Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Kubrick's Killer Instincts

Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
Stanley Kubrick's first foray into film noir, "Killer's Kiss," is acceptable and often crude but certainly an interesting experiment for the late master. Released in 1955, it did not cause much of a stir but it has an almost dreamlike vision of noir in its documentary-like staginess.

The film begins with voice-over narration by a Davy Gordon (Jamie Smith), a lonely New York boxer who seems rather unenthusiastic about his profession. Essentially, he seems tired of fighting, living an isolated existence in a low-rent, bland apartment. He is ready to leave for the farmlands of Seattle with his Uncle George. Across from his bedroom's window, he can see his neighbor Gloria (Irene Kane), a hostess for Pleasureland, a shabby dance hall that only seems to play the instrumental song "Once." Gloria's boss is Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera), a beastly, sad man who is also lonely and insecure. He sees himself as "low and worthless," and is unable to hold on to to the things he loves including Gloria.

One night, a scream is heard in Gloria's apartment, and Davy comes to the rescue. She was apparently attacked by Vincent, whom she wants out of her life. Naturally, Davy and Gloria get intimate and fall in love (rather abruptly, even for a noir tale like this one). Gloria wants to leave Rapallo and the dance hall but Rapallo's rage and jealousy grow stronger, resulting in an accidental murder and the kidnapping of Gloria.

This kind of tale has been told countless times before, and if you have seen "Double Indemnity," you'll have some idea of where the story is headed. Fortunately, Kubrick is a master stylist and employs effective use of shadows, and his screenplay evokes ironic twists of fate. The accidental murder is one brilliantly shot example where two henchmen walk through the inside staircase of the Pleasureland dance hall, ready to kill the man waiting outside the door while the sign "Watch Your Step" is seen overhead. There is also the voyeuristic use of mirrors, particularly Davy's apartment where the reflection in his mirror shows Gloria's nocturnal activities of undressing before her bedroom light is turned off. For Kubrick to show the drab surroundings of these three lead characters, including Rappalo, makes quite a statement about the post-war 1950's where farmlands were a dream to be pursued in lieu of the big city life.

"Killer's Kiss" is often awkwardly edited, with the exception of the climax set on the rooftops of loft buildings and a room full of mannequins. But there are also some terrific visceral moments backed by a tense jazz score, often the counterpoint of any scene involving the Pleasureland setting. One scene, quite avante-garde for its time, is shot as a negative leading to the aforementioned attack on Gloria.

Jamie Smith and Irene Kane are somewhat weak in their acting skills, but the two argument scenes between Irene and Silvera are marvelously dramatic and ironically funny. My favorite line is when Silvera says: "Like the man says, can happiness buy money?" Her response is: "Oh, and you are a comedian too. See what I am missing." There is no question that the best performance is by Silvera as Rapallo, showing a side of pathetic weakness crossed with rage and contempt for his persona. When Gloria refers to him as "an old man who smells bad," you can almost feel his temperature rising.

If nothing else, at a breezy 67 minutes, "Killer's Kiss" is required viewing for anyone who is a Kubrick fan or interested in film noir. It is heavily flawed but often entertaining enough to warrant a viewing. It became the stepping stone to Kubrick's greatness as seen in the far superior "The Killing" (released the following year) and, well, the rest is history.