Underrated Movie #107: Killer’s Kiss

Title: Killer’s Kiss
Year: 1955
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Frank Silvera, Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Jerry Jerret

The Story: In a nightmarishly corrupt version of Manhattan, a down-on-his-luck boxer and a dime-a-dance girl decide that it’s finally time to flee the big bad city, but her boss doesn’t intend to let her go.

How it Came to be Underrated: Independent auteurs were strictly verboten in America’s movies theaters in 1955. Even after Kubrick became famous, his fans rarely delved this deeply into his back catalogue to discover this self-financed one-man-band gem. But considering that this was the last movie of his that wasn’t an adaptation, it’s one of the purest distillations of his themes, and since he shot it himself, it’s shockingly beautiful and grotesque.

Why It’s Great:

  1. I love the leads of this movie. Silvera really moves like a beefy boxer, Kane really looks like a skinny dancer, and they have a genuine awkwardness that makes their performances feel very unrehearsed and vulnerable. This is what you want from independent movies: a feeling that the veil of “Hollywood” glamour has been lifted.
  2. Film buffs always gasp with delight the first time they see this because they get to finally identify the source of many of the shots of the opening montage that Turner Classic Movies airs before its daytime movies. Kubrick got his start as a street photographer, and then briefly a documentarian, so he got a great eye for picturesque New York grittiness.
  3. Kubrick’s favorite theme was dehumanization, and we get that in spades here. Both characters try to find a way to sell their bodies without selling their souls, and the whole thing ends up in a life-or-death fight in a mannequin factory, just to drive the point home.
  4. I remember being a single young man in the city and imagining that I was going to date some single young women who might live in the next apartment over. Has that ever worked for anyone? Between this and Monsieur Hire, it seems like a pretty dangerous way to meet a girl.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: If I had to guess, I’d say that Kubrick’s two biggest noir influences, both in terms of minimalist style and existential subject matter, were Robert Wise’s The Set-Up and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City. (I would also have suspected Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Big Combo, but it came out the same year.)

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and there’s a particularly beautiful print on Watch Instantly.

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Underrated Movie #52: The Killing

Title: The Killing
Year: 1956
Director: Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove)
Writers: Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson, based on a novel by Lionel White
Stars: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards (Murder By Contract), Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook (Electra Glide in Blue)

The Story: A career criminal recruits five frustrated working men to help him heist a horse track on race day. As a god-like narrator dissects their failings, we see how a series of small errors lead to one disaster after another.

How it Came to be Underrated: As Kubrick’s films got more and more prestige, this early noir began to look like a work-for-hire by comparison. This may not be 2001, but it’s a serious Kubrick effort, showing his usual mastery.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Anyone who’s seen Kubrick’s more famous movies will recognize many of his favorite themes in utero here: the uselessness of ambition, the treachery of emotion and the ironic triumph of fate over free will
  2. Jim Thompson barely eked out living as a crime novelist while he was alive, and he was lucky to get the job writing dialogue for this movie (Kubrick was part of his small cult of fans). Since his death, his reputation has soared, and he’s now considered to be not only a great crime novelist, but a genuine literary giant. Straddling both worlds, he's able to provide heartbreaking little vignettes of the criminals’ lives, along with lively hard-boiled dialogue like this: “George has stumbled onto something big!” “That meatball?” “A meatball with gravy!”
  3. Kubrick made such a classic-looking noir that it seems like it could have been shot ten years earlier, but there are also progressive touches that mark it as way ahead of its time. In one scene a member of the team is doomed by his own racist treatment of a parking attendant. In another, our hero’s grizzled old drinking buddy suddenly admits that he wants to marry him! I react with disbelief every time I watch the movie! Did I hear that right?? But there’s really no other way to interpret it. At least not to my modern ears.
  4. The crime is planned down to the smallest detail, but it all falls apart. Why? Why do so many bands break up as soon as they get their first hit single? Because people can keep their hopes and fears and jealousies in check as long as there’s no money on the table, but as soon as you can smell success, (to paraphrase Langston Hughes) all the deferred dreams stop sagging like a heavy load and instead start to explode.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Kubrick’s previous movie was a much lower-budget noir, Killer’s Kiss. His next was his breakthrough into prestige pictures, Paths of Glory. These three great movies nicely showcase the rise of a filmmaker whose ambition could not be contained.

How Available Is It?: It’s available on dvd or you can watch it instantly.

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