Movies don’t come much tougher than Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss, even though it does contain an omnipresent love theme and a protracted ballet sequence. Kubrick was 26-years-old when he made it, barely starting out on a career that would eventually see him become one of the world’s most revered filmmakers. And there’s plenty of evidence here that Kubrick’s was a unique cinematic mind and eye, capable of transforming an incredibly ordinary story through the use of a dark visual style that reveals as much about the movie’s characters and the world they inhabit as do their actions and words.
The little-known Jamie Smith plays Davey Gordon, a professional boxer whose early promise was shattered by a glass jaw. After 88 bouts, Davey’s living in a crummy one-room apartment. The only positive aspect about it is that it overlooks the equally seedy flat of Gloria Price (Irene Kane), a taxi dancer who works for Rapallo (Frank Silvera). Rapallo has the hots for Gloria, but his feelings aren’t reciprocated, and when Davey hears Gloria’s screams as Rapallo attacks her, Davey rushes to her apartment. Rapallo has fled by the time he arrives, but Davey and Gloria begin a whirlwind romance.
Killer’s Kiss tale is told with brisk economy within a clumsy flashback structure (flashbacks within flashbacks abound), and is distinguished from the countless number of cheap Noir movies made around the mid-1950s by Kubrick’s striking visual style. His lack of budget forced Kubrick to secretly film many of the scenes on the streets of New York, and this often clandestine recording lends the movie’s street scenes a unique immediacy and vibrancy. Elsewhere, Kubrick made use of darkness and shadows to both disguise his lack of funds and emphasise the bleak hopelessness of the world his characters inhabit. The highlight of the movie is an incredibly brutal fight scene, shot close from a low angle, that easily surpasses all movie boxing bouts shot before or since until Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) developed the style further.
Killer’s Kiss is no classic, but it’s a better movie than it deserves to be thanks to the nascent cinematic genius of Stanley Kubrick.