Release Date(s)1955 (June 28, 2022)
Studio(s)Minotaur Productions/MGM/United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: C+
[Editor’s Note: The film review is by Todd Doogan, from his look at the 1999 MGM DVD release. The 4K Ultra HD portion is by Bill Hunt.]
Stanley Kubrick put his early work as a photographer to good use with his second film, the noir classic Killer’s Kiss. Kubrick began his prolific career as a Look magazine staff photographer at the ripe old age of 17. Always a fan of the cinema, he quit in 1950 to focus on a motion picture career. After a few short documentaries, and a self-financed independent film, Kubrick made Killer’s Kiss as a one-man show. Then 26, Kubrick secured the financing through family members, and on the shoot he did everything including operating the camera, editing, Foley, directing, and writing. Every bit of Kubrick’s talent ended up on screen here, because the passion he had for this film is very clearly defined.
Killer’s Kiss is a short film (at just 67 minutes), but it wallops you over the head like a punch-drunk boxer. The story involves a long-out-of his-prime fighter, Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), who’s pretty much done in the world of boxing. He’s got a weak chin and can’t go a full round before being knocked down. Knowing his time is up, Davey takes an offer from his uncle to come to Seattle and work on a horse ranch. It sounds like a slow but fulfilling life, except for the fact that Davey gets sucked into the dance hall racket before he leaves, when he decides to “save” a young neighbor girl (Irene Kane) from her gangster boyfriend (Frank Silvera) Travis Bickle-style. Nothing goes right, people die, and characters turn on one another. The film’s climax takes place inside a mannequin shop, with two people fighting amid detached and disassembled human forms.
Killer’s Kiss is a well-drawn film-noir, a compelling thriller, and it offers some pretty wild characters. But that’s not what’s going to draw you into this world. The thing that sets Killer’s Kiss apart from other early career films is the way it was shot. New York City comes alive on screen in the way Kubrick photographs it. A chase across its rooftops looks so good, you wish it went on longer so you could enjoy the detail more. And Kubrick’s use of light and shadow makes you think back to those early boxing photos where there was no gray—just black and just white. The boxing match and the fight in the mannequin shop are simply beautiful. This is just a stunning film, with imagery that will linger in your mind long after the credits roll.
As noted above, Kubrick shot Killer’s Kiss himself on 35 mm B&W film using Arriflex 35 IIA, Mitchell NC, and Bell & Howell Eyemo cameras with spherical lenses. For its release on Ultra HD, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has taken advantage of a new 16-bit 4K scan of the original camera negative, and they’ve gone a step further by grading the image for high dynamic range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are available). The image quality is largely fantastic, bursting with subtle textures and fine detail, particularly in some of the back alley settings. A few shots are optically soft, but that’s to be expected given the low budget. And as this is a film noir, the image can be a little dark and gloomy at times. The HDR grade allows for truly black shadows and bold highlights—particularly in scenes with strong lighting—with a lovely range of contrast in between. Grain is medium and organic at all times. Of particular note here is Kubrick’s use of negative imagery for a brief nightmare sequence—a technique he’d revisit a decade later in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Audio is provided in English 2.0 mono in DTS-HD Master Audio format. It’s hardly a standout mix from a home theater standpoint, but it serves the film well, with clean and clear dialogue (recorded and synced later) throughout. There’s plenty of big city atmospherics, a bit of solid Foley work, and an ever-present jazz piano and brass score by Gerald Fried. Sharp-eared listeners may discern the voice of actor Jack Curtis (Speed Racer) as the TV announcer during the boxing broadcast. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ new 4K Ultra HD release comes in a single-disc package. The UHD disc includes the following extras:
- Audio Commentary by Imogen Sara Smith
- Killer’s Kiss Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:46)
- The Killing Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:46)
- Paths of Glory Theatrical Trailer (HD – 3:00)
The commentary by critic and historian Imogen Sara Smith (a regular Film Comment contributor) offers context, analysis, and historical details, focusing in particular on the director, his career, and this film’s place within it. The film’s trailer is also included, as are trailers for two other early Kubrick films (both of which are coming soon in 4K Ultra HD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics). Note that the first part of the trailer for Killer’s Kiss plays out with audio only over a black screen—that’s not an error.
Killer’s Kiss is the gem that first revealed the promise of a young Stanley Kubrick. Today, it stands to remind future filmmakers that they have a long way to go. Despite the low budget, less-than-stellar actors, and lack of crew, Kubrick delivered a cinematic experience that other filmmakers only aspire to make. Given the film’s vintage, it’s hard to imagine it ever looking better than it does here in 4K from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The disc is definitely recommended for both cinephiles and Kubrick fans alike.
- Todd Doogan with Bill Hunt