One of the reasons film geeks love Stanley Kubrick so much is because, for all the director’s legendary reclusiveness and his icily controlled films, at heart he always came off as a hardcore cineaste. In the ’50s, while the best American directors were struggling against the restraints of the studio system, Kubrick was making movies that felt as free as what the Europeans were doing at the time. He was like a lot like young indie filmmakers today: treating each shot as a unique creative exercise, eager to share the images he’d always seen in his head. Kubrick’s early films combine photographic docu-realism with stylized acting and striking lighting effects, all in service of scripts that make liberal use of narration and time-jumps. Kubrick’s ’50s work just seems savvier and more engaged with the world than what most of his contemporaries were up to.
The Criterion Blu-ray of Kubrick’s offbeat 1956 thriller The Killing contains as a bonus feature his 1955 noir exercise Killer’s Kiss, which is a prime example of how a clever, creative soul can make a lot out of a little. Made with family money, Killer’s Kiss—Kubrick’s second feature film—is essentially a demo reel, showing off what a Look photographer in his mid-20s could do when set loose behind a movie camera. Kubrick apparently didn’t have much invested in the story, a seedy little slice of urban squalor starring Jamie Smith as a boxer in decline and Irene Kane as the taxi dancer he tries to save from her brutish boss. The movie starts out a little like Robert Wise’s classic 1949 noir The Set-Up, using the preparation for a fight and one woman’s night out as the driver for a shot-on-location study of urban life. Then Kane gets hassled, Smith intervenes, and Killer’s Kiss evolves into a love story with chase scenes.
Kubrick worked around his limited budget by post-dubbing the dialogue—not always crisply—and filling in a lot of the gaps in his characters’ backstories through voice-overs, always making sure to match them to unusual, sometimes-incongruous visuals. The main thing Killer’s Kiss has going for it is its look: Almost the entire last 20 minutes consists of shots of people on the run, strikingly framed on top of and between towering New York buildings. Prior to that, Kubrick stages a boxing match in quick cuts, with views from the canvas and the ropes; he inserts a brief nightmare sequence with polarized footage; he has a character throw a glass at the camera, concocting a special effect that makes it look like the lens has cracked; and he sets a fight in a mannequin warehouse, which could be a sly comment on the phoniness of the whole scenario, or just a way to make a stock confrontation more willfully weird.
Kubrick took what he’d learned from Killer’s Kiss (along with his previous short documentaries and feature experiments) and applied it to The Killing, an adaptation of a Lionel White crime novel that Kubrick co-scripted with pulp master Jim Thompson. Kubrick was especially attracted to the structure of White’s book, which considers a racetrack heist from the point-of-view of its different participants, circling back in time to show what one character was doing while another was playing his part. The movie retains this idea of men as mere pieces of a larger puzzle, which none of them can fully see—not even the heist’s mastermind, played by Sterling Hayden. From the heroes’ complicated planning to the story’s cruel twist ending, The Killing illustrates how human beings have a bad habit of getting in their own way.
Quentin Tarantino famously aped the multi-perspective heist in Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown, and that’s not all those films have in common with The Killing. Like Tarantino decades later, the young Kubrick had an eye for great character actors, which in The Killing includes Jay C. Flippen, Elisha Cook Jr., and Timothy Carey as a marble-mouthed sniper not above hurling racist epithets when a over-friendly black parking attendant threatens to wreck his timing. And Kubrick (along with Thompson) also savors long scenes of banter that establish the relationships of the characters and their sense of self-worth. The Killing is maybe a bit too neat—a common trait of the Kubrick work to come—but it also brims with the life of a city big enough to hold pay-to-play chess clubs and bustling burlesque houses. It’s the work of a filmmaker beginning to develop the detached fascination with human behavior that would become his hallmark, yet still boyish enough to recognize how boss it would look to put a rifle-toting Sterling Hayden in a clown mask.
Key features: A trio of terrific interviews: one with Jim Thompson historian Robert Polito on the turbulent relationship between Kubrick and the author; one with producer James B. Harris describing the development of The Killing; and riveting vintage footage of Hayden talking about old Hollywood, the blacklist, and his own anxieties. Plus a Geoffrey O’Brien appreciation of the oft-neglected Killer’s Kiss.