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Fear and Desire (Blu-ray Review)

22 Oct, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Street 10/23/12
Kino Lorber
$29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Frank Silvera, Kenneth Harp, Paul Mazursky, Virginia Leith.

Although his only slightly more expensive Killer’s Kiss follow-up soon became easier to see on TV by the late 1950s than it had been in 1955 in theaters, Fear and Desire — Stanley Kubrick’s meagerly budgeted debut feature — all but existed as the next thing to a rumor following a 1953 run that couldn’t have gotten too many playdates outside of New York City. Then again, during the existence of drive-ins — the old-school kind that offered break-of-dawn “coffee and donuts” shows boasting the fourth feature of the night — who really knows how much F&D penetrated the obscure byways of the sticks?

Joseph Burstyn — the U.S. distributor of a lot of Italian neo-realism in the immediately preceding years — wasn’t exactly a drive-in conveyer-belt of the day (he died in ’53). But he must have sensed a burgeoning talent in the onetime Look magazine still photographer, who cobbled out his career opening salvo from a screenplay by Bronx high school classmate Howard Sackler, who would go on to win a Pulitzer for The Great White Hope in 1968, the same year Kubrick put out 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I once read that Eydie Gorme also was in high school with Kubrick — talk about reunion potential at some bar or bowling alley.)

Amid broad statement (I think) about “the nature” of war — and not a specific one — F&D’s vaguely supernatural treatment sacrifices dramatic force for bleakness and ends up being the only Kubrick film, Killer’s Kiss included, that I don’t like a lot (or, in most cases, even love). There was all kind of talk in later years that the filmmaker didn’t want F&D shown — even going so far (it has been claimed) to suppress it. Thus, it was a big deal when NYC’s Film Forum unearthed a very good print in 1994 and gave it a run that finally enabled me to see it. Subsequent showings have been rare but not unheard of, and Turner Classic Movies even gave it an airing.

The picture runs about an hour, and what strikes me most about it is a couple of historically interesting casting notes and an attitude about military officers that carried over into Kubrick’s later work. When a small band of soldiers crashes a few miles behind enemy lines and naturally seeks a way back to its own unit, the lieutenant in charge (Kenneth Harp) is irksomely prone to vague philosophizing in lieu of truly taking charge, to the apparent chagrin of a sergeant played by co-lead Frank Silvera (later a heavy in the Manhattan-noirish Kiss). There’s a press officer in Kubrick’s much subsequent Full Metal Jacket who reminds me a little of this lieutenant — a self-protector who’s not given much more respect than the director’s treatment of the brass in Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. In any event, the ’50s were the decade in which movies began to portray the disdain of certain enlisted men for certain officers. And, in fact, 1953 was also the year we saw the screen version of From Here to Eternity.

Also in purely ’50s terms, there’s a hand-to-hand combat scene here that’s at least suggestive of real-deal brutality — one that’s also unlike anything moviegoers had seen very much previously in Hollywood movies (All Quiet on the Western Front being one major exception). There’s also a mildly erotic scene where the soldiers tie a peasant girl to a tree (something like an old Saga magazine cover) from which no good can possibly come. Playing her is the then unknown onetime model Virginia Leith, who would soon have a very brief run at 20th Century-Fox (her voice didn’t project very well) before ultimately starring in one of the all-time camp classics: 1962’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Cast as the nutjob who ends up guarding her here is the revered future writer-director Paul Mazursky, who is even less recognizable than he soon would be playing one of Glenn Ford’s classroom hoods in Blackboard Jungle.

With its short running time, this is hardly a time-waster given all the history involved — though when the future maker of 2001 and Barry Lyndon termed it a work by an amateur, he wasn’t just blowing smoke. F&D is crude, but the printing material utilized in this Library of Congress spiff-up is very good, and Kino’s release also throws in the director’s 1953 color short The Seafarers (made for the Seafarers International Union) and narrated by Don Hollenbeck. He was the Ed Murrow colleague whose 1954 suicide (a plot element of George Clooney’s Oscar-nominated Good Night and Good Luck, in which Ray Wise played him) was at least in part precipitated by attacks from Hearst TV columnist and frequent Joe McCarthy genuflector Jack O’Brian in the New York Journal American.

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