Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Love is a Killer

Every director has his or her own unique style. This is where the whole concept of auteur theory, first pioneered by French critics such as Francois Truffaut and, somewhat unfortunately, Jean-Luc Godard, originates. While it is debatable whether the director should in fact be considered the "author" of a film (one could make a good case for why that label should instead go to the screenwriter), there are patterns to be observed among a director's work. No two directors are the same (though often they may influence each other), and once you know their style it becomes easy to recognize.

In the case of these early critics, they learned to see patterns in the films of Hollywood directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock. Today, anyone well versed in their films could easily distinguish a John Carpenter film from a movie by David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino. What those patterns are will vary. It may be in terms of the content of their films, such as Tarantino's use of gore. It could be in the environment such as Carpenter's love for claustrophobic environments. It could be in terms of narrative, such as Tarantino's trademark of non-linear storytelling. It could be in terms of themes, such as Lynch's habit of making films about seemingly ideal communities that turn out to have a hidden darker side. It might even be as simple as the director having certain actors they routinely cast, such as Tarantino and Harvey Keitel or Lynch and Laura Dern.

However, for every director, their style has to develop. For this reason, it is often interesting to look back at their earlier films and compare it to their later work. In some cases it is more obvious than others. Reservoir Dogs is more clearly a Tarantino film than Dark Star is a Carpenter film. Still, there is one director who has eluded such easy categorization: Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was such as versatile director that his style is almost impossible to clearly define. He had ideas that occasionally popped up, certain forms of iconography that would become trademarks, such as the use of long and narrow spaces and the famous "Kubrick stare". However, this does not start to appear until fairly late in his career.

Killer's Kiss was Kubrick's second feature film. Prior to this one, Kubrick's only feature film had been the independently-produced Fear and Desire (a film he would later try to disown to the point where it would not see a legal DVD release until over a decade after his death). Killer's Kiss is a bit more straight forward compared to Fear and Desire, and was made with better production values. It might not be Kubrick's strongest film, but it was the movie responsible for bringing him into the mainstream and launch a directorial career that would last for 44 years.

Davy Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a washed-up boxer trying to figure out what he wants to do with himself. He still takes parts in fights from time to time (leading to what would have been a very daring fight scene for the era). He is thinking about going home to see his parents on their ranch, but then he hears his neighbor Gloria Price (Irene Kane) screaming after an encounter with her boss Vincent Raphello (Frank Silvera), who is basically committing sexual harassment (at a time when that sort of behavior was easier to get away with). Davy finds himself sympathizing with Gloria, who has had a difficult life, and decides to help after quickly falling in love. However, Vincent does not take kindly to this development, and tries to pull them apart, even going as far as to frame Davy for murder.

It is definitely hard to spot any of Kubrick's early trademarks here. It certainly does not look like a film by the man who would go on to direct films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut. There isn't much of the narrow corridors, the bathroom scenes, or even the famed "Kubrick Stare" that would become associated with his later films. There is, however, one thing about Killer's Kiss that does resemble Kubrick's other films, if a very general aspect: it demonstrates his constant refusal to conform to standard filmmaking practices. In that sense, this film is actually quite impressive.

Fear and Desire was first released in 1953, with Killer's Kiss following two years later. At the time Kubrick was getting started, the Hollywood Studio System was still in full effect. It would not be for much longer; the Production Code had already been relaxed with America's entry World War II and a series of legal cases over the following years would bring it to an end, but when Killer's Kiss first premiered the rules were still in place. Hollywood had very specific rules about how to structure a film, this being the "Classical Model" that is still dominant today (story comes first). The Motion Picture Production Code might not have been as strictly enforced as it was during 1934, but there were still rules about what could and could not be depicted. There was more lenience towards violence, but not so much regarding sex.

Kubrick was never the kind of man who liked to stick to rules. While he would have had to work within the rules of Hollywood filmmaking, he also liked to take chances. Beginning in the 1960's, there was more room for him to do his own thing, but in the 1950's, he had to follow the rules. Killer's Kiss can certainly be considered a classical film, but for 1953 it would have actually been quite daring. The one scene in which Davy is shown boxing is very intense for the era in which it was made (and it wouldn't be far-fetched to assume Martin Scorsese took some inspiration from it in Raging Bull). There is also the fact that the plot is basically about a female dancer being sexually harassed by her boss (even if the words "sexual harassment" are never used), at a time when sex of any kind was forbidden (the Production Code included a long list about how filmmakers were not allowed to address "illicit sex"). The fact that said boss is cast as the villain because of his actions could also be seen as fairly progressive for the era. Then there are other odd stylistic choices, such as juxtaposing shots of a ballet performance over Gloria's narration of her troubled childhood, which seem peculiar but simultaneously make it interesting.

Perhaps the most daring element is the climactic fight scene between Davy and Vincent, which happens in a mannequin warehouse. The warehouse in question is filled with nude mannequins; many of them women with exposed breasts. Kubrick would later go on to show plenty of living nude women (perhaps most notably in A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut), but nudity was frowned upon even before the Production Code was in place. Most of the "controversial" films it aimed to suppress only hinted at sex through innuendos. The Production Code itself even states that "Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture." Despite all this, Kubrick was able to shoot a scene in a room where the characters are literally surrounded by fully-naked (if artificial and unmoving) bodies. This was an extremely daring move that could have easily gone wrong, and the fact that Kubrick even had the nerve to consider it is admirable.

Ultimately, Killer's Kiss isn't Kubrick's greatest achievement, but it is still worth seeing. As an introduction to Kubrick, it works, as it shows just how creative he could get and how he never wanted to let anything interfere with his vision. The story might be simple compared to his later work, but it is impressive just for how daring it would have been during the 1950's. The fact that Kubrick had the nerve to take as many chances as he did is admirable.

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