Perfect Crime: Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing + Killer’s Kiss – Blu-ray review
Kubrick plays chess with film noir – mastering the moves, improving the strategy, overthrowing the kings – en route to becoming a grandmaster.
Killer’s Kiss (Stanley Kubrick, 1955)
The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
Before KUBRICK (Futura extra bold), there was Kubrick – the up-and-coming director looking to make a splash. Notwithstanding his micro-budget Fear And Desire, a film he’d later disown, this disc collates his first two films proper. While Killer’s Kiss is included here as an extra alongside A-feature The Killing, it’s worth watching them both. Together, they show a director emerging at a fascinating time: after the Golden Age where filmmakers tended to serve time on the crew before getting their big break, but before the next generation of TV émigrés like Lumet, Penn and Peckinpah arrived. In contrast, Kubrick got into film because he a) loved it and b) was good at it: the patron saint of modern indie.
In those days, thrillers were the low-budget genre of choice in the way that horror is today, and Kubrick seized upon it with remorseless logic. Killer’s Kiss is the lesser of the two films; indeed, although Kubrick never dismissed this the way he did Fear And Desire, he never seemed especially enamoured of it. Even so, it’s a fascinating film, with the director’s roots as a photographer giving it a Weegee-style authenticity that he’d never really recapture with its later love of elaborate art direction. And with its inky noir taking place in his native New York, it’s the last chance to see the director in its natural milieu before his travels began.
The story is a post-Naked City melodrama about a boxer whose romance with his neighbour draws the ire of her sadistic nightclub boss. That’s pretty much it – and the difficulty of contextualising this against Kubrick’s later work is how little it fits in. The worldview is moody and terse but nothing that others weren’t doing; the scientific detachment isn’t quite yet there, beyond the interest in how things look.
If there is a thematic thread, it is accessed via the boxing. Kubrick had already shot a short documentary, Day Of The Fight, on the subject and the theme of men fighting would reoccur throughout his career (A Clockwork Orange’s ultra-violence, Barry Lyndon’s bare-knuckle dust-up, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here…”). The specific style of filming used for the fight here, with stylised, near-abstract compositions, is amongst the film’s most eye-catching moments; indeed it feels like a possible influence on Raging Bull. Set against the boxing is the delicacy of a long ballet, performed by Kubrick’s then-wife Ruth Sobotka, but it is undercut with a bleak voiceover of ruined lives and false love. The result? Art and beauty can be admired, but this is a world where the fight is what counts.
This pretty/ugly dichotomy is reflected throughout the film’s imagery, and this Blu-ray is a revelation in showing how strong Kubrick’s visual instincts were even in his twenties. The use of light and shadow, the shimmering reflections, the outre compositions – he shoots through a fishtank and shows a mirror being punched from the mirror’s perspective. Better still is the end chase, an eye-catching view from New York’s skyline that ends, madly, with a fight in a mannequin warehouse, the nearest the film gets to the kind of oblique commentary on mankind that Kubrick would make his own.
Ultimately, it’s a stepping stone to The Killing, the point at which Kubrick truly arrives. This tale of a daring racetrack heist organised by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is noir stripped to the bone: a terse, tense heist picture locked into its fatalism by its quasi-documentary narrative; by its looping chronology, forever repeating the action until you sense the characters are trapped in it; and by its bravura tracking shots, creating a visual pattern of lines as straight as telegraph wires, as everybody travels from A to B with measured, precise distance and timing.
The time structure is a brilliant means of organising the complex plot without killing the pace; indeed, it escalates the tension as each rewind causes us to ponder whether this will be the moment that the plan crashes to a halt. It’s also an outrageous piece of showboating, (knowingly?) calling back to Citizen Kane and the sense of a young director not caring about how stories are normally told in Hollywood. Decades later, Quentin Tarantino would acknowledge The Killing as an influence on Reservoir Dogs, the baton passed on from one enfant terrible to another.
There’s another Tarantino link, less often commented on: the casting. Kubrick has cherry-picked his cast based on past form. Sterling Hayden came from The Asphalt Jungle; hapless stooge Elisha Cook from The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep; femme fatale Marie Windsor from Force Of Evil. It’s like a roll-call of genre greats. If there’s a difference from later Kubrick, there’s no real play with their personas; strictly a utilitarian confidence that they’ll hit their marks, allowing Kubrick to concentrate on unifying story, theme and form.
The result moves at a rapid pace that is even more startling in hindsight, given how epic Kubrick’s running times would become. Because The Killing’s dog-eat-dog world is so familiar, the world building has real leanness and economy, and nothing is wasted. Even so, there’s a cruel, ironic new voice in cinema. Kubrick cleverly hired Jim Thompson to write the dialogue, and the writer’s brittle, unflinching machine-gun rattle portrays a world where everybody is on the take and kindness is a weakness. People only speak when they need to achieve something, even down to the film’s shocking instance of racism, all the more so because it isn’t borne of ignorance but ruthless necessity.
Meanwhile, people walk as well as talk on pre-meditated lines, with failure symbolised by weakness of resolve or random chance. The most telling exchange of the film is when chess-playing wrestler (played by Kubrick’s real-life friend Kola Kwariani) warns Johnny of the similarity of gangsters and artists – again, that blurred line between dark and light – as he muses, “they are admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.” For Johnny, that destruction comes because of his failure to anticipate that nobody is as perfect as he wants them to be. Kubrick, meanwhile, is already thinking how to make his peak unassailable. The Killing is a startling advance on Killer’s Kiss… but Kubrick was only going to get better and better.
The Killing is released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films on Monday 9th February. The main draw extras-wise is, of course, Killer’s Kiss, but there are also interesting interviews with Kubrick biographer Michel Ciment, celebrity fan Ben Wheatley and (from the archives) The Killing star Sterling Hayden.