Killer’s Kiss is an example par excellence of a remarkably gifted filmmaker—in this case Stanley Kubrick—forced early in his career to make the most of a film with very limited sources. This is, apparently, Kubrick’s second film, though he had his first one (Fear and Desire) removed from circulation on account of his displeasure with it. Kubrick’s gifts as a photographer are evident throughout this very short piece (67 min.), as he employs hand-held cameras, constant low-angle shots, and even negative film stock for a dream sequence. In what amounts to a late film noir, Kubrick adjusts the cliché sport film (at this point in history, perhaps not too popular?) to suit the genre; instead of a winning protagonist, we have one decidedly over-the-hill. Against Kubrick’s wishes, however (and as always, consistent with the studio’s), the guy does get the girl at the finale.
Not uncommon to noir, fatalism abounds in Killer’s Kiss. Past his prime but nevertheless set for a big fight, Davey does indeed lose, and in the first round. Speaking on the phone with his relative in Seattle about his boxing opponent, Davey insists that he “had him,” but then, “I don’t know what happened.” Gloria, the femme fatale, is an enigma, particularly if understood according to Kubrick’s original intent. While in his apartment, Davey watches her in her apartment, with what is apparently a narrow alley separating their windows. They exchange equally voyeuristic gazes (certainly much more than mere “glances,” especially for 1955). Even more unusual for its era than the voyeurism is Gloria’s returned gaze, displaying something strongly resembling desire. Already, this renders her suspicious, playing a role beyond her prescribed one. When Davey wakes up to her screams and sees Frank (her boss) accosting her, he rushes to her apartment. The assailant is gone, and Davey asks her what happened. As she explains the story, the theme of fatalism recurs. Overall, when things in her life have seemed bad, they only get worse. Specifically, Gloria cannot give a reason for taking the dancing job that got her in so much trouble. All she can say is, “I found myself [there] taking the job,” as if caught under compulsion. When, later in the film, she appears to betray Davey to save her own skin, his response is resignation of the romantic, jumping out of the window and running away. Incidentally, the flashbacks of the film, always intended to orient the characters, likewise always fail to achieve their goal. After this stroll through memory lane, they are at least as confused as they were before. More information isn’t necessarily helpful information. The urban past is as unhelpful and disorienting as its present.
The famous fight scene between Davey and Frank with mannequins illustrates themes of the fractured and artificial urban. Davey’s wish to escape from New York for a relative’s farm in Seattle implies the psychic utopia of the rural. His apartment is littered with photos of farm settings and even a covered wagon. Ironically, despite Kubrick’s inclusion of a “happy ending” for the studio’s sake, Davey and Gloria end the film on a train headed to Seattle. Fittingly, the train is arguably the most fatalistic of all modes of transportation, to most bound for its destination, the least capable of changing its direction – incapable, even, of getting lost (despite a comical scene in The Darjeeling Limited). Davey may finally be bound for Seattle, but he is stuck going to Seattle.
The whole film is viewable on Youtube, beginning with this clip.