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Fear and Desire

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Stanley Kubrick
Frank Silvera
Kenneth Harp
Paul Mazursky
Steve Colt
Virginia Leith
Bottom Line: 
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This Blu-ray release from Eureka Video’s Masters of Cinema range includes not only the very first full theatrical feature ever to be directed by the late Stanley Kubrick, but also three other shorts -- his very first tentative experiments in film – which, between them complete the record of Kubrick’s filmography now available in a home viewing format. “Fear and Desire” was a self-produced independent made in 1951 (and released in 1953) at the age of twenty-four, with finances provided by family and friends, during an era when independent film was a rare thing, although the Hollywood studio system, with its chains of cinema outlets, was just then starting to find itself being increasingly challenged by television and alternative exhibition systems sustained by art films from abroad and the emerging adult entertainment industry. The film was a primitive but well-made first-time effort by an ambitious and talented newbie trying to get him-self noticed in the film world. It was often dismissed by Kubrick in his later years as an uninteresting piece of amateur juvenilia, and withdrawn from circulation more out of embarrassment than anything else. An ultra-low budget effort, it nevertheless clearly anticipates Kubrick’s later work with its overt war theme, its allegorical overtones and its interest in representations of masculine physicality and their groundings in group psychology and unconscious drives which lead to madness and existential absurdity. Despite the director’s protestations, this is an essential purchase for the Kubrick fan -- even if everything here is merely the jottings of a young person attempting to find their direction while still in the throes of actually learning their craft through trial and error, the results are much better than might have been presumed.

We start this review with a brief look at the three shorts also included alongside the main feature on this disc. The first film Kubrick ever shot was a short piece called “Day of the Fight”. Before “Fear and Desire”, the earliest of Kubrick’s feature films still in circulation was his second self-produced boxing flick: “Killer’s Kiss”, from 1955 -- a traditional film noir storyline about a working class boxer who falls for the girlfriend of a local mobster on the eve of the biggest fight of his career. In that film, Kubrick mixed noir motifs and chiaroscuro lighting with a Cinéma vérité New York street style influenced by the neo-realist movement in Italy, to produce a serviceable, post-dubbed effort that distinguished itself in an over-familiar genre category through the unusual level of documentary authenticity it brought to its depiction of ‘50s Manhattan, with its brooding dirty towering tenements as a backdrop and its characters seemingly abandoned on the seamier side of the city. But the film turns out to have been anticipated by the style of “Day of the Fight”, a 16 minute self-financed (with $3,000 of savings) documentary short based on a photo series feature about prize fighting Kubrick had done while working as a staff photographer for the bi-monthly magazine ‘Look’. Both “Day of the Fight” and Killer’s Kiss” utilise a narrator and follow the daily routine of a young boxer on the up, while making use of a starkly photographed urban context that lends each work a guerrilla/street life, caught-on-the-fly feel; several of the friends who helped Kubrick out on “Day of the Fight” (composer Gerald Fried and assistant cameraman Alexander Singer) not only worked on his first three features but went on to have successful if low-key careers of their own in film and TV. While “Killer’s Kiss” brought documentary realism to fiction, though, “Day of the Fight” attempts to graft storytelling technique onto gritty true-life images shot with two 35mm movie cameras that took 100 foot spools of film at a time and which therefore required constant reloading.

Kubrick and Singer’s cameras follow the routine of Irish-American middleweight boxer Walter Cartier (who later went on to become fairly well known after acquiring a regular role as a supporting actor on “The Phil Silvers Show”) and his twin brother Vincent, as Walter prepares to fight black middleweight Bobby James. The voice-over script of the film’s narrator, Douglas Edwards (a veteran news anchor man of the day), emphasises Walter’s tense wait for the moment of truth that will make or break the career of this young boxer, and decide whether he progresses up the next rung of the career ladder or whether he finds his dreams abruptly halted. Kubrick captures documentary images of street life in Greenwich Village circa 1950 as the short film follows Walter about his day-to-day life and routine, breakfasting at his twin brother’s apartment on the eve of the fight then walking to morning mass where the two brothers take communion. We then see him preparing for the fight in his dressing room, and finally the fight itself -- shot by Kubrick and Singer with one camera hand-held and the other mounted on a tripod. The element of ritual, both in the life routines depicted, the fight preparation, and in the arena of the fight itself, provides Kubrick’s  ready-made theme in this brief and minor work that clearly serves as a template for the more substantial “Killer’s Kiss”. The quirk of the Cartier brothers being identical twins adds an offbeat angle that lends this introductory work a singular tonal quality that was to be captured again at the climax of “Killer’s Kiss”, in the fight scene staged in a warehouse full of shop dummies.

“Day of the Fight” succeeded in being picked up by RKO Radio Pictures (Kubrick made a $100 profit on the deal) and distributed as part of RKO-Pathé's “This is America” documentary series. This led to RKO’s Burton Benjamin commissioning Kubrick’s next work, another human interest documentary piece for the Pathe Screenliner series, nine minutes in length, entitled “Flying Padre”. The subject was Father Fred Stadtmuller, a Catholic priest whose rural New Mexico parish is shown to cover so many miles of rocky, barren desert that he has to use a self-piloted piper cub light aircraft in order to be able to reach the entirety of the district during administering his parish duties, which involve, it seems, solving the squabbles of local schoolchildren, conducing religious services, and acting as an impromptu flying doctor for sick infants whose parents can’t reach a hospital from their remote rural homes.

The 23 year-old Kubrick once again acted as his own cinematographer on the project, but the intrusion of hammy Pathe newsreel incidental music and a cloying, un-analytic voice over from CBS news anchor Bob Hite makes this rather an uninvolving, awkward piece of doggerel from a jobbing youngster who was clearly simply looking for experience rather than a chance to express himself. Kubrick apparently called the film ‘silly’ in a 1969 interview and there seems little that can be said about it other than that, once again, it demonstrates the Pathe technique of applying storytelling modes via a voice over artist who provides interpretative narration for the often staged documentary images – a technique which Kubrick would go on to subvert with his first couple of independent feature films, mainly out of necessity, since it was easier for him to mimic the methods he’d learned to use while making documentary films (where the images are first recorded without any sound, which is then added, along with narration and effects, in the post production stage).  This documentary-style, ‘voice of God’ narrator method, consequently appears in all of Kubrick’s first three feature films.

In 1953, Kubrick was employed in an even more conventional capacity for the documentary “The Seafarers”, a 30 minute promotional film made to advertise the services of the Seafarers International Union (SIU). It’s really a perfunctory information film that was funded by the organisation and served as an introduction for prospective members to the kinds of benefits they could hope to attain by joining. Shots of the union newsletter being printed up and dispatched, or which give a look inside the cafeteria at SIU headquarters (actually the first use of the sideways dolly tracking shot in any Kubrick work!) are accompanied by clips of union meetings and speeches by union bosses, and an upbeat voice over by Don Hollenbeck  -- another CBS news reporter, who would later suffer at the hands of the McCarthy senate hearings. Again, its inclusion here is mainly of historical interest only; It was the first film Kubrick shot in colour and was made really so that Kubrick could acquire the necessary funds to make “Killer’s Kiss” after the box office failure of “Fear and Desire”, the rarely seen first full feature that now gets this UK Blu-ray release from Masters of Cinema.

After hearing all about how Kubrick withdrew “Fear and Desire” from public circulation as soon as he had the chance to, and also how this inexperienced first time director shot the entire thing  without any sound on a rented Mitchell 35mm camera in the mistaken belief that  it would be quicker and cheaper to loop all the dialogue, the score and the sound effects afterwards (in fact it proved far more expensive to work that way), I wasn’t expecting too much from this sixty-two minute black & white indie effort – a low budget war movie, shot with a skeleton crew of high school friends (including Gerald Fried, who once again wrote the tense music score) and ex associates from the ‘Look’ magazine offices, using a small cast on location in the San Gabriel Mountains of California. In fact, Kubrick’s ‘embarrassing juvenilia’ quickly proves itself to be a remarkably assured debut, and holds up incredibly well. It’s almost alarming, in fact, how clearly the outline of later themes can be caught in sketch form here (sometimes rather unsubtly, admittedly) on the director’s first time out of the blocks. Financed by family members (most of the money came from Kubrick’s maternal uncle, a Los Angeles druggist who gets an associate producer credit) and a New York producer called Richard de Rochement (who’d also recently hired Kubrick as a unit photographer on “Abraham Lincoln: The Early Years” -- a five-episode TV series, and a placement which helped with the film’s spiralling post-production costs), the work was written by another high school pal, Howard Sackler: an aspiring poet who went on to forge a successful career as a playwright and screenwriter (his screenwriting credits include “Jaws 2”!). Part of the reason for Kubrick’s later dissatisfaction with the film stems from its self-conscious ‘artiness’; the script is full of allusions to Shakespeare and John Donne, and numerous other high culture references that signal the artistic pretensions of the young filmmaker and his friends, all of whom were influenced by the influx of foreign arthouse films into American independent cinema chains at the time -- many of them distributed by Joseph Burstyn, the man responsible for distributing Rossellini and Renoir in the states and who was impressed enough with Kubrick’s effort to take on the cause of distributing “Fear and Desire” as well. It was also Burstyn who renamed the film, which was originally shot under the title “The Shape of Fear”.

Superbly filmed in gritty black & white by Kubrick himself (who also contributed to the script and later edited the feature) using available natural light from the striking rural Californian landscapes to create many images of often intense poetic beauty, this is ostensibly a story about four soldiers trapped six miles behind enemy lines in an unspecified war, attempting to find their way back to their own battle lines as they pick their way along a riverbank that takes them through hostile woodland territory, controlled by an enigmatic enemy. This basic war movie ‘lost patrol’ set-up soon becomes an allegory for man’s war against his own conflicting needs -- social, political and personal. The opening voice-over narration comes over all Rod Sterling straightaway, and leaves little doubt in the viewer’s mind that everything he/she is about to see is being played out in some kind of hallucinatory Twilight Zone of the human psyche by emphasising how the film’s events should be presumed to be taking place ‘outside history’. This mysterioso introduction was perhaps a mistake in that it lessens the impact of the more surreal instances which gradually begin to mount up in what otherwise initially comes across as a realist wartime escapade.

The stranded men are led by an upbeat ‘can-do’ Lieutenant called Corby (Kenneth Harp) who comes up with a plan to build a raft to lead his three comrades back to safety by following the current of the river that flows through the lines dividing both sides in the conflict. But as they tentatively scout the area (and run into a mastiff dog that turns out to have other significance much later), divisions and resentments start to become apparent between the three men and their leader: Mac, the gruff, battle-hardened second-in-command (Frank Silvera) spies an enemy command post near a small aircraft runway in the distance, and wants to take it out, kill the enemy General in charge of it and his aide-de-camp, and fly back home in the light aircraft. Corby is more concerned with escaping alive than heroics, and this dispute becomes the basis for emphasising the different opportunities in life each of the men can expect when the war is over and how their prospects affect each man’s outlook. The well-to-do Corby has plenty to look forward to but Mac knows that he will live a life of obscurity and anonymity on Civvie Street, and that their current situation is his one chance for glory and immortality – even if the odds of his surviving the mission are negligible. Throughout the film, Kubrick emphasises how the only thing the men truly share is their isolation, despite apparently depending on each other for their survival. Perhaps the most well-known face among the cast belongs to actor turned screenwriter and director Paul Mazursky, who plays the callow young private Sidney. When the men discover a pretty but mute native girl (Virginia Leith) near the riverbank, they take her prisoner, tying her to a tree with their belts then leaving Sidney to guard her while they go off to scout the surounding area. The use of internal monologue throughout the film to emphasise how each man is trapped inside his own head is effective, the babbling internal voices merging into an incomprehensible babble on the soundtrack as the men follow Corby through the woodland. The isolation theme reaches its peak with Mazursky’s character’s futile attempts to connect with the captured female by indulging in comic mime in the misguided hope of amusing her. Gradually his madness becomes more and more apparent to the viewer, leading to a tragic outcome.

In contrast to Kubrick’s later style of film-making involving long, fluid takes and stately pacing, “Fear and Desire” is shot according to a brisk editing template with a series of short scenes realised with a largely static camera. Kubrick often utilises a systeme made up of staccato patterns with isolated shots edited in rapid succession to construct an impressionistic scene in abstract form, a method which reaches its zenith during a sequence where the comrades come upon a small enemy sentry post in the woods and stage a violent assault upon it. Their violence becomes a mosaic of images of disconnected body parts which add an air of unreality to proceedings, conveying the violence of their actions, the senselessness, and the impossibility of separating the two sides in the conflict either morally or physically. The climactic attack upon the enemy outpost shifts between the twined perspectives of Corby and the attacking men and the General whose command centre is under attack. In the expressionistically lit interior of the General’s house, we find out that the General and his aide seem actually to be older, more world-weary versions of Corby and the fourth man in the patrol, Fletcher (Steve Colt). As the film slips into a reflective, surrealist mode, with ethereal mist drifting across the twilight landscape, the film becomes more dreamlike and abstract in its presentation. With themes such as the ironic linkage between ordered rationality and madness, the perverted masculine logic of war and the universality of miscommunication between the sexes, this short feature contains scenes that remind one of just about every film Kubrick subsequently ever made and the post-dubbed looping is actually very professionally done and unobtrusive. It’s clearly a film of its time, made in the midst of the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict and set against a cinematic backdrop of European arthouse poetic film-making, yet it deserves to be seen, and is very far from being the embarrassment Kubrick often dismissed it as.

The restoration job performed on this surviving print is extraordinary, displaying exquisitely refined picture detail, immaculate black levels and a very strong mono soundtrack. In addition to the three early shorts mentioned above, the Blu-ray also includes a 15 minute presentation by Kubrick scholar Bill Krohn who has some very insightful things to say about the parallels once can find in this enigmatic film with later Kubrick works. In addition a 32 page booklet features an excellent contextualising essay by James Naremore, some behind the scenes snaps and production stills and a statement on the film by Kubrick himself. This, needless to say is an essential addition to any Kubrick fan’s collection, the inclusion of the early films adding a great deal to its value. Most of all though, it reveals a cracking little movie which takes the war flick into mysterious, intriguingly abstract territory. Recommened. 

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But the Night

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