As director Stanley Kubrick's second feature-length film, Killer's Kiss (1955) is interesting for fans of the filmmaker who want to see his raw talent and to compare how it would later flourish and evolve. Beyond that, there's little to recommend about this straightforward and rather flat example of film noir. Even at 67 minutes in length, the film drags and feels padded.
Prizefighter Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is clobbered in a fight and planning to move out of the city when he saves his neighbor Gloria (Irene Kane) as she's attacked by her lover and boss Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera). Gloria is a private dancer, and Vincent is very possessive and unhinged when she tries to leave him. Davey falls in love with Gloria, and the two are about to leave when Vincent's goons murder Davey's manager Albert (Jerry Jarrett), and Davey is the prime suspect.
Kubrick was always keen on dehumanization, whether it be the cynical generals of Paths of Glory throwing away the lives of their men, the brutality of boot camp in Full Metal Jacket, or the desensitized dystopia of A Clockwork Orange creating amoral punks, and you can see early hints of that theme here. Davey is a prize fighter, an intense and physical occupation; his worth is measured by how violent he can be in the ring, and his weakness, his glass jaw, keeps him from being able to take the punishment the job requires. Gloria, a private dancer, could be called a prostitute (the film is vague on this point. I'm not sure if this is Kubrick's intent or pressure from the ratings board). She is a commodity, rented out by her boss to other men to "dance" with.
Unfortunately, dehumanization feels less like a theme of Kubrick's here than it does a failure to create compelling characters. The three central characters - Davey, Gloria, and Vincent - are not interesting and are barely drawn. The movie is lacking someone, anyone, to really invest in. The lovebirds are bland while Vincent is a weak, uninteresting villain. Kurbrick's next several works would contain a number of standout characters backed by some excellent actors, but there's not much here. Sterling Hayden's ringleader in The Killing is the type of edge this movie is missing.
The plot too feels disappointingly straightforward, especially coming from Kubrick. As typical of the filmmaker's early work, it is short and economical in style, but there's a difference between a taut narrative and a barely sketched scenario. Killer's Kiss feels like the latter. It sets up a situation and plays it out with no twists, surprises, or much exploration or elaboration. For example, we never learn much about Vincent's criminal operations, how big they are, or if he's a part of any other syndicate. He just uses two guys to go after Gloria and Davey and comes off as disappointingly small-time to be threatening.
The film is not even 70 minutes long, but it has scenes that go nowhere and has unnecessary narration from Davey. The boxing match is impressive from a filmmaking standpoint: intense, visceral, and claustrophobic, but it really doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the plot. When Gloria goes on a long-winded explanation of her family background, it's accompanied by footage of a ballet dancer that just goes on and on.
I don't mean to beat up on the film, but with someone like Kubrick directing, I expect something better, even if it is an earlier work. The movie shows traces of the style he would later fully develop, but Killer's Kiss just spins its wheels. For a low-budget, early work, it is impressive, but I've been spoiled by Kubrick's later masterpieces.