make-do reality of big city living.
The music by Gerald Fried is excellent and almost as good as the photography. A melancholy, wistful love theme plays over the intercutting of both Davy and Gloria coming down separate stairways and is a wonderful introduction to the first meeting of the destined lovers. The big-band jazz music that plays in the dancehall where Gloria works (looped over the main menu) has a sleazy, lustful, leering quality sharply undercutting the translucent veneer of respectability. The suspense sequences are superbly underscored with driving, unrelenting minimalist percussion and nervous, frantic strings and wind.
The film is barely over an hour, and, as you’d expect, there’s barely a slack second. A strange interlude involves Gloria recounting the story of her childhood in voiceover, as Ruth Sobotka, Kubrick’s then-wife, dances ballet on the spotlit stage. It’s a curious scene that could either be given to allow the character a shred of development and depth, or simply an attempt to pad out an unusually short feature. The storyline could quite easily do without it, but at the cost of a less textured and interesting film.
The romance between the two leads seems to be sparked more out of desperation and isolation than a genuine bond (at one point, Gloria tells Davy “It’s a mistake to confuse pity with love.”) and has a cool, casual feel, which makes the customary happy ending something of a surprise. It’s been criticised, but the rest of the plot is so perfunctory, straying from it at the finale would have been both unsatisfactory and somewhat pretentious. Much more convincing is the boxing fight – while perhaps not “the most vicious this side of Raging Bull,” as the cover blurb proclaims, it is impressively brutal and stark.
Occasionally, some slightly ragged editing reveals the inexperience of Kubrick, as if trying to paper over some required shots that were never filmed, and there are a few accidental chuckles – the voice of Uncle George, for one – but some there are some extraordinary touches throughout. The much-praised negative dream sequence of hurtling down empty city streets is certainly innovative, but nowhere near as remarkable as the film’s climatic chase and surprisingly violent final battle in a mannequin warehouse. The unfortunately post-looped dialogue (Irene Kane ultimately dubbed by radio actress Peggy Lobbin) lessens the mediocre performances, but the nostalgic spirit of a lost New York and genre in film-making shines through admirably, and Kubrick had little reason to be embarrassed about this early work.
A fine transfer by MGM of a slightly ragged and grainy print. Deep blacks, clean whites and the full range of inbetween greys are on display, with fine detail throughout and no noticeable artifacts or edge enhancement. The print ranges in condition from very good to mediocre, but is mostly clean from defects.
About as good as this film is capable of sounding, it has a limited dynamic range in the extreme and a distinctly tinny quality. It all comes through clear enough without noticeable distortion, but little to shout about.
A trailer that is missing front and end titles (the screen remains black over music and narration) and a moderately informative 4-page trivia booklet is all that’s available. Not a lot, but neither is a special edition necessary.
An entertaining, alluring B-picture by Kubrick that isn’t simply for completists, presented to fine effect on this technically sound DVD. Certainly recommended.
Jon Robertson has reviewed the Region 1 release of Killer's Kiss - while certainly the weakest of Kubrick's output, it still remains an exciting, fascinating picture, presented on a fine barebones disc.