Killer’s Kiss (Kubrick, 1955)


Stanley Kubrick’s second film barely qualifies as a feature at just 64 minutes but despite the director being at the base of a steep learning curve that would see his status elevated to that of a cinema giant in the coming decades, Killer’s Kiss (1955) is a strong indicator of what was to follow.

The plot is a fairly hackneyed one: a well-intentioned good guy falls head over heels for a pretty blonde but he can’t have her – not unless he extricates her from a tight spot. Her boyfriend, you see, is a slimy gangster who likes to rough up her edges and doesn’t take fondly to the attentions of other men.

Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a boxer at the end of his string; his glory days are memories long stored in cotton wool. But Davey can’t help taking an interest in the attractive woman, Gloria Price (Irene Kane), who lives in an adjacent Manhattan apartment. With visual access to her through his window affording the hint of violence within, he feels compelled to intervene after his latest fruitless bout leaves him licking his wounds and a little ga-ga to boot.

There’s nothing especially polished about any of the performances; in fact, they generally verge on mediocre. The reason for watching Killer’s Kiss, of course, is Kubrick. A young director experimenting with form – and acting as his own cinematographer – he manages to create a series of brilliant visual moments.

Davey’s fight provides the first highlight; it’s shot with genuine intensity, mostly from canvas level, and littered with plenty of fast cuts. Blink and you’ll miss some of the best bits, like a glove point-of-view shot as it delivers a savage blow. Numerous scenes in which Kubrick scrutinises his performers from close range can be admired for the clever composition and interplay of light and shade.

A scene in an alleyway, as Davey’s manager is about to be mugged by a couple of underlings dispatched by Rapallo (Frank Silvera), is a brilliant evocation of textbook film-noir aesthetics as interpreted by Kubrick; in a moment of clever disorientation, he creates an impression of fluid, flesh-and-blood silhouettes converging on their hapless victim.

Kubrick saves his best for last though, with a rooftop chase against a stunning New York skyline followed by a final confrontation in a mannequin factory. Here, primal, masculine forces come to the fore, with dialogue virtually eliminated. After all is said, the outcome boils down to brute force to settle the stakes, the eerily vacant stares of the asexual witnesses hemming the combatants into a fight neither can escape without risking their life.

Killer’s Kiss is not vintage Kubrick by any means; placed side by side with his later work, it may even be regarded as downright mediocre. But aided by a superb Gerald Fried score, it remains a compelling work nonetheless; a film to savour with the wisdom of hindsight, for here was an early flash of genius revealed in miniature.


Fallen Angel (Preminger, 1945)


The set-up is classic noir: an anonymous stranger, Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), flush out of funds, tumbles out of the latest bus. He’s a con-man with the gift of the gab. He saunters into the local, almost deserted café where the owner, an old guy, Pop (Percy Kilbride), is worried about his erratic waitress; she has a penchant for disappearing for a stretch, it seems, explaining as much to a couple of locals including former New York City cop, Judd (Charles Bickford). But as Stanton mutely sits down in wait for a coffee, the luscious Stella (Linda Darnell), a classic femme fatale strolls in, belligerent, mouthy and unrepentant.

Naturally Stanton is drawn to Stella like a magnet. In this town he’s got opposition but without money not even close to a headstart. He sees an advertisement in a motel window for a travelling charlatan and talks his way into their scheme, drumming up public support with the persuasion of his liveliest discourse.

Still, the dividends aren’t enough to lure Stella from this dead-beat place with dreams of a life of finer confections, so he goes in search of a more lucrative prospect. Homely young wallflower June Mills (Alice Faye) fits the bill. Can Stanton con her out of her fortune with a temporary marriage before a quick getaway to be with the girl he truly desires?

Otto Preminger’s magnificent noir, Fallen Angel (1945), made just a year after his famous early masterpiece Laura (1944), sets up a familiar quandary for the hapless male: Purity vs. temptation, saint vs. sinner. Preminger’s subtle manoeuvring of the players within the frame is akin to a chess champion whose mastery is so taken for granted you barely register the genius of every minute decision. His love of moving the camera in for telling close-ups adds much portent to the drama and the unspoken layers in between.

Sure, Darnell is no Gene Tierney but her every word feels twisted with a sensual, frayed, dissolving heat that any man would find hard to resist. Andrews, fresh off Laura brings a different but no less convincing resolve to his portrayal of Stanton, a man used to living rough with desperation a constant companion, and negotiating himself away from the scene of a crime. Bickford and Kilbride are brilliant in classic character roles as two more locals who can barely keep their eyes off Stella every time she moves a muscle.

Harry Kleiner’s adaptation of Marty Holland’s novel has wonderful nuance, for the outcome here is no forgone conclusion. Poor June, stuck under the thumb of her meddling older sister, is resolute in believing in the best humans have to offer, evidence to the contrary be damned. She falls hard for Stanton, even if suspecting deep down that his motivations can’t match hers for their transparency. But for this despairing fallen angel, persistence just might lead to resurrection in this, one of the great film noirs, a landmark of the genre molded by the hands of incomparable artists, with Preminger presiding over all.