After putting up my third post on Stanley Kubrick last Thursday, I was still in the mood, so I decided to watch his second feature, Killer’s Kiss. I didn’t plan to write about Kubrick again so soon, but I really liked the film and thought there were some things worth sharing. So here we are again.
Killer’s Kiss isn’t a great film, but it’s very interesting and unusual in a number of ways. Much of what stands out about it is that it was shot on location rather than in studio sets. As film critic Geoffrey O’Brien says, “…shooting on location in New York introduces an element of chance and feeling for actual locations.” He refers to the “…general run-down feeling of all these locations, of these interiors,” and “…the absence of glamour.” He goes on to say “…the presence of New York City in Killer’s Kiss is overwhelming. The city spills into the movie and makes it more than it would otherwise have been.” It’s also important in the development of Kubrick’s career. Killer’s Kiss is a significant advance from his first feature, Fear and Desire (1953), which seems more like a student film now. His next feature, The Killing (1956), is an even greater advance. It’s as though he really knew who he was and what he wanted to do. (My previous post on The Killing can be accessed here.)
The importance of shooting in actual locations can’t be over-estimated. New York location filming was also used to great effect in The Naked City (Jules Dassin – 1948), Side Street (Anthony Mann – 1950), and the opening scenes of Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway – 1947). O’Brien points out that images of the city are not being used as backdrop; they are the foreground, it’s the story that’s the backdrop.
That story is fairly simple. Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a prize fighter on the way down who becomes involved with Gloria Price (Irene Kane), who lives in his building. Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera) is a small-time gangster who runs the Pleasure Land dance hall where Gloria works. He wants to possess her, body and soul. Davey wants to defend her. All three are lonely people. Davey is a typical film noir protagonist; he’s in over his head and his plans to get out are undone by random chance. As Rapallo says near the end, “I didn’t want murder. It’s all gone wrong.” That’s noir in a nutshell.
An interesting detail is that Gloria’s sister, Iris, seen performing an interpretive dance in flashback, was played by Ruth Sobotka, who was Kubrick’s wife at the time. She later was the art director for his next film, The Killing.
Killer’s Kiss is included on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of The Killing. The high definition transfer is stunning. I was struck by the clarity and razor sharpness of the black & white images. The look of the film in general reminded me of the photos Kubrick took for Look magazine in the late 1940s. Compare the photo below from Look with a scene from Killer’s Kiss below that.
An immense amount of detail crowds the frame in scenes shot on Broadway near Times Square. In the frame above, note the signs for Childs restaurant, Pepsi Cola, Admiral Television Appliances, and the theater marquee in the background advertising Tony Curtis in Beachhead. There’s much more. All of this actually existed at the time, and it lends a powerful sense of reality to the film. The scenes in Killer’s Kiss appear to have been shot in natural light, especially the exteriors, without any “Hollywood” lighting. If Kubrick wanted a documentary feel, he got it. In his book Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze ,(Indiana University Press, 2000) author Thomas Allen Nelson, in reference to Killer’s Kiss, points out “…its street locations and neorealist flair for random detail (objects and faces in subways, and on the street and in shop windows of Times Square)… used to create a chaotic public backdrop at odds with private worlds.”
The streets we see are grey and dirty, and mostly empty, except for the scenes shot on Broadway, which are teeming with actual life. Davey’s apartment is stark and mostly empty of decor, except for a few snapshots of his Uncle George’s horse ranch near Seattle, and the odd detail of a machete mounted on the wall. Davey and Gloria’s apartments face each other across an air shaft. We watch Davey watching Gloria through her open window. This voyeuristic aspect is continued in a later scene with Davey, watching from Gloria’s apartment as two policemen enter his apartment looking for him after his boxing manager has been found beaten to death. In an earlier scene, on the morning of his important prize fight, we see Davey peering closely at his face in the mirror, much as fighter Walter Cartier did in Kubrick’s short documentary, Day of the Fight (1951). As Thomas Allen Nelson wrote, “The best moments of Killer’s Kiss combine a voyeuristic and narcissistic definition of character.”
As a fighter, Davey has seen better days. The announcer at that night’s fight describes his boxing career as “…one long promise without fulfillment.” You can see the fight in the following clip, which intercuts the match with shots of a gleeful Rapallo and a reluctant Gloria watching the fight on television in his office at the dance hall. I was especially taken with a moment early in the fight when Davey is knocked down to a sitting position against the ropes, looking stunned as he struggles to get back on his feet. This felt different to me from what we usually see in boxing movies.
After losing the fight, Davey is back home on his bed and has a nightmare in which we’re rushing down a deserted city street, buildings on either side pressing in. This is seen in negative image, and is very reminiscent of parts of the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Davey is startled awake from his dream by Gloria’s screams. Davey rushes to the window to see Gloria struggling with Rapallo.
Davey’s Uncle George has been asking him to visit them in Seattle. Davey has fallen in love with Gloria. They make plans to go to Seattle together. Rapallo means to stop them. Killer’s Kiss is definitely a film noir in style and content. The framing and lighting and the silhouetted figures in the shot below are a prime example.
Another example is the shot below of Gloria climbing the long staircase to the Pleasure Land dance hall. The angle, the light, and her reflection on the walls are just great. Kubrick says the “WATCH YOUR STEP” sign was actually there at the location, a kind of gift, as it were. It’s perfect for a noir narrative.
Film noirs frequently use flashbacks. The transitions to the flashbacks, signified by the cliché of a shimmering optical effect, are the one really clumsy thing about Killer’s Kiss. But it was only his second feature, so this can be forgiven.
An extended rooftop chase sequence precedes the final showdown. Kubrick filmed it in extreme long shot, with Davey a tiny figure in the distance. Subsequent shots bring him and his pursuers a little closer, but not much. We are almost clinically removed from the characters and the action. There’s no music, only some insistent percussion, and the sounds of fog horns from the harbor, and the early morning light. Was this an aesthetic choice for Kubrick, or the most practical way to shoot the scene given a low budget? Whatever the reason, the result is great.
By far the most startling scene in the film, and the one I remembered from seeing Killer’s Kiss years ago, is described by Thomas Allen Nelson as “The film’s most memorable episode, a fight to the death between Davey and Rapallo in a storeroom filled with mannequins, which illustrates Kubrick’s fondness for mixing realist and surrealistic imagery.” The struggle is messy and clumsy, with the two men grabbing anything loose and throwing or swinging it. It feels like the way an actual fight would be. The bizarre setting adds a nightmarish quality.
Of all the locations used in this film, I think the most distinctive was the original Penn Station. It was torn down in 1963, so most of us never had the chance to actually see it. Killer’s Kiss is framed by scenes shot there. The film begins with Davey waiting with his suitcase in the station. In voice-0ver, he begins to tell the story in a series of flashbacks within flashbacks. We return to Davey and Penn Station for the ending. The shot below, under the main title, gives a sense of what that space was like, which also seems to enlarge the scope of the film.
Stanley Kubrick on the set of Killer’s Kiss.
Killer’s Kiss is available for streaming from Amazon, but only in standard definition. I highly recommend the high definition transfer that’s included with The Killing on the Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-ray discs.
This ends my Stanley Kubrick series, for the time being, anyway. I didn’t intend to do four parts, but it took on a life of its own. Thanks for going on the ride with me. — Ted Hicks