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.