Fear and Desire (1952) / Killers Kiss (1956)

“Perhaps that was true a long time ago, before the Ice Age. The glaciers have melted away, and now we’re all islands — parts of a world made of islands only…”

When starting something, anything really, whether it’s a hobby or a profession, nobody is perfect on the first try. Practice makes perfect, that’s the saying and it rarely discriminates and can humble the best. It’s the rarest of occasions that only very few are able to accomplish outstanding success on a first attempt. With film especially, a director’s first effort is them testing the waters, making sure its safe to fully dive into and not drown. Fear and Desire, the directorial debut of Stanley Kubrick is just that – dipping a toe in the water to see if he can float instead of sink to the bottom, never to try again. Luckily, his debut is a perfect example of flexing his writing, directing, cinematography and editing muscles for what would be a lengthy film career.

At just a hair over an hour in length, 62 minutes to be exact, Fear and Desire is not a film Kubrick cares to remember its existence. Not a bad film by any sort, but to a perfectionist, it’s a film that’s sole lesson is to teach how to make something the right way, never to cut corners or take an easy route. Though seen as a failure to Kubrick, the message within Fear and Desire is just as relevant today as it was when Kubrick directed a script written by Howard Sackler.

Opening the film is a narration which leads to an opening shot on four soldiers. The country in which these soldiers fight for is never established, nor their enemy, but it comes as a message of universality – no matter the era, war is war, and no man is capable of handling it without experiencing pain, suffering and loss. But based on the year of its release, we can guess this film takes place during the Korean War.

Among the four soldiers is Sargent Mac (Frank Silvera), Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp), Private Sidney (Paul Mazursky), and Private Fletcher (Steve Coit). Trapped 6 mines across enemy lines, the four men make a daring attempt to make it back safely – only to come across a General (Harp) and his small platoon on their base up the river. In their journey to seek out an advantage over the General, the four men come across a girl (Virginia Leith) whom they take as a captive.

While Fear and Desire has a strong message that gets the point across rather easily within the first half of the film, one can easily spot Kubrick’s inexperience with making a feature length film. Prior to this, Kubrick worked as a photographer for the biweekly magazine ‘Look’ who had directed two short documentaries in 1951. Sackler, who wrote the screenplay was a classmate of Kubrick’s at William Howard Taft High School and the production team consisted of only 15 people total – Kubrick, his wife, 5 actors, 4 other crew members and 3 laborers. The ingenuity of Kubrick at the earliest stage of his career is astounding with what the final product is, given the low budget he raised from family and friends.

It may not be perfect, but it’s the effort of all involved, including some fascinating performances from the 5 actors that make the film a worthy start for Kubrick to gain some experience under his belt. Whether it would have stayed a silent film or with sound, Fear and Desire boasts a strong character study of men at war and the trauma they endure during and well after returning home, if they make it that far.

Screenplay By: Howard Sackler

Directed By: Stanley Kubrick

Music By: Gerald Fried

Cinematography: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: David Allen, Frank Silvera, Kenneth Harp, Paul Mazursky, Steve Coit, Virginia Leith

Release Date: April 1, 1953

Running Time: 1 Hour 2 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 71%

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

“It’s crazy how you can get yourself in a mess sometimes and not even be able to think about it with any sense-and yet not be able to think about anything else.

Following his directorial debut, Stanley Kubrick, in his second film, titled Killer’s Kiss further demonstrates the experiment by the director in becoming a feature length connoisseur. And just like his first film, Fear and Desire, Kubrick doesn’t consider this film a success at all despite growing in skill in the three years since releases. Kubrick has the basics down, furthering a demonstration of his talent in directing, cinematography and editing and with the experience comes a sense of comfort behind the camera. These early two films of Kubrick’s are a triumph, whether he would admit to it or not – a larger budget, by about $20k, financed again by friends and family but mostly by Morris Bousel, a Bronx Pharmacist.

Just like with Fear and Desire, Killer’s Kiss is written by Howard Sackler (uncredited), with Kubrick coming up with the story as well as editing and photographing. Gerald Fried returns to score the film that becomes a staple that would define the films atmosphere in growing the tension from start to finish. Killer’s Kiss as a feature length film, would land on the shorter side, coming in at 67 minutes. Within that, a complete story is told that would hit the highs and lows of its characters.

The story opens and follows Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), a boxer coming to the end of his illustrious fighting career. After Davey’s final fight, his uncle calls and wishes Davey to come live with him in Seattle. Living opposite of Davey in the same apartment building is a taxi dancer Gloria (Irene Kane) who is constantly defending herself against her overly aggressive boss Vincent (Frank Silvera). After spending a day together, Davey and Gloria both decide to go to Seattle which angers Vincent, throwing him in a jealous rage at the climax of the film that takes place in an empty warehouse full of mannequins and assorted appendages.  

Through the hysteria of flying plastic bodies, Kubrick’s choice to make the hero Davey use mannequin body parts against Vincent and an Axe is questionable to downright puzzling. The sequence itself lasts a fraction of time in the grand scheme of things but the aesthetic of blank faces, random arms and legs makes for something out of a horror film. Maybe that choice is one of the reasons Kubrick is dissatisfied with the film. Bodies are being thrown around through the air while the two humans are fighting for life and death. Strange doesn’t even begin to describe it – Kubrick for all the good that has been accomplished in these first two features has some growth to go through.

Cutting into the action that drastically slows the pacing down is a narration by Gloria of her father and sister Iris (Ruth Sobotka). All while Gloria is telling Davey this story, the camera is focused on Iris who is performing a ballet routine that adds empty calories to an already stuffed entrée. Any built momentum is lost here which would be better spent staying in the present with Davey and Gloria.

While the triumph of Killer’s Kiss revolves around the performances and the verisimilitude of the backdrop of Manhattan. Jamie and Irene are a strong on-screen couple while Frank as the gangster is plain unpredictable and terrifying. Kubrick deciding to shoot on location in Manhattan in Penn Station and Times square is the best overall decision of the film along with the requested happy ending by United Artists. Something about the living breathing city that adds an authenticity to the film, even with emptier streets than New Yorkers are used to.

Both Killer’s Kiss and Fear and Desire are mere warmups for the acclaimed director, but the beginnings are strong efforts from every role Kubrick took on. The camera is well placed, capturing the grim and gritty side of New York that many don’t get to experience with hints at greener pastures. All in all, Kubrick has a ton of potential, and its identifiable in these early days of his career.

Screenplay By: Howard Sackler

Story By: Stanley Kubrick

Directed By: Stanley Kubrick

Music By: Gerald Fried

Cinematography: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Frank Silvera, Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Ruth Sobotka, Jerry Jarrett, Mike Dana, Felice Orlandi, Skippy Adelman

Release Date: October 1, 1955

Running Time: 1 Hour 7 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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