Noir Before More



Killer’s Kiss (1955)     ★★★ 1/2

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (United Artists)

Soon after his rarely seen, ambiguous war drama Fear and Desire (a debut that the meticulous director was apparently less than proud of), former Look magazine photographer Stanley Kubrick co-wrote, directed, photographed, and edited this fine piece of noir, prior to jump-starting his career with The Killing only a year later, a film of similar title and genre, but one that was received with considerably more acclaim.

Killer’s Kiss, featuring rather conventional story elements and dialogue, stars Jamie Smith as a welterweight boxer in New York, one who quickly falls in love with a dancer played by Irene Kane, and must soon confront her shady boss and ex-lover, played by Frank Silvera. Smith and Kane often have trouble with convincingly delivering their lines, a problem when it is essential for the audience to “believe” their relationship. However, Silvera does breathe life into a compelling villain, a man with dangerous capabilities, but whose cowardice cannot save him from an inevitable fate.

Kubrick was reportedly distraught with the film’s studio-imposed, happy ending. He had good reason to be. Not only was Killer’s Kiss funded almost entirely by a loan from one of Kubrick’s relatives, but there is so much directorial promise here; the film struggles to break out of predictable noir territory, loose ends failing to tie up in a way that does this ambition any favors.

The narrative, consisting of a quite entertaining series of flashbacks, is sufficient enough. But what truly shows Kubrick’s potential is his extraordinary cinematography, placing the camera from interesting vantage points and manipulating it based on point-of-view. Each shot is precisely composed, a favorite scene of mine being that in our hero’s apartment, in which we ponder his expression as he looks into the neighboring window of Kane’s character, and are able to glimpse his view through the mirror situated behind him. And my God, what a superbly edited boxing sequence!

Kubrick’s low-key lighting throughout both the shady and pompous districts of Manhattan is also a standout, as are various set-pieces, including a climax that takes place in a warehouse of manikins. It should be clear to anyone seeing Killer’s Kiss that Kubrick was a great director in the making, his authoritative control not quite making this project into something special. It is, however, worth seeing. His will-power and skills behind the camera are apparent. And within a decade, the style and substance of Kubrick’s singular craftsmanship would ferment with unprecedented impact. Killer’s Kiss is where it began, a hint of the man who would become a true American artist.


Following (1998)     ★★★★

Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan (Zeitgeist Films)

Christopher Nolan, whose July 20 release of The Dark Knight Rises we are all excitedly awaiting, ain’t no Kubrick, but in his premier film, Following, one of today’s most popular Hollywood directors arguably unleashes more creativity on the genre of film noir. An unemployed writer (Jeremy Theobald) develops a fascination for following people, intrigued by where they go, and hoping the answers he finds will allow him to scribe more relevant fiction. He is soon caught in the act by a man named Cobb, played by Alex Haw (does this character have parallels to Leonardo DiCaprio’s identically named planter/stealer in Inception? That, folks, is deserving of its own essay). Cobb is a burglar, but as the writer comes to realize, this man is no petty thief. He steals to introduce chaos into people’s lives, rather than to simply steal items. As he explains to Theobald’s character, he hopes to “show them what they had.”

Complications ensue when the writer becomes involved with a woman who Cobb and he have stolen from (Emma Thomas), prompting Nolan’s own ingenious writing to take hold. Almost more so than Killer’s Kiss, Nolan’s skills are all too present here; in the future, he would simply be given much bigger budgets. Following was shot on weekends in London over the course of several months, Nolan limiting costs by shooting on black-and-white, 16mm film stock and using primarily natural light.

His first endeavor is thrillingly scrambled, the story being told in several narrative frames. This style would become popularly accepted in Memento two years later, quickly placing Nolan in the spotlight. Here, Nolan is successful by always maintaining one step ahead of his audiences, or to be more accurate, several steps. In a manner that Nolan almost never returned to, Following‘s naturalistic cinematography, jump cuts between scenes, and hip score by David Julyan tend to evoke New Wave pioneers such as Godard, more so than any conventional homage to American film noir.

Nolan’s characters are never believable, and that leads to his advantage. He is able to manipulate them any way he likes, and in a film based upon a compelling exercise in genre, not quite knowing what to believe about the principal characters is certainly engaging in an unexpected way. Considering this, Following is a very well-acted film. I’m sure that arthouse faring, late-’90s audiences, not yet associated with Nolan’s scripted trickery (and still virgins to Sixth Sense logic), were also pleasantly taken aback by the surprises Nolan had in store.

The film, clocking in at just ten minutes over an hour, is a tight package; it takes awhile to become used to Nolan’s manipulation of time, staging of specific motifs, and play upon audience anticipation. And just when you becomes complacent within Nolan’s storytelling methodology, he cons you. Twice. As an audience member, such rapid changes in plot may be confusing. Critically, it’s bliss. Christopher Nolan, despite not having much of anything to make Following, knew what he wanted the film to be, and did the best he could to make it great. It comes awfully close, and is the first entry in a career that would continue to defy our expectations.



Nolan’s first feature also ties itself together through a quite interesting theme, one that we do not fully understand until the credits roll. As his talent was recognized, the Englishman would only be given more to work with. Kubrick, who passed away a year after Nolan made Following, had encompassed the same principle. These are entirely different filmmakers, Kubrick being my second-favorite director, and one who is legendary beyond a level current Hollywood “auteurs” are never likely to touch.

Yet both directors, through making such movies, have introduced a little chaos into our lives, shocked us, shown us things we have taken for granted, and more so for Kubrick, have displayed sides of ourselves that we are often not accustomed to facing. As his Dark Knight trilogy concludes, Nolan will continue to entertain international audiences, likely to never make anything as profound as Kubrick, but still write and direct movies of mass appeal more intelligently than almost any contemporary filmmaker. How odd it is, to compare these two great talents; radically different in both style and generation. Even stranger that they both began with noir.






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