Stanley Kubrick’s two-fisted, two-bit noir ‘Killer’s Kiss’ (1955)

“Mobs, molls and mayhem”… what’s not to love?

In conjunction with its overwhelming Stanley Kubrick exhibit (open through June 30th), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will be screening Kubrick’s early noir Killer’s Kiss (1955) on at 7:30 on February 23.

Kubrick’s gritty, streetwise Killer’s Kiss was filmed in 1953 but not released until two years later, and today it looks so low-budget as to appear virtually hand-made. This is entirely a good thing. Killer’s Kiss pulses with life and low-rent vitality, the noir stylistics of the drama fusing with verité-like observation in the location work. It’s hard to believe this is the same Kubrick whose late work was so characterized by chilly artifice, meticulous and ponderous.

The best scenes are the ones filmed on location, the backgrounds and crowds of Times Square and the old Penn Station so interesting to take in that they almost overwhelm the low-grade noir story going on in the foreground. It still feels novel to see a street-level depiction of these locations in this era; a viewer watching today can only imagine how exciting it must have been to see unvarnished real life start to seep into American movies like this during the ‘50s.

Greatest tagline of all time?

Certain moments in the movie depict a kind of period sleaze that’s a riposte to any fanciful nostalgia about New York City. There’s a fascinatingly seedy, second-story dance hall in Times Square where unshaven crumbums in cheap suits can rent female dance partners by the quarter hour, while hoodlum enforcers keep watch in the corners, the intimation of cut-rate prostitution speaking volumes about the desperation on all sides. The joint looks less like a place of Saturday-night gaiety than an urban limbo where the truly hopeless have washed up.

Meanwhile, downstairs, on the street outside, straight-arrow boxer Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) waits for a friend, but what’s this, two mooks who have nothing to do with the plot come along and steal his hat, just for a laugh. Davey has to chase after them and restrain his temper while the two ay-holes yok it up, laughing in his face. The filming is shaky, and passersby routinely glance at the camera; the 25-year-old Kubrick clearly didn’t have PAs or permits on this shoot. The scene feels raw, and real. There’s a question of whether it will become ugly and escalate into real violence, like a moment out of Martin Scorsese, 20 years before Mean Streets.

The movie climaxes with a spectacular rooftop chase. But as rife with thrills as Killer’s Kiss is, the movie’s biggest kick might be its original tagline: “Her Soft Mouth Was the Road to Sin-Smeared Violence!” Damn. Now that’s how to sell a movie.

noir that's what I call filmmaking

KILLER’S KISS on DVD from MGM; it also appears, in restored hi def, as a bonus disc on Criterion’s edition of THE KILLING, Kubrick’s heist classic from 1956.

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