Celebration of Failure: Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire” (1953) & “Killer’s Kiss” (1955)

A stylized shot from Stanley Kubrick's "Killer's Kiss", in which a man and a woman are speaking face-to-face against a brick backdrop.

Whenever studying an artist’s work, it is important to note not just the home runs, but also the near misses. Perhaps even the failures. This is because most often technique can be spotted within those early, easily dismissed achievements, and upon witnessing the raw potential without polish, one can spot the growth. What is to be found there? Think of the great, later works of any writer or artist and ask yourself how often do you feel lost within that approach. Sure, Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” reads great but what the hell did he do to achieve that? How does he make it look so easy? How about Michelangelo’s David, where the sculpting Master claimed that all he need do was to ‘chip away’? Again, all looks great but if one is a young sculptor, how does he get there? On one hand, 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those ever so perfect films with a narrative that unfolds like a poem. But what did Kubrick have to undertake to create it? Well, the answer resides in his early films.

Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are both early films that I’ll not bother summarizing with excessive detail. At their best, both show potential differently. Each finishing at around an hour, brevity seems to be their strongest quality, as anything longer would surely bore the viewer. To begin, I will first address Fear and Desire. As a war story, Kubrick tried to have all versions of his film destroyed, as he thought so little of it. (Amateurish was the word used.) While not a good film, it isn’t terrible either. I might even give it a slight pass, as in 60/100 if for nothing else at least there are some good shots. To contrast, think of Herk Harvey’s first and only film, Carnival of Souls that, like Fear and Desire, is also a B film full of hammy acting. The difference, however, is that Carnival of Souls moves about as if one were in a dream, and so the situations that might otherwise come off forced, actually work. Such is not the case with Fear and Desire. So where to begin?

For one, the soundtrack is heavy-handed and pretentious, often coupled with a voiceover that is equally pretentious. It’s not so much that the words themselves are bad, e.g., ‘no man is an island,’ just that they don’t work coupled with the narrative:

There is war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, or one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist, unless we call them into being. This forest, then, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear – and doubt – and death – are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.

To summarize, a handful of soldiers are in enemy territory and then they find a woman and tie her to a tree. Afterwards, while some walk off, one soldier attempts to seduce her and in his attempt to release her so she can supposedly wrap her arms around him, she runs away wherein he then shoots her. Later, they go to a house and shoot the enemies and we see poor acting as the bad guys fall to the floor dead, but not before dumping food from their empty hands, etc. (Very Hitchcock-like steal.) But in fairness, at the time of this film, Stanley Kubrick was only 24 and he was testing his skills. ‘No other country but the mind,’ the voiceover says. Again, not a bad line were this one of Terrence Malick’s mature films, but given the wan narrative and poor character development, such comes off laden and needlessly serious. Perhaps the shots through the leaves are the one redeeming thing. Oh, and the end when they’re on the raft—not a bad image at all.

Killer’s Kiss, however, shows an evolved growth and potential. As example, the characters are more developed and not merely conversing for the sake of the plot. Here, we have a richer narrative, albeit it is straightforward, but the scenes are better. For one, there is a wonderful shot of the sun setting over a building, which is very much reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey when we see the eclipse of planets. Memories are shared in the form of flashbacks, such as when the dancer is sharing her past. Also, we are witness to the boxing fights through the ropes, which is later mirrored with the boxer and dancer as they are seen in between the bedposts. Shots of the city streets accompany an eerie fog and evoke Mean Streets. Then there are the many mannequins, where the humans within appear alien among these surrounding, plastic forms. Killer’s Kiss, while limited in capacity given the traditional noir narrative, contains greatness potential that—rest assured—would be applied later.

While these are not mature films, it is interesting to watch backwards, as we are most familiar with Kubrick’s meticulous skill in his later work. Watching these two films was more akin to seeing prototypes than experiencing the final products. For one, it is almost impossible to view these independently of his later work, given how much Kubrick grew. It is also easy to be excessively harsh since we expect more, but were these the works of a film student today, more consideration and forgiveness would be given. (We’re not looking for achievement, we’re looking for potential.) As example, think of other low-budget gems like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, or again, Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. And let’s not forget that Orson Welles was also only 25 when he created Citizen Kane.

In short, artists grow and achieve at different intervals, at different times. This might sound simplistic but if you’re an artist reading this, remember that everyone is an individual and so what works well for one doesn’t necessarily work well for another. Furthermore, the lessons learned here are to try to not compare (even though we admittedly all do it) and to remember that it is ok to have crappy, early work. Most everyone does. Before one can succeed, one must first fail. The important thing is to recognize it and to learn from it. In a sense, to fail is to succeed, then, isn’t it?

Also, it’s very possible that techniques can be gleaned more easily through these ‘failures’, as one can see more obviously how craft improves, as opposed to being overwhelmed by the greatness in an artist’s later, mature work. (How did they get there?) I recall watching a number of Ingmar Bergman’s early films and was amazed to see how amateurish and melodramatic they were. With titles like Thirst, Torment, and Crisis, it is almost as though he were parodying himself. But, as with Kubrick’s early films, Bergman needed to get that out of him first—before finally finding the Winter Light.

* * *

If you enjoyed these reviews of Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a discussion with political scientist Benjamin Studebaker on the chronic crisis of American democracya review of bad art-centered YouTube channels, and an analysis of the 1972 classic, “The Limits To Growth”, with climate activist Arnold Schroder.

More from Jessica Schneider: 12 Decisions, 1 Life: On Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” (1957), An Underrated Gem: On Frank Whaley’s “The Jimmy Show” (2001)Company of Others: On Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls” (1962)