Killer’s Kiss: scenes of NYC, some classic noir shots, and a bit of animated giffery

Last night, I watched Killer’s Kiss which I had never seen before. I found the movie strangely compelling. It has a lot of flaws, and my reading/research after watching turned up that Stanley Kubrick was hardly proud of this effort and considered it basically on par with a student film. He produced it with no budget or shooting permits (he was actually on welfare at the time), and I thought that explained a lot. There are definitely moments of the movie that feel like you are watching raw footage of New York City, not carefully constructed and designed scenes.

But, generally, I really, really enjoyed it. There it a freneticism to it that keeps the film moving in a way that feels sort of inevitable and desperate (which is why the end felt for me, cliched and disappointing). I also loved the vision of New York City, particularly the sequence towards the beginning that shows small vignettes of scenes of Time Square from that period:

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(What is that cat-person eating candied apples all about, anyway?)

I thought the sound in the movie was also interesting. There’s actually relatively little dialog, but lots of ambient city noise. Apparently, Kubrick fired his sound crew during the filming, and ended up adding all the dialog in during post-production (including having to bring in a different actress to voice the original female lead).

I was on the lookout for some classic noir-ish cinematography, and there was this shot fairly early on with the standard “venetian blind” effect. But mostly I wanted to share this one because I was wondering throughout the entire film while Vinnie’s office was plastered with blue jeans ads?

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By far the frame that I loved the most and wanted to share was this one, in the scene where Davey’s manager is getting beat up (and ultimately killed) by Vinny’s thugs:

killers_kiss9The characters are lit in such a way that they actually look like moving shadows, and the effect is dramatic and a bit uncanny.

Aside from looking for some shots to share, I was also on the lookout for a scene that I might want to make into an animated gif, and when I saw the sequence in which Gloria is telling the story of her childhood, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

I should say that I loved this sequence the best out of any part of the movie. I loved the juxtaposition of the footage of Gloria’s ballerina sister dancing  all along while Gloria tells the very sad, strange story of her family. Given Kubrick’s non-existent budget, you can understand the choice: he could either just shoot Gloria telling the story, which goes on for a while, and would probably be a pretty dull piece or he would actually have to film some sort of flash-back of that entire story which would be complicated and expensive to shoot.

Instead he let’s the story be told behind this very simple footage of a ballerina dancing (who was, by the way, played by Kubrick’s second wife, Ruth Sobotka.) In comparison the kind of frenetic, cityscape of the film, this sequence stands apart, as the single figure dances on a black stage, lit by footlights.

I created two gifs of the sequence, and I was really pleased with the way they looped naturally. It’s always nice when gif loops in a way that makes it feel seamless:

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Hat Attack

Well, Groom inspired me to tackle this particular ds106 assignment: Graphic Gift, added to the Assignment Bank by the inimitable Michael Branson-Smith. A summary:

Find or scan an old advertisement (high resolution) and create a piece of cool clip art by extracting and cleaning up a particular element. Be sure to use a PNG file type to preserve transparencies, and try to make a high and medium resolution version. Inspired by Phil A Go’s awesome Toyota Corona Graphic Gift.

Groom got fancy and deposited a whole animated Jack Nicholson in the back pocket of his graphic gift. I went for a simpler idea, and I’ll admit I caved and used Photoshop. I fully endorse Groom’s advice to experiment with the free and full-featured open-source image editing tool, GIMP, but I don’t have it installed on this particular computer.

I knew that what I wanted to work with was a standard icon of our noir exploration, and a quick Google search found me a page from the 1956-1957 Fall/Winter Sears Roebuck catalog.

Isn't he dapper?
Isn’t he dapper?

I pulled this into Photoshop, and quickly used the magic lasso tool to outline that gorgeous hat.

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Once I had the whole thing selected, I copied it, created a new layer, and pasted it n.

hat_process_3

I turned off visibility of that original layer, and used the Transform tool to add a jaunty angle.

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And now I can offer everyone in #noir106 this fedora icon, angled perfectly for you to use in all your visual assignments.

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I wish I had found a higher resolution version of the page, so that I could offer a larger version.

I will say that I found tons of amazing hats in old Sears Roebuck catalogs, so I think I’m going to keep doing this until I have a huge collection of vintage hats tosshare.

Note: The top version will work well on a light background. The bottom will look okay on a dark background. The dark version was hard because the original catalog page is white, but this should be okay — I figured a dark background version was important given, well, noir. :-)

 

 

Out of the War and Into Noir

As Week One of noir106 draws to a close, I wanted to offer some of my own impressions of Noir. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not a Noir expert. I decided to teach this class late last fall, and by then Bond and Groom had already decided to use Noir as the lens of this iteration of ds106. I’ll be learning, along with all the students, about what Noir is and how it can inspire us creatively this spring.

If I have any experience with Noir as a genre, it tends to be more with radio drama. As a child, my Sunday nights were often spent listening to NPR’s Big Broadcast, a weekly homage to old-time radio. I was a big fan of Johnny Dollar. I loved the heightened drama and suspense of those shows, and the over-the-top acting. I’m also a big mystery fan, so I enjoyed the unraveling of the plots, even if the outcome was sometimes a bit obvious.

I also spent a lot of my childhood watching old films on AMC. I’m having fun revisiting some of those and thinking about their noir-ish overtones.

In doing some reading about Noir this past month or so, I think the thing that fascinated me most was the notion that American Noir was in many ways a response to our experience in WWII. There are a couple of factors coming to play there. First, it’s probably important to remember that the film industry was relatively nascent at that time, and, as happens when any new technology or mass media captures the public’s imagination, there was still a fair amount of concern and hand-wringing about how these productions would affect and shape our citizenry and culture.

To that end, Hollywood operated under the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Act) during this era. The Code attempted to regulate what kind of content was acceptable for American films to portray. The code went into affect in the early 30s, and if you look at movies from that era, it’s striking how upbeat and sunny they are. During WWII, it seems there was an even stronger sense that American films needed to keep Americans feeling good — because, frankly, overseas there was a lot to feel not so good about.

That juxtaposition really is striking, and I find myself thinking about how WWII marked our foray into a truly global culture, where we were, as a country, confronted in ways we’d never been confronted before with the realities of global politics and what it meant to be a world leader. WWII ended with us winning (at a huge price of American soldiers’ lives)–but it also ended with Russia winning, and with that came the looming threat of communism, which, for many Americans represented a kind of dark, foreboding danger from beyond.

I’m neither a film historian nor a historian of any kind or merit, so these are merely my clumsy attempts to try and frame the moment when Noir appears to grow on the American cinematic scene. And I find this context and framing so interesting. Thinking about how these films were a reaction against the forced sunniness of the Hays Act and how we were just coming out of global war that was, for many, a nightmare, changes my impression of them. They’re more than just dramatic, black-and-white suspense films. Instead they’re a reflection of our cultural sense of fear and embedding danger.

As a final note, I was unaware until recently about the alternate ending for Double Indemnity, in which Neff was actually depicted dying in the gas chamber. Apparently, this was filmed, but at the last minute taken out. (The actual footage is apparently lost.)  Billy Wilder decided that, in the end, the film didn’t need it. But in addition, perhaps there was some sense that this raw depiction of public execution was going too far. It’s so interesting to me how that bar of “too far” moves and in response to what social, cultural, and political forces.