There is an entire universe of difference between Fear And Desire, Kubrick’s feature debut, and Killer’s Kiss, his sophomore effort. Although one could see the filmmaker’s potential in the former film, especially exemplified in aggressive editing, confident staging of static shots and the way the narrative goes about exploring its central themes, many choose to see it as a failure whose reputation is solely derived from the eventual trajectory of Kubrick’s filmmaking career. In other words, it takes some real effort to see past the film’s blatant flaws in craftsmanship and occasional instances of narrative meandering marring the progression of the story in order to appreciate it as more than a stepping stone.
Killer’s Kiss doesn’t really require the viewer to do any heavy lifting on the filmmaker’s behalf, because – as is noticeable from the very opening shot – it looks as though it was shot by a much more mature auteur. Kubrick was much more precise and confident in his manipulation of light, working with actors and retaining complete authorial control over the picture. To think what he could accomplish in the span of mere two years… And it has to be noted that Kubrick never went to film school and learned everything about moviemaking ‘on the job’.
Hence, this narratively simplistic impression of Hollywood noir elevated with elements of Hitchcockian suspense borrowed from Rear Window and a bold approach to the use of light and shadow clearly inspired by the works of Orson Welles, Fritz Lang and Friedrich Murnau add up to a highly satisfying cinematic experience. In fact, in some ways I think it ventures beyond its pulpy mission statement and uses the familiarity of a nearly archetypal narrative about a washed-up boxer, a shady gangster and a femme fatale tossed between them to go a few steps further than a typical specimen of the noir genre would be expected to go. It’s an example of film noir engineered by someone who didn’t quite know what the rules of the genre were, so he may have not been entirely certain when and how he was breaking them, or maybe he couldn’t afford to shoot his movie the way one would expect a movie of this sort to be shot; regardless, what he achieved as a result of that ended up looking decidedly refreshing, alluring and organically compelling.
This is also where one should acknowledge Kubrick’s use of locations, which – coupled with his neo-expressionist use of high-contrast lighting – turned New York into an imposing and hellish character in its own right that has much more in common with Gotham City than with real-life New York. In addition, one can also see this idea of giving New York an almost outlandish atmosphere as one of the many sources of inspiration for Taxi Driver and other New Hollywood classics.
However, what really makes Killer’s Kiss stand out as an extremely formidable piece is its entire final act, which involves an elaborate rooftop chase scene and a bone-chilling showdown between the protagonist and an axe-wielding villain in a mannequin storage. The film turns out to be a proper nail-biter winking back at Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and perhaps foreshadowing the now iconic scenes from The Shining. Therefore, although I would stop short of hailing Killer’s Kiss as Kubrick’s early masterpiece, it is nonetheless a great movie that thrives on the combination of its overall brevity, application of Hitchcockian suspense and Kubrick’s directorial command.