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Killer's Kiss
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by Jay Seaver

"A good B-movie whose director may go on to bigger things."
4 stars

"Killer's Kiss" is the sort of crime flick that filled out the back end of a double feature, a true B-movie just long enough to satisfy the "feature" part of the term. It's notable because it was written, produced, photographed, directed, and edited by Stanley Kubrick, who would go on to make movies that didn't just fill out a program. And while it doesn't have the grand sweep of his later films, it's got the interesting choices and attention to detail that make it stand out among its peers.

Its story is told by Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), a prizefighter of some one-time potential about to hop a train from Grand Central Station back to his family farm in Idaho, but waiting until the last minute. There's a girl, of course, Gloria Price (Irene Kane), who lives in the apartment facing his, works in a dance hall, and is one of the favorites of proprietor (and gangster) Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera). One night, Davey sees a fight start to get ugly and rushes to break it up, and while it might be nice to be on Gloria's radar, being on Vinny's more than makes up for that.

Aside from the peculiar Fear and Desire, most of Kubrick's work up until this point had been as a photographer for the magazine Look, and that part of his career isn't far behind him here. Killer's Kiss is just a wonderful movie to look at, whether it's the nighttime photography of a busy New York City where the grain makes the scene feel even more alive, sharp black-and-white images like the tiled entryway to Rapallo's club, or rooftop chases and boxing matches that are shot in long takes from a camera giving a God's-eye-view. Kubrick knows exactly what to do with a movie camera, and the beauty of his work certainly enhances what could otherwise be a standard bit of pulp.

The story is, after all, nothing really special; Kubrick and co-writer Howard Sackler set up some characters who give themselves a bit of history but not a whole lot of individuality. Gloria seems to have the most backstory, but it's actually not primarily about her - it's as much an excuse for Kubrick to insert an incongruous ballet into his crime movie as it is an explanation of why Gloria can't stay with Rapallo any longer. The movie plays a shell game with characters at one point that looks spiffy but feels contrived, and when it hits the sort of film noir moment that has a real sting, it almost doesn't fit, like the filmmakers were ready to have criminals be bad people but not to uncover that sort of betrayal from ordinary folks. The twistiness and reversals expected from the genre aren't there.

There's at least one fun bit of subversion, though, in that Davey is mentioned to have a glass jaw in the ring and as a result the poor dumb palooka often finds himself not even able to rely on his fists during the story. Jamie Smith makes that work for him; there's a sweet determination to him that many of the noir protagonists trying to barrel through a story via brute force lack. Irene Kane is also pleasant enough as the ingenue placed in the film fatale role; she seems almost worn down most of the time and can both tell a story and give a good outburst (although she must share credit for that, as her dialogue was dubbed by Peggy Lobbin). And Frank Silvera makes a fair villain, finding an unusually good balance between threatening and heartsick without getting melodramatic.

"Killer's Kiss" doesn't add up to one of the all-time great film noir flicks, but it's better than average: It's quick, nicely shot, and fun to watch. It's the equivalent of a paperback torn through quickly and enjoy, only to find out the author later did some great work.

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originally posted: 02/06/13 16:23:47
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  DVD: 29-Jun-1999

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