Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a New York prize-fighter. He’s nearing the age of 30 and his career as a boxer is coming to an end.
We meet Davey as he is waiting for a train at the station, and he pulls us into a flashback that begins in his apartment, where he is mentally preparing for his next enormous match against a rival boxer named Kid Rodriguez.
Through his window and across the courtyard he sees Gloria (Irene Kane), a taxi dancer who is getting ready for work. The two leave the building at the same time, but they don’t speak. Davey heads off to his fight and Gloria is picked up by her boss, Vincent (Frank Silvera).
As Vincent loses his big fight, Gloria fends off the advances of her sleazy boss… and later that night, Vincent hears screams coming from Gloria’s apartment.
Killer’s Kiss is the second feature-length film directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick, who also wrote the original screenplay. The film is only preceded in his filmography by Fear and Desire and a few short documentaries.
Though this film appears very early in Kubrick’s filmography, his genius is already well apparent here. In addition to writing, producing and directing the film, he also served as the cinematographer and editor. It’s hard to give anyone but Kubrick credit for this film’s effectiveness, because he was so wholly engulfed in the process of creating it and seems to have had control over all aspects of it.
I don’t think it would be possible for me to give enough praise to this film’s cinematography. There isn’t a single shot in Killer’s Kiss that isn’t beautifully framed, and the contrast is phenomenal. As a photographer with experience creating such effects in the darkroom with still photographs, there are very few things that I appreciate more than a film that’s beautifully contrasted and lit, and the photography is absolutely striking here. I found it difficult to tear my eyes away from the screen for even a second due to the visual appeal alone.
According to IMDb trivia, the film’s budget was very low and Kubrick failed to obtain permits for many of the on-location scenes in New York. He had to be very sly about filming these scenes, sometimes hiding in a car nearby to get the shot. This explains the naturalistic feel that the film holds, but at the same time makes the visual beauty of it all the more remarkable.
Technical difficulties also meant that Kubrick had to add all sound and dialogue in post, which many viewers seem to take issue with, but the only problem I had with this was in Gloria’s stiff dialogue. One may argue that the film’s blocks of near-silence make Kubrick’s technical difficulties incredibly obvious and add no value to the film, but having not learned of the technical difficulties until after watching the film, I had assumed that they were all deliberate. For me, they added to the film’s sense of melancholy and suspense… but to each their own, I guess!
The film’s pace in the beginning is deliberately slow. While I was drawn in by this, viewers who favor more frantic openings may find it dull. I encourage you to wait it out if you’re this type of viewer. The pace picks up greatly about 20 minutes in, transforming the mood into that of a thrilling noir.
Though the story is somewhat standard of the noir genre, the sense of suspense is greatly bolstered by the menacing performance of Frank Silvera. Jamie Smith’s performance is decidedly more understated than Silvera’s and neither of the characters is particularly meaty, but both men are incredibly solid leads for the film.
Realistic performances from the two leading men in combination with Kubrick’s artistry making for a very riveting watch.
Avid fans of Kubrick’s later work may not enjoy it for much more than the opportunity to observe his early craft. While researching the film I saw a number of self-professed Kubrick experts spew the “This film sucks, but the cinematography is kind of cool” spiel. Fans of noir like myself just might love the film as a whole. Or maybe I’ll be the only person in the world who loves it! Regardless, the score: 4.5/5