If you’re going to go noir, at some point you might have to embrace a few tropes – the femme fatale, gangsters, perhaps a private eye and my personal favourite, the voice-over narration. And so begins Killer’s Kiss, a 1955 film noir and the second feature film from Stanley Kubrick. As the intro credits appear we see our protagonist – ageing boxer Davey Gordon (played by Jamie Smith) – pacing around at a station, cigarette in hand. The narration begins and ol’ Davey is going to tell us the story of how it all went a bit pear-shaped. Upon hearing this I settled back into my chair, confident that I was in familiar noir territory and knew what was coming.
I say familiar noir territory, but truth be told I am not an aficionado of the noir genre. I have seen The Third Man and Sunset Boulevard but have yet to experience the films that really defined the genre, like The Big Sleep amongst others. I guess therefore that my familiarity comes from an understanding of the lasting impact of the noir style and how it filters into the films we see today. Some of you cine-literate folk out there might be in the same position seeing as classic noir is firmly rooted in cinema’s past.
With that in mind. it seems fairly redundant to talk about the plot of Killer’s Kiss. Our hero gets tangled up with a dame – there’s always a dame – and a bit of crime. It’s straight out of the noir playbook and does very little to surprise of subvert the genre conventions, but to expect it to do that is more than likely asking too much of a director who was on welfare at the time of shooting, so a decent plot is nothing to be sniffed at. The performances fare a little worse than the story and it all rounds out to being quite run-of-the-mill.
These criticisms aside, the aspect where the film really pulls its socks up is in creating a wonderful atmosphere around the setting of 50s New York. We see the twinkling lights of theatres, paper blowing in run-down alleys, and sparse rooftops showing the dense fog in the distance. The city itself is a character and I found it to be the most entertaining one which seems to me to be one of the strengths of the noir genre. They have a strong sense of time and place, firmly rooted, thus giving a solid base for all the melodrama to occur. This also strikes me as playing to the strengths of film as a primarily visual medium so it’s no wonder that noir established itself so well.
Going back to Mr. Kubrick’s first foray into noir, it’s clear that he understands this to a tee. His talent for lighting and cinematography is well suited to the genre and he’s given ample opportunities to play with light and dark. Overall it’s still not a great film – it lacks polish in its pacing and the characters are weak at best – but this is far more the determined starting block for Stanley rather than the stumble that was Fear and Desire.
Next time on my personal Kubrickian journey, a clean break with his first success – The Killing.