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For a first movie by a director who would later be hailed as a cinema genius and visionary, it has achieved a near-legendary status. Yet very few people have actually seen Stanley Kubrick's feature film debut, Fear and Desire (1953), because the young director, after heavily promoting it at the time of its release, later revisited the effort and found it "an embarrassing apprentice work" and withdrew it from circulation where it remained unseen for decades.
Kubrick almost succeeded in preventing any public viewings of his fledgling effort during his own lifetime (1928-1999) but in 1991, a print of Fear and Desire was screened at the Telluride Film Festival and then in 1994, it was shown on a double bill with Kubrick's Killer's Kiss (1955) at New York City's Film Forum. The director was highly displeased with these developments and even pressured his longtime distributor Warner Bros. to issue a press release in his words, stating that Fear and Desire was "written by a failed poet, crewed by a few friends, and a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious." Could the film be as bad as Kubrick claimed? Obviously not, according to some of those fortunate enough to have seen it, and now viewers of TCM will get an opportunity to judge for themselves when the network airs Fear and Desire, courtesy of The George Eastman House Film Archive.
Kubrick, a former photographer for Look magazine, had been wanting to become a film director ever since he left the high profile magazine and had already dabbled in moviemaking, having poured his own savings into the documentary Day of the Fight (1951), based on his own pictorial essay in Look entitled "Prizefighter." He sold it to RKO and was commissioned by the studio to direct a second documentary, Flying Padre (1951), and later created a thirty minute promotional film, The Seafarers (1953), for the Seafarers' International Union.
Kubrick had already been laying the groundwork for his feature film debut as early as January of 1951 when he approached Richard de Rochemont, brother of Louis de Rochemont of the famous "March of Time" newsreel series, to produce it. Although de Rochemont passed on the offer, he was sufficiently impressed enough with the young Kubrick's determination that he later recommended him as an assistant to actor/director Norman Lloyd, who was assigned to direct a five-part series on Abraham Lincoln (written by James Agree) for the Omnibus TV series. In the interim, however, Kubrick managed to make his feature film after obtaining the financing from his uncle Martin Perveler, the wealthy owner of a drug store chain and other businesses in Los Angeles. Perveler's initial offer was a contract that agreed to Kubrick's request in exchange for a set percentage of the profits from every film Kubrick would make henceforth. The young director rejected that offer but was rewarded in the end with a one-picture deal with his relative, who received an associate producer credit.
The screenplay for Kubrick's debut film was entitled "The Trap," and later changed to "Shape of Fear" during the production process. Kubrick had coaxed his friend, the poet Howard Sackler, to pen the script and the storyline was inspired by the Korean War which had erupted in June of 1950. Heavily influenced by the work of Eugene O'Neill with allusions to William Shakespeare's The Tempest, Sackler's screenplay focuses on four soldiers who are trapped behind enemy lines in an unspecified war.
Kubrick's original plan was to shoot the movie in upper state New York using a rented 35mm Mitchell camera, a minimal cast and crew and add the dialogue and sound later in postproduction. As New York was teeming with plenty of talented, ambitious actors, the director had his pick of the lot, casting unknowns Kenneth Harp and Steve Coit as two of the soldiers and Paul Mazursky, who was spotted in an off-Broadway production of Leonid Andreyev's He Who Gets Slapped, won the part of the young private who has a mental breakdown. Virginia Leith, a photographer's model, was cast in a small role as a woman who is taken hostage, and Frank Silvera, a well-known Method actor who worked with the Actor's Studio and Harlem's American Negro Theatre, played Mac, the platoon sergeant.
Because of the unpredictable weather in upper state New York, Kubrick decided to shoot Fear and Desire (the official release title) in California instead after scouting and securing ideal locations in the San Gabriel Mountains. Mazursky, who was still a student at Brooklyn College, had to get permission from his dean to go on the four week shoot. In his autobiography, Show Me the Magic, Mazursky recounts the entire experience in delightful detail, noting that Kubrick, at one point, had to leave the production to secure additional financing from his uncle amid much shouting and persuasion. The base of operations for everyone was a deserted Boy Scout camp and completely isolated from any nearby towns or decent restaurants.
"Conditions were never easy," Mazursky recalled. "The crew consisted of four Mexicans who moved the equipment and did a little building; Steve Hahn, a friend of Stanleys who recorded the dialogue (no sync sound); Bob Dierkes, a former coworker with Kubrick at Look magazine who handled follow-focus on the Mitchell camera; Skippy Adelman, the still photographer; and Toba Kubrick [Stanley's wife at the time], who served as the script supervisor. There was no dolly track, just a baby carriage to move the camera. Stanley did all of the shooting. No matter what the problem, Kubrick always seemed to have an answer. To me there was never a question that Stanley was already master of his universe."
Despite the severe limitations, Kubrick was able to complete Fear and Desire within his allotted thirty day schedule though there were a few mishaps. "Too strapped for cash to rent a fog machine for Mac's drift down the misty river," wrote biographer John Baxter, Kubrick "discovered that Hollywood's devices burned a soluble oil called Nujol, and improvised one by loading an insecticide sprayer with mineral oil and water. The resulting miasma choked everyone, though the effect was impressively atmospheric."
Returning to New York City after the shooting, Kubrick plunged himself into the post-production process which ended up costing him much more than he had originally budgeted. With a film score composed by Gerald Fried and performed by 23 musicians plus the editing and dubbing expenses, the Fear and Desire costs soared to $53,000. During this process, Kubrick had to take on additional work, hence his involvement on the Abraham Lincoln TV series, to finance the film's completion with some additional funding from Richard de Rochemont.
Kubrick eventually was able to preview the completed film to select opinion influencers in the film world. Among these were James Agee, experimental filmmaker Curtis Harrington, and Mark van Doren, the former film critic for The Nation, who proclaimed Fear and Desire, "brilliant and unforgettable," and even wrote, "nothing like it has ever been seen in a film before, and it alone guaranteeds that the future of Stanley Kubrick is worth watching for those who want to discover high talent at the moment it appears." The latter was an acquaintance of Kubrick (the young director had attended his film classes at Columbia) so perhaps he was being overly generous. However, there were reports that some audience members laughed at Paul Mazursky's overwrought performance and that Sight and Sound editor Gavin Lambert remarked after a screening, "I think it's incredibly awful...and I think he's incredibly talented."
When Fear and Desire had its official New York premiere though, most of the major media reviewers from Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker and others were positive with Variety calling the film, "a literate, unhackneyed war drama, outstanding for its fresh camera treatment and poetic dialogue." Despite the critical acclaim, Fear and Desire generated little interest at the boxoffice beyond the small art house circuit and quickly faded from public view as Kubrick moved on to his next project, Killer's Kiss. According to some sources, Kubrick was said to have personally destroyed the negative to Fear and Desire in 1953 to insure that no further prints would be made. That didn't prevent a few prints, however, from finding their way into various film archives. Kubrick's final words on the entire Fear and Desire experience were simply, "Pain is a good teacher," though viewers seeing his film for the first time will most likely be more forgiving and see an audacious and visually sophisticated debut feature which is much more accomplished than the first efforts of most directors.
Producer: Stanley Kubrick, Martin Perveler
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Howard Sackler
Cinematography: Stanley Kubrick
Editing: Stanley Kubrick
Art Direction: Herbert Lebowitz
Music: Gerald Fried
Cast: Frank Silvera (Sgt. Mac), Paul Mazursky (Pvt. Sidney), Kenneth Harp (Lt. Corby), Stephen Coit (Pvt. Fletcher), Virginia Leigh (young girl).
by Jeff Stafford
Stanley Kubrick: A Biography by John Baxter (Carroll & Graf Publishing)Stanley Kubrick: A Biography by Vincent LoBrutto (Donald I. Fine books)
Show Me the Magic by Paul Mazursky (Simon & Schuster)