Go to Table of Contents of the analysis (which has also a statement on purpose and manner of analysis and a disclaimer as to caveat emptor and my knowing anything authoritatively, which I do not, but I do try to not know earnestly, with some discretion, and considerable thought).
The most important thing which must be kept in mind with Kubrick's films is there is the surface or principle story and then the internal or sub-story. In many of his films, if we're really paying attention, set elements pretty much immediately destroy the surface naturalism. One may not notice this destruction the first, second or third time one watches the film. Through constructive disorientation and disconnectedness, and sleight of hand as to where our eye focuses, Kubrick, the magician, intentionally obfuscates these elements that destroy the overt and naturalistic story line. The surface story lines are the principle ones, and this is maintained and supported by the intentional obfuscation of the deconstructive elements which keep them sub rosa. At the same time, these deconstructive elements are plainly there, alongside his tremendous effort to make things look real and believable, and once we bypass the disorientation and his purposeful refocusing they become a puzzle, annihilating the sense of reality. This destruction of the film's naturalistic story line is difficult enough to conceive of and accept that most people stop at this point and decide these puzzling aspects of Kubrick's films are errors when they are not. They are part of the art of a director cleverly designing the overt story line to be unimpeded by an internal story that tears it apart. Indeed, the sub rosa elements of the internal story may be discreet but they are enough in evidence to complicate the surface story with an aura of attractive, indefinable mystery, which is one of the reasons viewers return to Kubrick again and again. To work with the "reason" and "why of the internal story line is to try to settle into Kubrick's sensibility, examining how these internal stories form a dialogue in his oeuvre with repeating themes and ideas, elaborated upon from film to film. The internal stories haven't a "plot"; they aren't that kind of story. Instead, you have to be willing to deal with comprehending the themes and ideas represented in them as instead ultimately forming a different terrain for the setting of the surface story, guiding and interacting with the overt story and giving it a new form.
More Than an Homage: You’ll Be Amazed at Kubrick’s Hidden, Very Elaborate References, in “Killer’s Kiss”, to an Obscure Magic Film of Orson Welles!!!!
How’s that for a click-bait intro melded with an unwieldy title? But it’s true, the part about the subject being pretty amazing, and what Kubrick did was more than an homage, it was damn well near a statement of artistic purpose which speaks to his entire career. The story holds more detail than might be preferred by the very casual reader, but if you’re a Kubrick fan it’s worth your time.
If you’re not familiar with Killer’s Kiss, here’s a bare minimum sketch of the plot up to about 3/4s of the way through the film. Davey, a boxer, falls in love with Gloria, a taxi-dancer at the Pleasure Land dance hall where customers purchase tickets for dances with dance hall hostesses. Gloria and Davey meet after Gloria’s gangster boss, Vincent, had apparently raped her (this is intimated, not directly voiced), and Davey had lost a big fight which would have been the end of his career. There’s nothing left for them in the city, so Gloria and Davey decide to run off together to a new life in Washington state. When Gloria goes to the dance hall to get the pay owed her, the boss, Vincent, learns about Davey and resolves to get him out of the way somehow.
In Killer’s Kiss we have a couple of very curious shots concerning Davey’s boxing manager. The first is shot 19, of Albert making a phone call to Davey, informing Davey he can’t pick him up and he’s going to have to catch a taxi to the big fight (the one he will lose).
Perhaps not so intense in a screengrab, but the effect in the shot is such that Albert seems to be standing in front of a blue screen of a gym. When he hangs up the phone he turns to take a step toward the gym and a cut is made at a point where it looks like the blue screen begins.
Fast forward to shot 242, and again we have Albert in the gym, only this time he is in the body of the gym, standing to the side, and interacts physically with one of the boxers. The phone rings and Albert walks forward, toward us, the audience, to answer it, and once again suddenly we have the change in light so that we have again the same effect in shot 19, it appearing that he stands in front of a blue screen.
Shot 242 a
Shot 242 b
Kubrick cuts to shots 243 and 244 in Gloria’s apartment of Davey speaking with Albert while Gloria listens, then in shot 245 returns to Albert who hangs up the phone and walks out of this curious effect back into the gym. It is as though watching the barrier dissolve between him and the blue screen behind him and he being assimilated into it.
Why? Why have it appear earlier that Albert is standing in front of a blue screen and then in shots 242 and 245 do the reveal that shows instead the effect is a matter of lighting? Most people want blue screens to appear real. Right? And this seeming blue screen is fairly jarring as there are no other shots like it in the film and no real blue screens.
Why make a real set scene appear to be a blue screen? Is it just a matter of bad lighting?
No, it's intentional.
The phone call Albert was answering in shot 242 was from Davey who was asking him to meet him in front of Gloria’s work place, the Pleasure Land dance hall, and bring him some cash in exchange for the check he’d received for his failed fight. Albert agreed, saying, “I’m taking my wife to a show and I’ll just about make it.”
Albert arrives in shot 277 but Davey isn’t there.
Cut to shot 278 and Albert moving to stand in front of the Pleasure Land entrance to wait for Davey. The street isn’t shown. Pleasure Land facade shots are always dissociated from the street, there’s never a pan from the facade to the sidewalk/street, but I’ve plotted everything out according to what we see of the street in the various sidewalk shots and according to shots that show the street we know that the Pleasure Land entrance is supposedly between the Victoria and Astor theaters.
Where is Davey? Davey had left just seconds before to chase down some Shriner drunks/clowns who took his scarf. In the meanwhile, Gloria’s boss, thinking that Albert is Davey, sends down two thugs to either work him over or kill him, we’re not sure which was Vincent’s intent though he later insists he never meant for anyone to be killed.
In shots 287 and 288 the thugs corner Albert in an alley. He bangs on a door and on the windows of a building. We can hear the laughter of an audience inside the building, they watching a show. Albert’s efforts to escape or be rescued are to no avail. The thugs kill him off screen.
It occurred to me that the blue screen effect and Albert’s saying he was going to a show fit in with his banging on the windows and our being able to hear an audience laughing. It's going to be difficult to describe how this is so, and I hope you'll stick with me. In his films, Kubrick plays a lot with expanding the role of the actor/character so they become as real entities conjured by their god of a writer and are trapped in their predetermined world by that writer (or director). Wanting to keep this concise, I don’t have room to go into examples of how that’s so here so I’ll leave it at that. Kubrick also plays with the roles of the audience, action and camera, most pointedly in A Clockwork Orange, breaking down the fourth wall so the audience is intersecting directly with the action. For instance, when Alex is finally strapped into his chair in the theater during his programming, he is actor and audience staring at the screen, the movie he’s watching replicating his thug/droog life, a scene during which we have his famous remark that blood always looks more real on screen. Later, he does in fact watch real life movies of Nazis. As Alex watches from his position in the audience, he looks at us, the audience, and we are not only the audience watching him in turn, we’ve also become the screen upon which the movie is being played, those flickering images of both the imitative film and the real life actions of the Nazis. The confluences of reality, celluloid and theater are explored, the stage presented again and again in A Clockwork Orange, activity taking place both on and off it, such as when Alex and his droogs interrupt the rape of the woman on the casino stage and the opposing gang leaps off the stage and engages in a fight with what is in effect their audience. Then when Alex assaults the writer and rapes his wife at HOME, this occurs on a stage, the lighting design being as stage foot lights and the cinematic audience hidden in the dark window beyond them, a window which we face and so we are also removed from the audience and become as participants in the action. One could write pages upon pages on Kubrick’s work with content and its relationship to audience and the creator of the content, this being a strong component in all his films, but I’m trying to be concise here. I’ve examined this more thoroughly in my analyses for I’ve paid attention to Kubrick’s doing this for some time.
Okay. It’s one thing to theorize on this, that Albert is as if trying to escape the film in shots 287 and 288, to find a way out of the alley into where that theatrical audience is laughing, or to at least try to get their aid, but those windows are closed to him. He's trapped.
What about confirmation? Is it too much to hope for confirmation?
In the last section of the film, Davey’s girlfriend, Gloria, has been kidnapped by her Pleasure Land boss and is held in a warehouse by two thugs. Davey forces the boss to take him to her. He disarms the thugs and has them stand against a wall along with the boss, Vincent. Gloria has been tied to a chair by the thugs. When Davey is unable to untie her, he calls over one of the thugs to do it. The two thugs, right in front of Davey’s unwitting eyes, wordlessly communicate with each other via some cards on their intention to gang up on Davey.
I won’t go into explaining these cards right now (I do a few paragraphs down), but Kubrick shows these cards twice, in shots 368 and 373. In close-up. He really wants you to pay attention to this Ace of Spades and the four of Spades beneath. Alert Kubrickians will perhaps notice that, as an ace is 11, we have here the number 11-4. So, Kubrick was using 114 before Dr. Strangelove and its CRM 114 code(the novel on which Dr. Strangelove was based was published in 1958).
Finally, via the wordless communication of the cards and the go-ahead of a wink of the eye, the thugs attack Davey. And that attack involves these cards. The thug holding the cards throws the deck in Davey’s face, taking him by surprise, then while Davey is distracted by the cards the thugs jump him and knock him out–at least they believe they have knocked him out. In shots 390 and 393 we have a medium close up of Davey on the ground but his eyes are open and he is staring at a Jack of Spades that has landed right by his face. I’ll show screengrabs of these shots in a minute.
First off, I don’t care what anyone may try to argue about Kubrick using conveniently found locations for the Times Square shots in Killer’s Kiss and so the crucial piece of the puzzle is but a coincidence and the intent I’m ascribing to Kubrick was impossible. Kubrick may have used locations for accessibility and convenience, but Kubrick still chose to place the entrance to Pleasure Land between the Victoria and Astor theaters for a reason, and it wasn’t because there was a facade there he wanted to use for Pleasure Land as the waiting on the sidewalk shots in front of the Pleasure Land dance hall always face the street, never the facade. One can tell from other sources that the facade used as the entrance to the fictional Pleasure Land dance hall was not between the Victoria and Astor theaters, that it had to have been elsewhere (in fact, three locations would have been used as the interior stairway is shot in a different location from the view of the stairway from the exterior, which is shot in a different place from the sidewalk shots that face the street).
So why that particular spot between the Victoria and Astor theaters? In shot 277, the one of Albert arriving, stepping out of his cab and looking left and right for Davey, after he steps out of screen (right), as his taxi begins to pull away, we briefly see a man beyond the taxi, in the street, pulling something. The film light that was on Albert stays ever so briefly on this guy then cuts off, goes dark.
Shot 277 a
Shot 277 b
The man pulling the cart is even looking briefly directly at the camera before the filming light cuts off and transcends the fourth wall. Kubrick really should have cut this part but didn’t. Why not? I’ve spent enough time analyzing Kubrick’s films shot-by-shot that I know what’s something to be looked at and examined in depth and this is it, particularly because Kubrick has chosen to film in this spot for a reason. What is it?
I had already taken note of the Himberama ad observed in the shot but hadn’t yet explored it. See the ad? In shot 277 we don’t see the full Himberama ad, which has a top hat above with a rabbit jumping out of it. Here we only see Himberama and that it is a “4D production”. As Albert’s cab pulled up, we didn’t see the ad at all, but when Albert stepped out of it Kubrick made sure to have the camera raise to bring in the bottom portion of the ad.
What was I saying earlier about Kubrick entangling actors/characters and stage and audience? A kind of 3D experience.
But Himber! Himber professes to a show that engages the audience in a 4D experience.
So, I looked up Himberama. It was a show produced by the band/orchestra leader and magician Richard Himber.
From Fear and Desire on, in which The Tempest is quoted, there’s something of the magician in Kubrick. In The Tempest, the characters were all operating under the magical influence of Prospero who manages what they believe they are seeing. Much like directing.
So, what about Himber?
Just down the street from the Himberama ad–and this is probably by pure coincidence–The Man Between was playing, directed by Carol Reed who also directed Orson Welles in The Third Man. If you know anything about Orson Welles, you know he was a man of magic, and, as it would turn out, Orson Welles directed, in 1953, a short movie for Richard Himber. Orson Welles even starred in this little film he did for Himber, which Himber used in his magic act. The set-up was this. Orson, on the movie screen, via the film, interacted with Richard Himber who was live, on stage, and they performed a magic trick together. The film Orson made for Himber lives on as David Copperfield used it in his 1992 special, “The Magic of David Copperfield XIV: Flying - Live the Dream”, so, via David, we can see how Himber and Orson Welles collaborated in their trick, Orson on the screen and Dave on stage, interacting with each other and both interacting with the audience. Below is the footage. You'll want to start at about 2 minutes and 22 seconds. (It has since been removed.)
Dave phones Orson (here in the afterlife) and Orson answers the phone, then the phone as instrument of communication is discarded. Orson sprinkles some magical applause powder that spills off the screen onto the stage, action in the movie thus leaping off onto the magician’s stage. He encourages the audience to laugh whenever they see the sprinkles thrown. He then tosses a pack of cards to Dave. On screen, Orson’s cards are normal size, but tossing them to Dave they become oversize cards on the stage. On Welles’ instructions Dave wraps the oversize deck in a rubber band. Welles says he wants someone in the audience to “freely” choose a card, not be forced. He has Dave throw the pack over his shoulder into the audience where a man catches it and Orson instructs the man who has caught it to hand the deck to a woman as he needs the woman for the experiment (the audience would wonder how Orson knew a man had caught the deck). Orson asks the woman to hold the deck behind her and has her answer him if she’s done so, ever seeking direct engagement with the audience from his movie screen, beckoning their participation, having them speak to him as if he is there. Then the deck is extended to a man who takes from it a card. Any card. The man shows to the audience what the card is that he selected then inserts it back into the deck. On Welles’ instruction, Dave walks the woman onto the stage, she carrying the cards and shuffling them. Orson asks her if she’s ever been hypnotized, utters some yabba-dabba words then instructs her to throw the deck of cards at his right eye.
She throws them at Orson’s face. Just like the cards were thrown at Davey’s face by the two thugs, distracting him so they could overpower him and knock him to the ground.
Orson catches one of the cards (now normal size) that flutter down in the movie before his face and displays it to the audience. It’s the Ace of Clubs. That’s the card that was chosen? No, the trick has gone all wrong. Dave says that the chosen card was instead the Jack of Spades. Orson then raises a gigantic card and says, “You know it’s remarkable, but on the screen some objects enlarge quite unusually.” He turns the large card over to show the Jack of Spades, the same as the chosen card.
The Jack of Spades is reversed on the screen. I read this is because Copperfield had it reversed so he could interact with the screen using his good side. Which means instead of having the cards thrown at his right eye they were originally thrown at Orson’s left. Just as “Dave” was dubbed in every time Orson had said “Dick” (for Richard), then “right” has been dubbed in for “left”.
Though the Ace of spades and 4 of spades were the two cards that were pointedly shown the audience as being held by the thug, after the cards are thrown, when Davey is lying on the floor, subdued, the Jack of Spades rests beside his face. The chosen card in Orson and Himber’s film. The Jack of course is a profile card, for which reason it is called One Eyed Jack, showing its right eye, and we have the same with Davey being here in profile, showing his left eye.
Just as Orson would have been showing his left eye with the proper, original orientation.
Orson has at least three times said the cards are “freely chosen” which would have been significant in Kubrick’s referring to this Wellesian magic trick as Kubrick’s films unfailingly deal with free will as versus predestination. With the magic trick there is the illusion of free will but the result is predetermined through its being fixed.
Albert’s seemingly standing before the blue screen (before a movie) is revealed by Kubrick to be purely a matter of illusion. But it is more than that, it is playing with the idea of audience interaction with the film, just as was had with Welles and Himber. The audience enters the story. When Albert is before the seeming blue screen, speaking with Davey on the phone, we have a replay of Himber (here David Copperfield) speaking first with Welles by the phone then moved to direct interaction with Welles on the film screen.
The 11-4 formed of the Ace of Spades and the 4 of Spades, the silent message between the two thugs on attacking Davey, refers back actually to shot 114 in the film. Shot 114 is the shot during the boxing scene where we have the deciding punch that fells Davey and effectively ends the fight. He manages to get back up after a struggle, on the count of 8, but is done for. The fight has been decided. But not only does Davey take the punch, the audience does as well (in another interaction of audience and action) for the boxer aims directly at the camera and we have the audience’s POV as Davey’s, getting hit in the eye, falling, the camera jumping all over the place and focusing finally on a light above. When the one thug is showing the other the Ace of Spades and the 4 of Spades, which are 11-4, as a secret signal to gang up on Davey and knock him out, Kubrick is also signalling the audience and referring them back to shot 114. Though they never know it because they don’t know the fatal blow occurred in shot 114. They only know that those two cards are important and are a signal between the two thugs as to their plan.
The audience doesn’t know about the reference to Welles and Himber either. Maybe some might have caught it, who had seen Himber’s act, but that would have been a small percentage.
Certainly Orson would have observed the reference if he’d seen the film?
Here’s a quote from Orson on Kubrick that appeared in perhaps the April 1965 issue of Cahiers du Cinema?
Welles: Among those whom I would call ‘younger generation’ Kubrick appears to me to be a giant.
Interviewer: But, for example, “The Killing" was more or less a copy of "The Asphalt Jungle”?
Welles: Yes, but “The Killing” was better. The problem of imitation leaves me indifferent, above all if the imitator succeeds in surpassing the model … What I see in him is a talent not possessed by the great directors of the generation immediately preceding his … Perhaps this is because his temperament comes closer to mine.
Had Orson seen Killer’s Kiss and noted Kubrick’s inclusion of elements from the Himber film in it, and his reframing in terms of his own cinema magic, then the above quote may expand beyond discussion on The Killing to Killer’s Kiss.
Certainly, as I’ve stated above, all this was more than an homage to Welles. Kubrick’s reframing of the Welles/Himber film is a continuation of statements he was making in Fear and Desire, when he twice focuses on The Tempest in which seeming reality is but the magic of Prospero, and yet Prospero is unable to leave that island of enchantment unless given leave by the audience. Humbert, too, was trapped in that “enchanted” environ in which the number 242 appeared over and over again at crucial times (for Nabokov it was instead 342, he repeatedly pointing out its synchronicity, while Kubrick changed it to 242 and left it to the audience to notice the synchronicities). The Torrances were trapped in the enchantment of the Overlook. Eyes Wide Shut ended with Bill and Alice being unable to discern the parameters of their journey, what was real and what was dream, except to say that no dream is just a dream and reality wasn’t the whole truth. They could only say that they they were glad to be “awake”.
Link to the main Kubrick page for all the analyses.