It’s commonly known, among Stanley Kubrick fans, that he really despised his first film “Fear and Desire”, and would have preferred that we all forget about it (not bloody LIKELY!). The report is that Stanley once referred to it as, “a bumbling amateur film exercise”. Kubrick strongly suggested that 1955’s “Killer’s Kiss”, should be the one that’s really considered his feature film debut. I’ve always been a bit annoyed by that dismissiveness, along with the rumours that Stanley himself spent years trying to acquire all known prints to make it vanish from public view. Of course, the story in the late twentieth century, when my Kubrick fascination was still budding, was that a couple of prints avoided capture. And that one was readily available for viewing at the George Eastman House (a film archive and photography museum) in Rochester, New York. But that was then…this is now.
I’ve seen “Fear and Desire” four or five times in the last decade, plus I’ve owned the Kino Video DVD release, since the time of its commercial distribution in late 2012. My first chance at seeing it failed in 1994. We were still half a decade from Stanley’s sudden passing at that time, with his final feature, “Eyes Wide Shut”, just entering its infancy stages. I’ve always lived just a few miles outside of New York City, but (for whatever reason) I was unable to get to the Film Forum’s one-week-only revival of “F&D”, in the year that brought us “Forrest Gump”, “Pulp Fiction”, and “The Shawshank Redemption”. “Damn you, Stanley!”, I remember thinking. I mean, you can’t change history–it’ll always be your first. Of course, YouTube would arrive just over a decade later, Kubrick no longer walked the earth, and experiencing “Fear and Desire” suddenly became more accessible–if not quite at the highest level of quality.
So, there I was, in the latter half of the aughties, watching a mediocre print on my computer, that was first broadcast on television in Europe–with Italian subtitles. Yeah. But, I exulted, I’ve finally seen it! Or had I? Through various readings, in books and via the internet, I had always heard the final cut of “Fear and Desire” was either 68 or 72 minutes, at least based on where you were getting your information. This version ran barely 62. Was something missing? Of course, being fully aware of Kubrick’s constant tinkering with his projects (for instance, both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Shining” were truncated after their respective premieres–and that’s just two examples), I reasoned that there must be a longer print out there somewhere–but that this was better than nothing. Then, Turner Classic Movies aired a restored print in December of 2011. So, I got my 2nd look, on a 32-inch television screen in my living room. However, its running time was the same as the YouTube copy. Was this it?
Well, that’s what the Kino Video running time is too, so, regardless of what’s out there somewhere–it’s what we have. And I’ve watched that DVD 2 or 3 times now, most recently just a few days ago. Okay…obviously not Kubrick’s finest hour. But indispensable all the same. Stanley was still just crawling. But he would learn to walk by “Killer’s Kiss”, and would break into a run, by the time of 1956’s “The Killing”. With 1957 ushering in “Paths of Glory”, he was officially a genius. Oh, but the talent involved in “F&D”! Kubrick’s high school chum, Howard Sackler wrote the screenplay, and he would go to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for 1968’s “The Great White Hope”. And, future award-winning director and screenwriter, Paul Mazursky, was making his feature film acting debut in Kubrick’s first. The late Mr. Mazursky was only in his early 20’s at that point. Most impressive to me always, was Jamaican-born, Boston-bred, Frank Silvera, a versatile, eventually Tony-nominated, character actor. Silvera would go on to play a major role in Stanley’s 2nd feature too.
Silvera is easily the best actor in “Fear and Desire”. Pushing 40 at the time, his patience and experience shows as Sgt. Mac. The four soldiers “lost in the woods during war time” plot device is prime ground for disparate and flamboyant characterizations…and unfortunately Stanley delivers on that promise. Mazursky’s performance kind of works, with its youthful gyrations and earnest overzealousness. It’s effective. But David Allen’s narration is clunky and self-important. And Kenneth Harp, in the dual role of Lt. Corby and The General, is a bit stiff and guilty of over-enunciating. Virginia Leith is perfectly cast as The Girl, and it’s a strong, mostly silent role. She’s still alive, btw, and will turn 84 in a few days. Steve Coit is fine in the dual role of Pvt. Fletcher and The Captain. But Silvera is the standout from the cast. Gerald Fried composed the serviceable music composition, and he worked with Stanley throughout the 1950s. Plus, of course, Kubrick directed, produced, edited, and shot the low-budget feature, mostly by way of a loan from his uncle.
Hey, if you love the work of Stanley Kubrick, “Fear and Desire” is a required stop. This cut makes it his shortest feature, so it’s certainly not a trial even at its weakest spots. Kubrick reportedly had issues with the recording of the dialogue, and at one point considered making it a silent feature. Paul Mazursky once said Stanley propped the camera on a baby carriage for tracking shots. Mazursky’s scenes with the foreign Girl are tense and highly watchable. Mr. Silvera just being is fascinating to watch. Amateurish? At times. Noble effort? Without question. It remained elusive for decades, but time heals. To an extent.
KUBRICK coming in November: the roll of eleven has been done, with help from my youngest son, and it will be, Stanley’s seventh film, 1964’s “Dr. Srangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”