Stanley Kubrick’s second film, Killer’s Kiss, was an ethereal combination of noir and neorealism, like so many of the second-wave American noirs of the 1950s, which typically discarded the convoluted plots of their 1940s forebears for more abstract, anguished mood pieces and tone poems. Kubrick’s take on that formula is built on a screeplay by Howard Sackler, which focuses on the relationship between Davey Gordon, a welterweight boxer played by Jamie Smith, his lover Gloria Price, played by Irene Kane, and his manager Vincent Rapallo, played by Frank Silvera. After losing a critical fight, Davey and Gloria try to leave New York, but they’ve reckoned without Vincent, who refuses to pay Davey his salary, and tries to attack Gloria in her apartment, eventually kidnapping Gloria and holding her hostage. While that’s undoubtedly a noir plot, Kubrick’s film is more an exercise in shooting on location in New York – the film begins and ends at the old Penn Station – using the city’s many moods and atmospheres to transition into the total command of his craft that starts with The Killing.
Whereas many directors’ early films are overly talky or stagebound, Kubrick’s experience in photography meant that he was comfortable, from the outset, with long periods that are largely visual. That was already evident in Fear and Desire, but it’s even clearer in Killer’s Kiss, since there’s virtually no dialogue at all in the first part of the film – just an interior monologue, a letter, a phone conversation, and a series of announcements at the boxing ring. While there’s a little more conversation in the second half, it tends to be swallowed back into this introspective approach, most notably when a dramatic dialogue between Davey and Gloria quickly gives way to Gloria’s main monologue in the film. As a result, Killer’s Kiss is all atmosphere, driven by an incredible taste for small moments, and an insatiable curiosity about small details of composition, epitomised by a series of beautifully choreographed walks that Davey takes through Times Square in between critical moments in the narrative. In these scenes, Kubrick’s camera is the real protagonist, perusing the city so meticulously that the film almost plays like a gorgeously stylised docudrama, not unlike Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. Each of Kubrick’s subsequent films has an utterly unique atmosphere, and Killer’s Kiss often plays as a study in discerning the most evocative parts of any one scene or sequence.
For that reason, Killer’s Kiss also feels like a critical transition between Kubrick’s life as a photographer and his life as director – or between his life as a cinematographer and his life as a cinematographer-turned-director. Every shot is beautiful and memorable, but the film never feels too static or pedantic in its photography-inflected sensibility either, since for every expertly crafted composition there are moments of real dynamism, such as the opening boxing fight, which rivals anything traditional boxing films were providing at this time. The result is a meticulously and immaculately controlled expressionist style, and a beautifully embodied camera, bound up with Davey’s perceptions and emotions in particular, but identifying at different moments with all of the three main characters. Lots of the film is spent watching these characters as they wander, walk and move around spaces, and as they wait for the narrative to catch up with then, in a perfectly rendered fusion of noir and neorealism.
Like so many of the noirs of the 1950s, then, Killer’s Kiss treats the impossible convolutions of noir narrative as what it really was – an abstraction of the surrounding cityscape – as Kubrick sidelines narrative to make way for a highly abstract depiction of New York. Time and again, Kubrick translates interpersonal relationships – both between the characters, and between the audience and screen – into scintillating abstractions of light and shade, catching New York at its most fleeting and tremulous moments. No surprise, then, that the main complication emerges in the gap between sight and action, as occurs in so many of Kubrick’s other films. In a bravura set piece, Davey sees Vincent’s men trying to murder Gloria from across the light well in their adjoining apartment block, but action lags behind sight, as he runs up to the roof of the building and then down the stairwell of her own building, too late to catch Vincent. The light shaft between these two apartments plays like the space between the audience and Kubrick’s screen, since any effort to fully identify with the movements of the characters is offset by the dreamy visuals, which take their cues from the languorous dance hall sequences, where neorealism gradually overtakes noir, and the snappy dialogue eventually decelerates.
Killer’s Kiss is thus driven above all by incredible set pieces – and by all the ways Kubrick can capture light and shade as it shapes New York City. You can tell that he is utterly entranced by the prospect of shooting on location in the Big Apple, and his excitement is contagious, as it builds to an incredible closing scene – a chase through an abandoned warehouse, followed by a standoff between Davey and Vincent in a room of mannequins, with an axe and grappling hook. Culminating both the visceral intensity and the ethereal disembodiment of the film as a whole, this conjunction of mannequins and swinging axes is one of the high points in Kubrick’s career, suffused with a tactility and plasticity that cements his ultimate purpose here – to craft New York as if it were a sculpture, a set, and a psychic landscape that has been entirely fashioned out of light and shade. This prospect of the empty sculptural city was a fixation of this second wave of noir, but few films nailed it as beautifully as Killer’s Kiss, which must be one of the greatest transitions between cinematography and direction in the history of film – and Kubrick’s last film as cinematographer before he absorbed all his cinematography skills into the fully-formed directorial sensibility that starts with The Killing.