Killer's Kiss is Stanley Kubrick's second feature as a director, following the obscure Fear and Desire (1953). It's often said that this film is more promise and glimpses of Kubrick's brilliance (even the back of the VHS box says so), and in some ways, this is accurate, given the bigger budgets and broader thematic landscapes of his later work. But, with Kubrick's uncle reportedly footing the picture's modest $40,000 bill, it stands on its own as a great piece of gritty noir and a fully realized vision of the love story at the heart of the movie.
Killer's Kiss is about a guy and a girl. The guy is Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), a lonely and homesick middleweight boxer, whose floundering career is earmarked by his latest defeat, knocked out by a younger fighter. The girl is Gloria (Irene Kane), a club hostess in bed with its greasy owner and crazy possessive hood, Rapallo (Frank Silvera). Gloria lives directly across the way from Davey, in a different wing of the same building, and they can stare right into the other's matching shoe box studio apartment. (As a side note, watch for the similarities between Davey's apartment and Rocky (1976) - mirror adorned with family photos and pet goldfish [Balboa has turtles].) Davey's got the itch to move back to Seattle and work at his uncle's horse ranch. Gloria's itching to escape Rapallo's clutches, but he won't have it. He's in it bad for her, and is a wreck of envy and obsession. She calls him an old man who smells bad.
One night, Davey hears Gloria scream and catches sight of Rapallo manhandling her in the apartment. Rapallo's been made and takes off, while Davey runs to Gloria's aid, tucking her into bed and lending an ear. The two share a dream to make a new life somewhere from far from the concrete jungle and are soon swimming in each other's souls. Davey's ready to cash his last paycheck and tells his manager, Albert (Jerry Jarrett), that the time's come to leave. Gloria's taken by Davey's true love for her and she's got to get her stash from Rapallo before she can go. Of course, this doesn't sit right with Rapallo and he tries to muscle Davey out of the scene and hang onto his girl. But Rapallo's dumb goons mistake Albert for Davey and beat the manager to death in a dark alleyway. Gloria's holed up in an abandoned building and with the cops on his tail for Albert's death, Davey has no choice but to meet Rapallo face to face, pistol in hand. The finale includes an amazing panoramic rooftop foot chase, followed by an ax and pick duel between Rapallo and Davey in a mannequin factory. The film ends with Davey and Gloria catching a train to Seattle in the old Penn Station.
The flick is told in one main flashback, bookended by Davey smoking a cigarette at the station. Gloria's back story emerges in two shorter flashbacks, cleverly detailing her run-in with Rapallo that sets the whole thing off, and then a voice-over account of her childhood against images of her deceased sister ballet dancing across a stage (performed by Kubrick's second wife, Ruth Sobotka). We learn that Gloria has no family left and can understand why she would take up with someone like Rapallo, who promises money and shelter. Davey's got one more fight in him and this time, Gloria is the prize. He can salvage his shortcomings in the ring by sweeping Gloria away with him back home. This is Davey's promise to her. A new family, safe and caring.
The film's budget limitations are apparent at points (check the passersby spiking the camera in Times Square) and contradict Kubrick's reputation as a demanding stickler for technical detail. While the dialogue between Davey and Gloria is spot on, Silvera's cornball act as a tortured-by-love gangster and bits of contrived expository speech slightly detract, and are mostly signs of the era. But Killer's Kiss is an early effort and preludes Kubrick's additional seasoning as a writer and director, eventually leading to later masterworks, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971).
What we do get is Kubrick's undeniable genius in composition and framing, adding texture to character motivation and environment. It's execution over content that always sets his pictures apart. (Except for Spartacus (1960), which was work-for-hire, dominated by greedy Hollywood hands, and caused Kubrick to move to England so he could have full creative control.) There's a bravado in the way his camera observes what's happening and captures our attention, without any big, hectic movements. See the gliding shot through Rapallo's club, the slight push-ins on Davey's window as he watches Gloria, the wide shot of the alley, hugging the looming shadows when Albert is killed, and the deep, seemingly infinite pan around the foggy city skyline during the rooftop scene. The movie is downright gorgeous.
Kubrick is creating the story world within the real world, with reality only creeping in as much as needed for his art to invoke reaction. When Rapallo's goons lay into Davey, it's quick and brutal, using fists, knees and legs, like a real life beating would. The wielding ax ripping through mannequin limbs, while Rapallo and Davey stumble into each other, is cool, surreal and rough, like a non-choreographed rumble should be. And Davey's run through the empty streets after hurling himself out of a window is eerie and uneasy. The buildings fill the screen and the space around him. It reminds me to some extent of the famous plane and field scene in North by Northwest (1959), where Cary Grant's Roger has all the room in the world to run in any direction, but nowhere to hide. Here, Davey's course is suffocating, navigable through alleys of steel and cement. The buildings are locked and boarded. He can only go up to escape.
The boxing match scene is incredible. Shot from a low-angle through the ropes, as if being watched from a ringside seat, the jabs, uppercuts and roundhouses hit hard with gloves smashing against skin and muscle. The fighters sling sweat and spit, and actually play defense, unlike some other boxing flicks. (Don't get me wrong, Rocky is a great film and one of my all-time favorites, but Killer's Kiss is more Raging Bull (1980) and I have to believe that Scorsese took notes.) Again, the realism here is not about wowing anyone. It's about feeling the crash of Davey's boxing career. It's about Davey ending one life and reaching for another. It's about his toughness to deal.