Stanley Kubrick’s “Killer’s Kiss” was independent filmmaking even before there really was an independent filmmaking movement. As far I’m aware, one of the only other American independent filmmaker’s prior to Kubrick was Morris Engel with his excellent 1953 work, “Little Fugitive.” For his second feature, Kubrick borrowed forty thousand dollars from relatives to finance the film. The story deals with an over the hill boxer, who meets a dance club hostess named Gloria Price (Irene Kane), a blonde beauty who lives in an apartment across the courtyard from him. The two meet and quickly fall in love, deciding to move to Seattle. However, Gloria’s slimy boss, small time hood, Vincent (Frank Silvera) has the hots for her and no intention of losing her to some over the hill boxer. This sets in motion a series of events that leads to murder, kidnapping and a climatic chase that ends in the finest film noir style.
“Killer’s Kiss” is no masterpiece, but the building blocks of a master filmmaker are there. Young Kubrick’s use of actual New York locations extracts a dark sleazy realism of urban living that is hard to match. The apartment complex the two lovers share is tied together by a common roof, separated only by a courtyard that provides visual access to one neighbor viewing the activity of another. Kubrick’s use of the gritty streets of 1950’s Times Square crowded with an overflowing rush of people adds to the realism. There is a wonderful shot of the long gone Astor Theater, the New York City Subway and three scenes of the old Pennsylvania Station, two of which bookend the film with opening and closing shots. Penn Station comes to symbolize the transitional nature of city life, people both coming to and leaving the metropolis including our two protagonists. If nothing else, “Killer’s Kiss” is a visual tour of the seedy side 1950’s New York City.
The boxing match between Davy and his opponent Kid Rodriquez is a visual delight. It’s a short sequence but evocative of the best boxing films. Kubrick’s combination of camera angles and editing, marks these scenes as second to none. There are moments you feel like you are watching “Raging Bull.” Also impressively filmed are the rooftop chase scene and the final garment factory showdown between Davy and Vincent, surrounded hauntingly by hundreds of mannequins. Vincent’s use of an axe in his battle with Davy, results in chopped up arms, legs and heads. This is a scene Blake Edwards may or may not have borrowed from Kubrick a few years later in “Experiment in Terror.”
For the young filmmaker the choice of subject was familiar territory. As a still photographer for Look Magazine (when he started working for Look he was still in high school), Kubrick photographed numerous boxing matches. His first short “Day of the Fight”, made in 1951, follows Irish Middleweight Walter Cartier as he prepares for a match.
Due to the minuscule budget, Kubrick was forced to post synchronize all the sound and dialogue. The story was by Kubrick, the screenplay was written by Howard Sackler (“The Great White Hope”). With this film, Kubrick would begin a career habit of reducing the overall credit due or given to many of his co-writers. Kubrick and his producer uncle managed to sell the film to United Artists who released it in limited markets as the bottom half of a double feature.
Irene Kane who plays Gloria was the name used by Chris Chase who later on achieved greater success as a writer working for The New York Times. Chase also co-authored several biographies, and memoirs, with Alan King (“Name Droppings”), Rosalind Russell (“Life is a Banquet”) and Betty Ford (“Times of My Life”). The best-known actor was Frank Silvera who played Vincent Rapallo the slime ball minor hood. A light-skinned Black, Silvera made a career portraying Blacks, Hispanics and White characters. While it is never stated what Vincent is, his last name Rapallo seems to indicate Hispanic which would signify Kubrick was one of the earliest directors to use an interracial couple without making it a plot point in the story. Silvera also appeared in Kubrick’s first feature, the little seen, “Fear and Desire.”
“Killer’s Kiss” is a training manual for guerilla filmmaking, a combination of cinema verite and classic Hollywood film noir, a flawed mixture of economic filmmaking and budding brilliance.