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REVIEW – The Killing (1956) and Killer’s Kiss (1955)

February 3, 2015

FilmJuice have my twin review of Stanley Kubrick’s second and third films Killer’s Kiss and The Killing, which are getting an all-singing and all-dancing re-release next week at the hands of Arrow Films.

It was interesting to discover these films after reviewing the Masters of Cinema release of Kubrick’s first film Fear and Desire (apologies for nerfed formatting) as, like most people, my memories of Kubrick’s work are shaped by the classics he started churning out from the late-50s onwards. Of Kubrick’s first three films, The Killing is almost certainly the most accomplished and accessible.

However, while the heist is beautifully handled and provides the film with a strong narrative spine, the film’s real beauty lies in the character beats that provide the film’s real sources of tension. Based on a novel by Lionel White but scripted by the legendary crime novelist Jim Thompson, the film benefits from a cast of old B-movie hands who slot effortlessly into their assigned character types and go to town on the dialogue:

Marie Windsor plays Sherry as this wonderfully cynical drunk with a young lover and a hunger for money. Every inch the Femme Fatale dominatrix, she showers her husband with sarcasm and distain only to show him just enough attention to secure his continued loyalty and affection.

As I point out in my review, I felt that the film’s ending failed to live up to the promise of the film’s opening act but I have since learned that the film’s leading man Sterling Hayden was not a popular choice with the film’s studio backers and I wonder if Kubrick might not have left a few of his character beats on the cutting room floor. Either way, the film makes the mistake of driving home the idea that the character is a no-nonsense hard case only to try to elicit sympathy for him in the final scene. You can see how the film might have played out as Kubrick does soften the character in the opening scene but his failure to re-visit that softening and underline that duality results in a film that feels more bleakly nihilistic than it clearly yearns to be. Having said that, I compare the film to pictures like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and I stand by that comparison as this still a really fucking good film.

As well as some awesome extras (including an interview with a bearded, shirtless and resentful Hayden), the disc also includes Kubrick’s lesser-known second film Killer’s Kiss. Seldom revived during Kubrick’s lifetime, Killer’s Kiss is just as trippy and arty as his first film Fear and Desire but rather than deploying those tricks in the context of a war movie, Kubrick decides to deploy them in the context of an hour-long film about a second-rate boxer who falls in love with a woman in trouble. The narrative isn’t that interesting and the bloke playing the boxer is not what you would call charismatic but the film looks sensational, a bit like Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend complete with blurring of boundary between real and imagined:

However, look beyond the simple narrative and the desperately uneven acting and you will see a young director experimenting with a wide array of cinematic techniques. For example, whereas most Hollywood films of the period shot dialogue scenes with fixed cameras, Kubrick has his cameras move in and around the actors while they deliver their lines resulting in an odd, queasy feeling that feels a lot more subjective than realistic. Also interesting is the way that Kubrick makes the walls of the boxer’s kitchen pitch black except for a window looking onto his neighbour’s apartment creating the impression that the window functions almost like a comic book thought bubble in which the boxer visualises sounds overheard through the walls.

It is also quite interesting to see these two films get a release from Arrow films. Arrow have always been a damn fine home-release outfit but I have always associated them with the cult and horror titles they release under the Arrow Video label. I’m not entirely sure how long Arrow Academy has been around as a label but releases like this one and last year’s amazing Walerian Borowczyk box set would certainly position them as the emerging power in Britain’s premium home-video market. Masters of Cinema had better watch themselves!

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