Killer’s Kiss by Stanley Kubrick (USA, 1955, 65 min.). New York City boxer Davey Gordon’s career is in its final round, in need of a sucker punch revival. His personal life has become solitary and routine.  Hope arrives in the form of Gloria Price, a beautiful dancer who has unfortunately attracted the romantic attention of her violent boss, Vincent. Davey and Gloria find instant romance and redemption in each other, and they make plans to leave behind the city and begin a new life.  These plans are foiled when Gloria is abducted by Vincent’s thugs and Davey is forced to embark and a classic film noir investigation, searching for her in the dark alleys of New York.

The film opens with Davey pacing in a New York train station as he provides some rare introspection: “Crazy how you can get yourself into a mess sometimes and not even be able to think about it without any sense. And yet not be able to think about anything else. You get so you’re no good for anything or anybody, maybe it begins by taking life too serious. Anyway I think that’s the way it began with me.” The character’s casual questioning into the how and why of his situation is an interesting element to the film’s otherwise faithful use of film noir conventions. As the film unfolds Davey embodies the boxer role to its core, acting on instinct and constantly in motion, dancing and dodging obstacles and opponents. The frequently furrowed brow and short-of-breath Gloria is a classic victim of circumstance, a woman attempting to run from her past who suddenly finds herself without a future; taken advantage of by a moral-less city and even more immoral boss. Pitted against the classically crooked villain, the two characters both are bound to each other but also to the greater instinct of self-preservation.

A retrospective provides an opportunity to take a bird’s eye view of an artist’s work in its entirety in hopes of spotting previously unknown patterns and details. From this vantage point one can see Kubrick often exploring the idea of a character’s quest for agency when the world they are living in seeks to limit this agency through laws and social convention.  When the characters are able to overcome this confinement enough to make decisions that effect change in their own lives, these decisions often lead to situations that are traumatic and confusing.  This catch 22 is a theme broad and nuanced enough to give us such diverse, dramatic and memorable characters as: Alex in A Clockwork Orange, the titular Lolita, Bill in Eyes Wide Shut and even the computer Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The conventional noir Killer’s Kiss seems like an unlikely place to begin this exploration, but Davey’s opening statement could be a refrain echoed by nearly all of Kubrick’s most infamous characters, who are frequently questioning their sanity after getting themselves into a messy situation.  The lasting power of Kubrick’s films lies in their ability to inspire the audience to view these events from a removed position, engendering a mental state of clarity and objectivity that can be useful when looking at our own complicated lives.

Rodney Uhler
New York International Children’s Film Festival