blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Killer’s Kiss (1955, Stanley Kubrick)

Frank Silvera and Jamie Smith star in KILLER'S KISS, directed by Stanley Kubrick for United Artists.

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).


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