Gerald Fried

Killer’s Kiss (1955, Stanley Kubrick)

The chase scene in Killer’s Kiss, which occupies almost the entire third act, is a marvel. From the moment Jamie Smith jumps out the window and hits the pavement, the film leaps beyond the potential Kubrick has instilled it with until that point. Before, there’s a lot of great low budget filmmaking, there’s a lot of great edits (I love the way Kubrick sets the viewer up to expect a cut, then holds off for a second–at least one time, he does it by cutting on a sudden noise, then repeating the noise, but not the edit). It’s a beautifully made film. The way Kubrick substitutes environment sound and music for conversation–again filming without sound–it’s an abstract viewing experience.

Kubrick’s able to create a film without much of a script. The writing’s fine, some of the conversations interesting; it’s not about the plot though. Smith’s silent voyeurism–in his apartment full of family pictures, Kubrick introduces a character of almost limitless potential depth. It’s a beautiful move, one mirrored a little by Frank Silvera’s dialogue defining him quickly, but Smith gets that scene riding the subway, before reading the letter from his uncle, and the character’s whole life becomes immediately clear. It isn’t a hard life to discern. Kubrick keeps Killer’s Kiss very, very simple. The story can’t distract.

There’s also–same idea, different execution–the ballet sequence as Irene Kane explains her situation to Smith. Instead of using a flashback or just expository dialogue, Kubrick not only gives the viewer the information, he also produces a whole character–the ballet dancer is, presumably, Kane’s sister. The narration of the dance makes the dancer more sympathetic than Kane by the end. It’s beautiful execution and a great narrative shortcut. It deepens Kane while making space the film didn’t indicate it had for the sister.

Much like the boxing match, the ballet is one of Killer’s Kiss‘s memorable sequences. The end in the mannequin factory, of course, is also a memorable sequence… but these scenes aren’t required for the story to work. They’re Kubrick showing off. The boxing match is maybe the least narratively important, but it’s during the mannequin sequence where–with his cuts to the decapitated heads and hanging hands–Kubrick’s putting his talent on display.

As for the end, which I started with and promptly lost….

Kubrick shoots with an unbelievable deep focus. The endless, empty streets, a visual reference to Smith’s earlier dream, quiet the film. It should be loud, but there’s nothing around to make a sound except Smith’s running feet. The chase across the roof is seeing the bridge in the background or watching Smith run the perimeter of the frame. By the time Smith gets into the mannequin factory, it doesn’t seem like Kubrick could top it. Of course he does, almost immediately, with Smith and Frank Silvera’s intense fight scene. Killer’s Kiss excels.

So it’s almost inevitable–after framing a narrative with awkward, present tense narration–Kubrick can’t close it right. Killer’s Kiss is one of his most traditional plots and the end confirms it. It either ends too soon or goes on too long, depending on the viewer’s mood. But it’s an astoundingly well made film.



Edited, photographed, written and directed by Stanley Kubrick; music by Gerald Fried; produced by Morris Bousel and Kubrick; released by United Artists.

Starring Frank Silvera (Vincent Rapallo), Jamie Smith (Davey Gordon), Irene Kane (Gloria Price), Jerry Jarrett (Albert) and Ruth Sobotka (the ballerina).

Fear and Desire (1953, Stanley Kubrick)

Fear and Desire‘s a mess to be sure, but it’s hard to understand why Kubrick later strove to have it willfully forgotten. The film’s greatest faults–the script and the acting–pale when compared to Kubrick’s success as a director and editor. He described the film as amateurish and that adjective certainly does describe the script well (I was sort of stunned to see Sackler went on to so much), but the visuals are fantastic.

Kubrick shot Fear and Desire with a lot of control–he shot without sound, which allowed for dubbing later. The looping matches quite well and the general lack of close-ups with dialogue–the characters tend to speak from out of frame–creates a real tone for the picture. The technique emphasizes what the characters are saying–maybe not the best result overall, given the wordiness of Sackler’s script–while concentrating on Kubrick’s composition. The only times Kubrick stumbles is when the shot’s got to be constrained due to budget. Kubrick’s not a low budget filmmaker. He doesn’t have the chops for it. His frustration at the limitations are visible.

The best sequence is when Paul Mazursky goes nutty on a captured female civilian. Contemporary critics also cited this scene and it’s fantastic, due to Kubrick’s shots, his editing and Virginia Leith’s wordless performance. It’s got a lot to overcome too–Mazursky’s performance is terrible. Sackler’s script is full of existentialist monologues–occasionally in voiceover, which annoys rather than edifies–and his approach to Mazursky’s character is silly. Mazursky is creepy when he’s not rambling on and it helps with the scene’s success. What a compliment for a performance–he looks like a creep.

The other sequence comes at the end and the budget hampers Kubrick. The gruff sergeant, played by Frank Silvera (in the film’s best performance), goes downriver on a raft. There are voiceovers and they don’t work, but the editing of the scene is right and it works. It’s the kind of big Hollywood war melodrama scene Kubrick would never do again–it’s like Kirk Douglas racing in front of the firing squad in a jeep–but it shows off just how much Kubrick could do.

The script’s a big logic hole though. Leith’s enemy civilian doesn’t speak English or Spanish, while the enemy soldiers speak English. Silvera refers to the enemies as cannibals a couple times, though the general’s uniform seems to be based on a German army uniform. Maybe. Someone–either Kubrick or Sackler–thought not identifying the conflict, making it a grandiose statement about the nature of war itself (and the narration at the beginning is even nice enough to let the viewer know about this approach). It backfires from the first scene, because by telling the viewer to ignore the omission, they just draw attention to it.

Kenneth Harp, as the cowardly lieutenant, is terrible. Kubrick should have found someone else to dub in his dialogue. Stephen Coit’s fine as the nondescript soldier (he doesn’t get any monologues).

Lots of Fear and Desire is worth seeing. It’s just some of it would be better on mute (not really, since Kubrick’s sound design is fantastic).



Edited, photographed, produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; written by Howard Sackler; music by Gerald Fried; released by Joseph Burstyn.

Starring Frank Silvera (Sgt. Mac), Paul Mazursky (Pvt. Sidney), Kenneth Harp (Lt. Corby / enemy general), Stephen Coit (Pvt. Fletcher / aide-de-camp) and Virginia Leith (Young Girl).

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