Ella Coon reviews an early film by Stanley Kubrick, available on Netflix Instant.
Davy Gordon (Jamie Smith), a 29 year-old washed-up boxer, braces himself against the hard cement wall. Surrounded by darkness, his pasty face glows with terror. Hot sweat drips from his furrowed brow down his jaw and chin; perspiration moistens his upper lip. His palms forcibly press against the cold stone. He peers around the corner. His wide-eyes are fixated, waiting for his pursuer to arrive. But there is something the observant Davy Gordon fails to see. Hands, severed from mannequins hang on hooks, like ducks in a Asian market, above his head. Darkness envelops all else but the anemic Davy and the plaster hands. The hovering hands shiver and shake, reaching out to him—longing to touch him, but Davy is just beyond their grasp.
Killer’s Kiss, Stanley Kubrick’s second feature film, follows Davy on his journey through loneliness, lust, passion, and masculine rampancy. Davy’s adventure begins when, glancing out of his apartment window, he witnesses his neighbor Gloria (Irene Kane) being attacked. He rushes to rescue her, but upon his arrival she is alone; her attacker had fled. Davy comforts Gloria, and from this gesture of kindness, romance buds. Gloria’s attacker, her infatuated employer Vincent Raphello. becomes livid when learning of her new love affair. He then abducts Gloria, and the heroic Davy sets out to save her.
The plot is stale, the actors are lackluster, and the dialogue is weak. The whole film was made on 40,000 dollars, with poor production values—and it’s stunning. Even in the most horrific moments, like when Raphello chases Davy through a maze of mannequins, wielding an ax, severing the arms and leg off the plaster bodies, our eyes remain glued to the screen without hesitation. The violent image is equallyhorrific and beautiful. Kubrick, with richly textured angles and stark lighting, captures the allure of grittiness and savagery.
In a boxing match, hurling bodies, flinging fists, thrusting, propulsion, and melee fill the frame. Davy and his opponent, sweaty and panting with exhaustion, bash and batter against each other. Flesh on flesh, they collide. Their energy builds. They continue to wrestle, but max out and separate. Once again, their soaked bodies hurl against each other. In an earthquake of vigor Davy looses ground, and falls. His career is over. Kubrick captures this scene with a shaky camera, agitating the picture, making us, too, feel unstable and irascible. He films the scene from within the ring, between the bodies—right under the fighters’ arms. This angle escorts the viewer into the fight. The viewer, no longer a spectator of the fight, becomes part of the fragmented bodies pummeling each other. When Davy falls, the camera steps back. Through the ropes, we watch as Davy’s body smashes against the hard rubber of the ring floor.
One scene is particularly striking. It’s night. Davy is waiting in Gloria’s apartment, looking as blank as the white washed walls. Something clamors outside. With haste, Davy approaches the window and carefully draws back the shade. He peers out. Across the courtyard, the window of his apartment glows, framed by the darkness of the night. This black boarder contrasts with the white light within, focusing the story; nothing but the action inside of Davy’s apartment is pictured. Davy’s landlord and two policeman are rummaging through his things, opening drawers, searching for evidence of where Davy has gone. The florescent light illuminates their activity. As Davy watches the scene unfold, so do we. We are one with Davy. Then Kubrick cuts to him: a shadowed set of pursed lips and one wide fearful eye consume the frame. The cut dislocates us: we move from identifying with Davy to observing him.
The characters, otherwise vacant and empty, are enlivened in moments of terror. While boxing, dancing, fighting, kicking, breathing, running, jumping, sweating, clinging to walls, crying and calling, their bodies heave and pulse. These cathartic scenes invigorate the characters, piquing their sexual energies. Kubrick strips Davy and Gloria of their propriety,and it is this surrender to instinct that serves as the foundation for their relationship. Raphellos’ conquest reduces the couple to their most base level, where anxiety and sexual desire become one. Fear, and its sexual magnetism, unites them.
The film isn’t always in motion, and there are many quiet moments in which Davy and Gloria seem opaque, insignificant, almost non-existent. They spend most of their time sitting on their bleached bed sheets, in their white-washed apartments, staring vacantly out the window, in the mirror, or at the wall. Are their thoughts as blank as their lives? Davy’s lack of direction and Gloria’s emotional distance make the apathetic lovers hard to fathom and their love appear passionless.
But Kubrick breathes life into these vacant characters. He takes them out of their bland lives and inserts them in a story of drama, anxiety, and revenge. Terror enlivens Davy and Gloria, defines their existence. Anarchy, in Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss, isn’t just alluring—it’s right.