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Produced on a shoestring budget of $75,000, Killer's Kiss (1955) was Stanley Kubrick's second feature but the first one to demonstrate his emerging style and technical virtuosity as a filmmaker. Although the plot is straight out of a pulp fiction novel - a second-rate boxer rescues a dancer from a lecherous nightclub owner with underworld connections - Kubrick cleverly exploits the film noir aspects of the material through his evocative cinematography; flophouses, cheap restaurants, penny arcades, and other now vanished remnants of the Broadway section around Times Square serve as a seedy backdrop to the story. The film is also distinguished by Kubrick's use of flashbacks, nightmare sequences shot on negative film stock, and dynamic editing techniques such as the scene where he cuts back and forth between a boxing match and an attempted rape.
Killer's Kiss evolved from an original story Kubrick developed with Howard O. Sackler entitled Kiss Me, Kill Me and featured a New York boxer as the central character. This was a milieu Kubrick knew well having photographed such prizefighters as Walter Cartier and Rocky Graziano while working as Look magazine's photographer. After a Bronx pharmacist named Morris Bousel put up $40,000 (Kubrick gave him a producer credit), Killer's Kiss became a reality. In the biography, Stanley Kubrick, author Vincent Lobrutto wrote that, "Kubrick worked on the city streets, guerrilla-filmmaking style. Scenes of the main characters in their tenement apartment were shot in a small studio. All the camera equipment, laboratory, editing, and dubbing costs were arranged on a deferred-payment basis. The actors worked for a modicum, including Frank Silvera, who had appeared in Kubrick's first opus, Fear and Desire (1953). Kubrick shot the film in twelve to fourteen weeks, a long schedule for a low-budget production. 'Everything we did cost so little that there was no pressure on us - an advantage I was never to encounter again,' Kubrick told (writer) Alexander Walker. 'Photography and postproduction were completed over a period of ten months.'" Although Kubrick had planned to shoot Killer's Kiss in sync-sound, he was forced to post-sync all the dialogue and sound due to budget and time constraints.
With the exception of Frank Silvera, the cast of Killer's Kiss was largely non-professional. Irene Kane, who plays Gloria, is actually the stage name for Chris Chase, a well-known journalist. Ballet dancer Ruth Sobotka - Kubrick's girlfriend at the time - is featured prominently in a flashback sequence involving Gloria's doomed sister. According to Lobrutto's biography, "The Times Square sequence, where two conventioneers tease Jamie as he waits for Gloria, was shot on a cold New York night, but the actors had to dress for a warmer night as portrayed in the film. 'It was a freezingly cold night,' actor David Vaughan recalls. 'Stanley really kind of left the street scene to me. He told me afterwards he thought I was a great comic actor, but I was a little embarrassed by doing it. I wasn't used to doing that kind of improvised work out in public like that.'" Nevertheless, New York City streets became Kubrick's set, even though he had done nothing to get permission to shoot there. Everything was shot quickly and on the cuff like the sequence where the camera follows the two conventioneers down Broadway during the stolen scarf chase (Kubrick achieved the panning shot by riding along the curb in a truck with a concealed camera).
The completed film was sold to United Artists who released it as the bottom half of a double bill in selected markets. Though Killer's Kiss was mostly ignored by critics at the time, Kubrick viewed it as a personal success. He later told biographer Alexander Walker, "To the best of my belief, no one at the time had ever made a feature film in such amateur circumstances and then obtained worldwide distribution for it."
Producer: Morris Bousel, Stanley Kubrick
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick (story), Howard Sackler (uncredited)
Cinematography: Stanley Kubrick
Film Editing: Stanley Kubrick
Original Music: Gerald Fried
Cast: Frank Silvera (Vincent Rapallo), Jamie Smith (Davy Gordon), Irene Kane (Gloria Price), Jerry Jarret (Albert, the Fight Manager), Mike Dana (Gangster).
by Jeff Stafford