Stanley Kubrick’s early films offer rich rewards

Told via flashback, Stanley Kubrick's 67-minute Killer’s Kiss features some of the most evocative New York City location footage ever lensed.
Told via flashback, Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss features some of the most evocative New York City location footage ever shot.

I’ve always been a little ambivalent about Stanley Kubrick. I never grokked the appeal of his science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), found much of A Clockwork Orange (1971) offensive (which was probably the point, but still), and — as much as the word ‘bravura’ could have been invented to describe the filmmaking displayed within it – The Shining (1980) has always left me cold.

On the other hand, there’s the enduring black comic brilliance of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Loved the Bomb (1964), the first-half perfection of Full Metal Jacket (1987), and the quiet, literate triumph that is Barry Lyndon (1975). Based on those three films alone, I consider myself a pretty big Kubrick fan.

The director’s early films, however, also offer rich rewards. Pacific Film Archive’s forthcoming series, ‘Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick’, provides film fans an opportunity to view the director’s complete works (thirteen features over a period of five decades) in (almost) chronological order.

The series begins at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 4 with Kubrick’s first two films, Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955). Both films are intriguing if erratic works, a little light on story but providing plenty of clues that this was a young director with a big future ahead of him.


Clocking in at a brief 62 minutes, Fear and Desire barely qualifies as a feature film. Kubrick himself disparaged it as an amateurish effort made by a foolish young man, but of course it provides invaluable insight into the filmmaker’s rapidly developing talent.

Set during World War II, the film follows a quartet of GI’s stuck miles behind enemy lines somewhere in Europe. Determined to evade capture and return to friendly territory, the foursome (light-skinned African-American thespian Frank Silvera, future director Paul Mazursky, Kenneth Harp and Steve Coit) negotiate a tricky and unfamiliar landscape populated by German soldiers and farm girls who may or may not be inclined to assist them.

The acting is erratic and the editing sometimes crude, but Kubrick’s eye for composition is already apparent, with close-ups aplenty and effective use of light, darkness and shadow. Though the film isn’t exactly enjoyable, it is a fascinating piece of work, and essential viewing for Kubrick admirers.

Much more engaging is the director’s next effort, Killer’s Kiss. Silvera returns, here cast as Vinnie, an Italian dancehall owner who has the hots for employee Gloria Price (the director’s sister-in-law, Irene Kane). Unfortunately for Vinnie, Gloria is prizefighter Davey Gordon’s (Jamie Smith) girl, and the pugilist ain’t about to surrender her without a fight.

Told via flashback, the 67-minute Killer’s Kiss features some of the most evocative New York City location footage ever lensed, with an especial emphasis on reliably gaudy Times Square. It also includes a memorable boxing sequence that surely provided Martin Scorsese inspiration prior to Raging Bull.


That was the end of Kubrick’s amateur hours. After Killer’s Kiss came 1956’s The Killing (screening at the Archive at 8:20 p.m. on Saturday, September 6th), a brilliant caper flick detailing an attempted racetrack robbery headlined by Sterling Hayden and Timothy Carey.

By the time Kubrick got to Paths of Glory (screening on Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m.) in 1957, the director had graduated to the ‘A’ list, with stars such as Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready starring (alongside returner Carey) in one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. From here on, Kubrick’s own pathway to cinema glory was assured. Spartacus was next, followed by his self-imposed exile in England.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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