Monthly Film Bulletin - July 1984 - vol 51 no. 606 - by Richard Combs

Killer's Kiss

U.S.A., 1955

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cert-A. dist-BFI. p.c-Minotaur. p- Stanley Kubrick, Morris Bousel. p. manager-Ira Marvin asst. d-Ernest Nukanen. sc-Stanley Kubrick, (uncredited) Howard O. Sackler. ph- Stanley Kubrick. camera op-Jesse Paley, Max Glen. ed-Stanley Kubrick. asst. ed- Pat Jaffe, Anthony Bezich. rn/m.d-Gerald Fried, song-love theme from the song "Once" by Norman Gimbel, Arden Clar. choreo-David Vaughan; ballet sequence danced by Ruth Sobotka. sd. rec-Walter Ruckersberg, Clifford van Praag. l.p- Frank Silvera (Vincent Rapallo), Jamie Smith (Davy Gordon), Irene Kane (Gloria Price), Jerry Jarret (Albert), Mike Dana, Felice Orlandi, Ralph Roberts and Phil Stevenson (Hoodlums), Julius Adelman (Owner of Mannequin Factory), David Vaughan and Alec Rubin (Conventioneers), Shaun O'Brien, Barbara Brand, Arthur Feldman, Bill Funaro. 2,405 ft. 67 mins. (16 mm.).

New York. Waiting nervously at a train station, boxer Davy Gordon recounts the events of the preceding three days . . . In his drab rented room, while waiting for a fight that promises a title bout for the winner, Davy watches the girl in the room opposite, Gloria Price, who works in the Pleasureland dance parlour run by racketeer Vince Rapallo. Forcing Gloria to watch the fight on TV with him, Rapallo makes love to her after Davy loses. Dejectedly returning home, Davy is called by his Uncle George, who also saw the fight and asks Davy to return to their farm in Seattle. That night, Davy is woken by a scream, sees Gloria struggling with Rapallo and rushes over, frightening Rapallo away. Gloria relates how Rapallo forced his way into her apartment, and became violent when she spurned his entreaties to marry him. Davy comforts the frightened girl, and the next morning they swap stories. Gloria explains her decision to work in Pleasureland by telling about her sister Iris, an accomplished ballet dancer and their father's favourite (their mother died when Gloria was born), who eventually sacrificed her career, and married a rich suitor whom she didn't love, in order to take care of their ailing father; on the day he died, accused by Gloria of not really having loved him, Iris committed suicide. Realising a mutual attraction, Davy and Gloria decide to leave together for Seattle. Gloria goes to collect a week's salary from Rapallo, and Davy arranges to pick up money from his manager, Albert, outside Pleasureland. But Davy is diverted by the drunken antics of two conventioneers, and Albert is mistaken for Davy by two of Rapallo's hoods, who beat him to death. Gloria is kidnapped by the insanely jealous Rapallo, whom Davy then pursues to his wharfside hideout with a gun. He is overpowered by the hoods, but while Gloria begs for her own life with Rapallo, Davy seizes the opportunity to leap through a window. A desperate chase ends in a fight to to the death (Rapallo's) in a warehouse full of dress-shop mannequins . . . Cleared of all charges, Davy is waiting at the station for Gloria, unsure if she will join him on the train to Seattle-which, at the last minute, she does.

Kubrick's career is a gift to criticism, at least to the extent that it is not difficult to trace his imprint from this tyro effort, his second feature (though the first that is still visible), through all the later films. The most flamboyant trace is probably the brief nightmare sequence in Killer's Kiss-a fast track down a canyon-like street shown in negative-which presages more exalted trips to come. As does the voice from the past, from another country almost: the voice-over letter and telephone call from Uncle George down on the farm beamed out to Davy in his encapsulated room in the city. But there is a whole range of motifs and strategies which look incongruously ambitious-or just incongruous--in this shoestring context, and which are plainly waiting for 'Kubrick' to emerge as the context to make sense of them. There is, for instance, the time-space conundrum of the plot-time and space virtually are the plot, two properties which alternatively seem to be opening out or closing in with equally threatening results. (The chess player's conundrum, confronted with infinite possibilities in very finite circumstances?)

A point is made of the fact that Davy has only known Gloria for two days before falling in love with her, risking his life for her, and at the very end departing this life (the city) with her. Yet the opening scenes of their looking out on each other from their respective apartments suggest that they might have been locked in this unknowing proximity for an eternity. Contrariwise, during the climactic chase, terror is an infinity of space (as it is in The Shining), with Davy at one point fleeing across a rooftop while the camera placidly observes his circular course, never cutting to indicate his panicked attempts to escape from the roof, but just observing his departure and return as if to the ends of the known earth. If there is a plot mechanism apart from the dilations of space and time, it might also be phrased in terms familiar from criticism of The Killing, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, etc.: the perfect plan that goes wrong, man undone by forces social, cosmic, or locked within himself, the chess player shafted by an unexpected move from his opponent.

What is most significant here is that the plan in Killer's Kiss belongs to the villain, Rapallo, to whom also goes the sense of injustice, of something out of joint in his own destiny. As he says at one point, "All my life I've spoiled the things that meant the most to me". By comparison, Davy is rather a passive figure (although he becomes a man of action in order to resolve the plot); his destiny, it seems, is to be 'stuck', at twenty-nine a boxer who never quite made it. "One long promise without fulfilment" as the ringside announcer sums up his career. In fact, one might be hard put to find any Kubrick hero with a plan; where heroes exist, they tend to be very much acted upon figures, from Davy to Colonel Dax to Humbert Humbert to a kind of ultimate nebulousness in Barry Lyndon, the figure in history's carpet. A line of scheming villainy (or criminality), however, extends from Rapallo to the gang in The Killing to Colonel Mireau (the self-deluded careerist in Paths of Glory who orders the suicidal attack, is manipulated in turn by his superior, and so on, one presumes, ad infinitum), to complexly devious Clare Quilty.

There is, of course, a complicity in this, between hero and villain, actor and acted upon. From it springs the famous doubling in Kubrick, but also something less remarked: a softness at the heart of his supposedly cold, ruthlessly clockwork plots, an erotic complicity which explains why there is such a strong sexual current in the work of this typecast intellectual director, and why it is such a sadistic/masochistic switchback. Lolita, which was all softness, a love that dared not speak its name, was castigated for not being erotic at all; but the obverse could not be missed in Dr. Strangelove, with its copulating aeroplanes and General Jack D. Ripper's jutting cigar. Killer's Kiss is already remarkable on this score (even leaving aside the free-floating suggestiveness of its title). Witness the sequence of 'exchanges', with scarcely anything said, at the beginning: after eyeing each other from their respective apartments, Davy and Gloria leave at the same time for work (in both cases, of a supremely physical nature), barely acknowledging each other as their paths cross in the building's foyer; Gloria is picked up by Rapallo, who 'eyes' Davy ("He used to be a pretty good fighter"); later Rapallo pushes away Gloria's dancing partner at Pleasureland and makes her watch the fight on TV with him; as Davy is pummelled in the ring, Rapallo begins to maul Gloria, finally pushing her on to the couch as Davy goes down for the count; the imagery of 'yielding flesh' is summed up by the TV announcer, who comments on Davy's unfortunate weakness, his "glass jaw".

But if it is relatively easy to trace Kubrick's progress from Killer's Kiss, it is harder to construe the kind of film-maker he was at the time. Given the curve of his career-from high-school non-achiever and auto-didact, through amateur film-maker and low-budget do-it-all to creative self-sufficiency and professional know-it-all--it was perhaps inevitable that a similar critical mythology should have grown up about Kubrick's films themselves. This posits his development with all the evolutionary elegance of the transitions in 2001: after a fumbling apprenticeship (Fear and Desire) he quickly gained both technical and narrative mastery (Killer's Kiss, The Killing), until he was ready to move on from mere stories to Bigger Issues (Paths of Glory, Lolita), and then to open out the "grace notes" with which he had begun to decorate his narratives until, bafflingly, they occupied the whole film (Barry Lyndon, The Shining). The stumbling block here is that these early films, genre and story-based though they are, show no interest in or instinct for narrative coherence. Both Killer's Kiss and The Killing start from simple premises which have their own self-sufficiency-stories it would be impossible to ruin-and then proceed to complicate and duplicate their own processes.

Kubrick's interest in chess is often adduced to explain the careful planning and logical construction of his films. It is just as likely, however, that the multiple strategies of the chess-man would make a hash of story logic. The heterogeneity of Killer's Kiss, of course, can also be explained in terms of its makeshift genesis. Having failed to achieve much impact with the philosophical Fear and Desire, Kubrick decided to put together an action melodrama on a more cynical basis ("While Fear and Desire had been a serious effort, ineptly done, Killer's Kiss.., proved, I think, to be a frivolous effort done with conceivably more expertise ). The need to cover for the inexperience of his cast may explain the abundance of that Kubrick speciality, voice-over commentary, while the need to make the film up to something like feature length might be the reason (as well as uxoriousness) for the lengthy solo ballet sequence featuring Kubrick's then wife, Ruth Sobotka, inserted in the middle while Gloria recounts her family history in voice-over. But the intersection of these devices with the elaborate flashback structure--including a flashback-within-the-flashback that temporally makes no sense: Gloria tells Davy how Rapallo forced his way into her room "about an hour ago", though the scene we then see only takes a few minutes - is labyrinthine to say the least.

Even at this stage, Kubrick may be more a history-maker than a storyteller - time and space are the ingredients rather than what happened when, and what happened tends to be strangely cyclical, repetitive. Similarly, Davy and Gloria's 'love story' has less prominence than their respective histories: Gloria's lengthy, uninterrupted tale 'embodied' in the ballerina; the voices from Davy's past, the Seattle farm, the goldfish bowl that in one distorted shot 'becomes' his room, his world. By comparison, the romance is a fragile, insubstantial thing; Davy's uncertainty while waiting for Gloria in the framing scenes at the station is no mere convention. She, after all, has already renounced him once and he has abandoned her. In terms of strict storytelling expertise, the one impressive sequence in Killer's Kiss is the choreography of comings and goings outside Pleasureland that leads to Albert being murdered instead of Davy. The outcome of this little piece of narrative, in other words, is a mistake: "It's all gone wrong" as Rapallo despairs. The point where characters and events briefly come together is the fly in his ointment, the warp in his universe.

Copyright - The British Film Institute