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Kubrick’s Early Odyssey: ‘Fear and Desire’ and ‘Killer’s Kiss’

Kubrick's Early Odyssey: 'Fear and Desire' and 'Killer's Kiss'

As the much-anticipated Stanley Kubrick exhibition opened at LACMA on November 1, the museum hosts a parallel film retrospective of the director’s 13 feature films, screening in chronological order. This puts Kubrick’s two least-seen yet remarkable works, “Fear and Desire” and “Killer’s Kiss,” as the inaugural double-header for the film series on November 9.

“Fear and Desire” was made in 1953, when Kubrick was just 24. Already an obsessive perfectionist, the young director reportedly had the negative of the film destroyed, calling the work “a completely inept oddity.” 

But “Fear and Desire” is far better than Kubrick’s withering estimation. The film opens on a vast expanse of forest, and narration tells us: “There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war.” Four soldiers have survived a plane crash, and now remain stranded six miles behind enemy lines. Private Sidney (actor-director Paul Mazursky, in his first onscreen appearance) is the youngest of the group, and becomes unhinged when left alone to guard a peasant woman the men are holding captive. Sergeant Mac (Method actor Frank Silvera), who tormentedly regards himself as a nobody, sets his sights on an enemy general downriver, who he plans to take out in a daring suicide mission that will be the one great act of his life. (Mazursky recalls working with Kubrick here.)

The precariousness of sanity is a central theme of “Fear and Desire.” Kubrick pays particular attention to his actors’ faces with blunt close-ups, focusing on their darting eyes and sweat-streaked faces. Multiple narrators are woven into the film; the first is the offscreen narrator of the opening, but Sidney and Mac also have interior monologues that emerge as their situations become more dire, and as their mental states become more frittered. In a well-executed sequence, Mac paddles himself slowly to the general’s house, ruminating in an increasingly agitated state on the things in life that have seduced him, and ultimately brought failure. (“You try door after door when you hear voices you like behind them. But the knobs come off in your head.”) Meanwhile we see crosscut shots of Mac’s target, the enemy general, a depressed man holed up in his river house and passively awaiting death. He too talks to himself in voiceover, as he surveys cartography on the table: “Sometimes, as I look at these maps, I wonder if my own grave isn’t being planned. Here… or here… or here.”

Kubrick wants to get inside these men’s heads, and as they chart their own courses toward death, he charts their odysseys into the deepest and scariest realms of the mind. One character who remains a blank slate is the peasant woman. Played by Virginia Leith, and named simply “Young Girl” in the film, we know only that she has the misfortune of encountering the soldiers in the woods, and that she speaks a language the soldiers do not. Like the men, she is given a number of close-ups to communicate her fear, but we never hear it expressed. She’s in the film for only a few short minutes, and this makes sense — the world she’s stumbled into, of men and war, isn’t her world and has no place for her voice.

No wonder young Sidney goes crazy while guarding her. She’s a different animal. (This is alluded to, albeit sensationally, in the film’s original tagline: “Trapped… 4 Desperate Men and a Strange Half-Animal Girl!”) Mazursky is very good in the sequence opposite Leith, portraying Sidney’s nervous collapse with wild, sexually eager eyes and an increasingly shrill recital of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The young woman conjures up Sidney’s confusion and lust — or “fear and desire” — and this signals his breaking point.

The film noir “Killer’s Kiss” was made two years later, in 1955. It stars Jamie Smith as lonely veteran boxer Davey Gordon and Irene Kane as pretty, inscrutable taxi dancer Gloria, with Silvera again working with Kubrick, playing Gloria’s menacing boss, Vincent. When Davey and Gloria begin a relationship and decide to leave New York City for greener pastures, Vincent is wild with jealousy and sicks his thugs on the 29-year-old welterweight. A fraught chase occupies the last 20 minutes of the lean 67-minute film, with a showdown between Davey and Vincent in a mannequin warehouse. The latter wields an ax (beginning Kubrick’s onscreen fascination with axes — see “The Shining”), and the former fends him off with mannequin limbs.

The mannequin sequence is the best and best-known of the film, and communicates the running themes of isolation and anonymity in the big city. (In an early scene, Davey stares through a fish bowl, as if looking at himself and his best friend in the same moment.) But numerous sequences and shots are totally striking. Kubrick’s previous job as a Look Magazine photographer is apparent in Davey’s boxing scene opposite Kid Rodriguez, as the camera moves fluidly in the ring and under it, showing both the full-body athleticism of the match and the up-close facial anguish of a young man already too old for his sport. When Gloria tells Davey about growing up in the shadow of her ballerina sister, we cut to an extended flashback-within-a-flashback of a dancer en pointe fluttering lithely across an illuminated stage.

Whether or not Darren Aronofsky has seen “Killer’s Kiss” I don’t know, but Kubrick’s film foreshadows a number of themes and images Aronofsky has shown interest in. The stylish, chiaroscuro ballerina sequence is a clear predecessor to the opening sequence of “Black Swan,” while Davey’s physically degrading matches in the ring, intercut with Gloria at her dime-a-dance job, precedes the parallel between the wrestling and stripping worlds in “The Wrestler.”

Meanwhile, “Killer’s Kiss” has an understanding of emotional ambiguities. True to the title, the film pivots around kisses, and the obsessions that emerge as a result. The kisses are shared by killers, but which killer is the most treacherous is up for the viewer to decide.

“Fear and Desire” and “Killer’s Kiss” screen November 9 at LACMA. For those who can’t make it to the screening, Kino Lorber recently released a beautifully restored DVD and Blu-ray of “Fear and Desire.”

Complete LACMA Kubrick screening lineup:

November 9 | 7:30 pm Fear and Desire, plus Day of the Fight and Flying Padre

November 9 | 9:20 pm Killer’s Kiss, plus The Seafarers

November 10 | 5 pm The Killing

November 10 | 7:30 pm Paths of Glory

November 16 | 7:30 pm Spartacus

November 17 | 7:30 pm Lolita

November 30 | 7:30 pm Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

December 1 | 7:30 pm 2001: A Space Odyssey

December 7 | 7:30 pm A Clockwork Orange

December 8 | 7:30 pm Barry Lyndon

December 14 | 7:30 pm The Shining

December 15 | 5 pm Full Metal Jacket

December 15 | 7:30 pm Eyes Wide Shut

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