Thursday, October 25, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: FEAR AND DESIRE (1953)

(US - 1953)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.  Written by Howard Sackler.  Cast: Frank Silvera, Paul Mazursky, Kenneth Harp, Steve Coit, Virginia Leith.  (Unrated, 62 mins)

Almost from the time it was released, Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) disowned his debut feature FEAR AND DESIRE (1953), dismissing it as "amateurish."  Rumors persisted for decades that he'd had as many prints of it as possible rounded up and destroyed, but a few managed to survive in private collections, and once the film fell into the public domain, there was little he could do to bury it completely.  It was considered a lost film for many years, and was never officially released on home video, though copies could often be found on the bootleg circuit.  It's been shown at various film festivals over the years (most notably at Telluride in 1993), and ran on Turner Classic Movies in late 2011, but with Kino's new HD restoration (from a Library of Congress print), Kubrick's feature films are finally represented in their entirety on DVD and Blu-ray.

Kenneth Harp as Lt. Corby, with
Frank Silvera and Steve Coit
FEAR AND DESIRE isn't likely to earn the top spot on anyone's list of favorite Kubrick films and frankly, it's not very good.  But for those with a passion for cinema history as well as Kubrick obsessives, it's fascinating to see some classic themes and motifs make their first appearances.  Running just past an hour but often feeling like three, FEAR AND DESIRE follows four soldiers stranded behind enemy lines after their plane crashes.  They wander around, talk, find a mute woman (Virginia Leith), and bind her to a tree with a belt.  Three of them--leader Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), and Pvt. Fletcher (Steve Coit)--go off to build a raft, leaving the woman with the shaky Pvt. Sidney (future filmmaker Paul Mazursky), who's just about to snap.  Through a convoluted set of circumstances that involve character stupidity and some horrid acting by Mazursky, Sidney ends up killing the girl and disappearing, and the other three decide to take out a pair of enemy officers at a nearby compound.  The fact that Harp and Coit also play the two enemy officers makes for one of the most ham-fisted anti-war statements ever committed to film.

Virginia Leith with Silvera
Kubrick shot FEAR AND DESIRE without sound, with the dialogue post-synched later, and it often makes things awkward.  Silvera acquits himself well being the most experienced member of the cast (he would also star in Kubrick's next film, 1955's KILLER'S KISS), and the light-skinned Jamaican character actor would go on to a busy career playing nearly every ethnicity imaginable before his accidental death in 1970 when he was electrocuted while trying to fix the garbage disposal unit in his kitchen sink.  As Corby, Harp is impossibly wooden and Coit is more or less just there, but young Mazursky, who would go on to a stellar career behind (and occasionally in front of) the camera (directing BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, and DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, among many others), is an absolute embarrassment as Sidney.  He's so bad that he's actually hard to watch.  The film picks up noticeably once Sidney wanders off midway through and the others decide to take out the enemy officers.  The enemy commander (played by Harp, who's far more interesting in this role) is the first of many military madmen in Kubrick's filmography, and you can draw a straight line from this character to George Macready's General Mireau and Adolphe Menjou's General Broulard in PATHS OF GLORY (1957), Sterling Hayden's General Jack D. Ripper and George C. Scott's General Buck Turgidson in DR. STRANGELOVE (1964), and arguably R. Lee Ermey's Sgt. Hartman in FULL METAL JACKET (1987).  And in regards to JACKET,  Sidney is certainly an early incarnation of Vincent D'Onofrio's Pvt. Pyle.  The recurrent "dehumanization" theme of much of Kubrick's work is demonstrated in its infancy here as well.  But when Corby and Fletcher see the two enemy officers and see that they look...wait for it...just like them!, it's far too obvious a point and the kind of rookie mistake that Kubrick probably had to make to mature into the great filmmaker he would soon become.

Kubrick on the set of FEAR AND DESIRE
Kubrick had been working as a photographer for the magazine Look when he decided to pursue filmmaking, first helming a few documentary/industrial short films before attempting a feature film.  FEAR AND DESIRE was shot for roughly $30,000, and funded mostly by Kubrick's pharmacist uncle/associate producer Martin Perveler, with additional financial assistance from a life insurance policy cashed in by Kubrick's father.  Held to the lofty standards of Kubrick's subsequent films--most of which rank among the greatest ever made--FEAR AND DESIRE is decidedly quite amateurish.  But there's flashes of creativity and style that even the few 1953 critics who saw it managed to notice.  The film features some unique lighting and some inventive camera angles and it's clear that this young filmmaker has some potential.  That potential would be realized just two films later with Kubrick's 1956 breakthrough THE KILLING, which didn't generate much box office, but earned some significant critical acclaim and had a fan in Kirk Douglas, who was so impressed by it that he agreed to star in PATHS OF GLORY, and the rest is history.  Just seven years after FEAR AND DESIRE, Kubrick was directing the gargantuan epic SPARTACUS.

Kino's Blu-ray presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and for a 60-year-old film shot with what amounted to pocket change, it looks amazingly good in HD.  The sole extra is THE SEAFARERS, a 1953 promotional short (running just 28 minutes) that Kubrick directed for the Seafarers International Union.  By this point, Kubrick quit his job at Look to focus full-time on filmmaking, and he took the SEAFARERS gig to fund what would become KILLER'S KISS.  Unlike FEAR AND DESIRE, there are no embryonic signs of the distinct Kubrickian style.  Rather, it's strictly a director-for-hire job, showing the benefits of joining the SIU, and it's hosted by popular news personality Don Hollenbeck, who would commit suicide a year later (Hollenbeck was played by Ray Wise in George Clooney's GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK).  THE SEAFARERS is the kind of industrial/promotional short that MST3K would knock whenever Tom Servo would bellow something like "Industry!  3M!  Combining innovation with effective risk management!"

FEAR AND DESIRE won't generate much interest beyond devout Kubrick completists.  But if you've got the Kubrick Blu-ray box set from Warner, and the Criterion editions of PATHS OF GLORY and THE KILLING (which features KILLER'S KISS as an extra), then it's definitely worth picking up to have essentially everything (minus a couple of those early industrial shorts) done by arguably cinema's greatest filmmaker.  Just know going into FEAR AND DESIRE that everyone has to start somewhere.  But even that early on, you can tell the wheels were turning.

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