For anyone with much investment in Stanley Kubrick as a cinematic stylist - and it's hard to imagine anyone being significantly fond of him as a director without having a lot of specific affection for the surface-level elements of his style - his sophomore feature, 1955's Killer's Kiss, is somewhat of an ideal case study. It is exactly the film you'd want it to be in so many ways: faced with hardly any budget to speak of, the 26-year-old Kubrick pulled out every trick that an independent filmmaker of no means could ever hope to stumble upon. No shooting permits meant footage of the streets of New York that crackle with vΓ©ritΓ©, especially the night scenes with their cruel blacks and harsh lights. Unusable sound meant that some scenes were rebuilt with elliptical, abstract soundscapes that feel experimental and unreal in a manner shockingly bold for a mid-'50s film noir cheapie. No production design meant spare, frighteningly dessicated locations. No fight choreographer meant a boxing scene pieced together in some of the most jagged, Expressionist editing that side of Raging Bull. All in all, no resources meant that Kubrick had to double down on creativity in every area of a film that he shot, produced, and edited, in addition to directing. It is a captivating, bold, downright visionary piece of independent guerilla filmmaking in virtually every respect save for its terrible, terrible piece of shit screenplay.

The story was credited to Kubrick; the script was written by Howard Sackler, who'd already worked with the director on his 1953 debut, Fear and Desire, who was not credited, and Kubrick went back and re-wrote some things anyway. It would be the last work of Kubrick's career based on an original story, if we can permit the conventions of film discourse obliging us to brutalise the word "orginal" so badly as to apply it to this scenario. The film is such a demented slurry of half-eaten film noir tropes that it would play more like a pastiche of the genre than a late example of it, if only there was even a single frame that suggested Kubrick and company had even the littlest sense of humor.

Indeed, so ossified and hidebound is the film's notion of what noir storytelling can consist of, that even at a wee 67 minutes, it still manages to have boring stretches. It's about Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), a hopeful welterweight with a glass jaw, who lives across the courtyard from Gloria Price (Irene Kane, the stage name of writer Chris Chase; she was overdubbed by Peggy Lobbin when she was unavailable for post-production), an employee of one of those vanished dance halls where men could dance with pretty young things for ten cents. The film begins on the night of Davey's latest attempt to break out and make it as a famous fighter - clear echoes of Kubrick's debut film, the boxer documentary Day of the Fight, and there's even a shot of the boxing ring that I believe might be taken from that short, though all boxing rings kind of look the same - and Gloria's latest attempt to shut down her violent, rapey boss Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera); neither one of these goes very well, and it culminates late at night with Rapallo in Gloria's apartment trying to force himself on her, with her screams bringing Davey to the rescue. Taken with a fit of romance, Davey whips up a plot for him and Gloria to skip town together, there being no real reason for any of them to stay, but Rapallo has the thugs to make that process awfully hard on him.

You don't need to be a noir expert to have the most groaning sense of been-there, done-that with Killer's Kiss, though that only makes it worse. And the wheezy story is not aided by the flat, dead-eyed acting by everyone but Silvera (who manages to make himself seem intensely, even loathsomely pathetic without sacrificing a modicum of his dangerousness), whose mismanagement by Kubrick suggests his later exercises in anti-directing bad actors, without the obvious thematic or narrative payoff. Anyway, the dialogue is even worse than the performances, and it's hard to know what any actor, no matter how talented, would be able to cope with some of the boilerplate crap Kubrick and Sackler hand their way. Check out this astounding moment of dysfunctional screenwriting:

Davey: "Come on let's go for a walk."
Davey [in voiceover, overlapping the same image]: "She got dressed and we went for a walk."

Presumably, we are really supposed to notice that they went for a walk.

So, it's all pretty junky paint-by-numbers noir, and yet on balance, I can't begin to make myself dislike the movie. It is the work of a young filmmaker with things to learn, undoubtedly, but unlike Fear and Desire, it showcases the photographer Kubrick's instinct for how images tell stories with astounding success: there's a shot of Davey looking out the window, past the camera, at Gloria in her apartment, while to the left of him is a mirror that shows the back of his head and then in just a little square of light, Gloria herself, and it's such a tight, perfect piece of composition and lighting and character building, I could not dare call the film containing it a failure of cinema or the man who imagined it and then put it onto celluloid a developing filmmaker. By definition, anyone who could put that image together is already a filmmaker of skill and wisdom, he simply didn't apply them all the time consistently.

It's not the only striking visual moment, by any stretch: there is a scene where Rapallo's goons advance on Davey's manager (Jerry Jarrett) in an alley, the three men look so inky black against even the underlit backdrop that it feels like something out of a horrible dream about inescapable dark blobs. There's a nightmare sequence with the camera gliding down an empty street with the negative reversed that exactly calls to mind the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, still 13 years down the road. I would, in fact, say that it predicts the mature Kubrick of 1964 onwards more than any of the other films he made prior to 1964, both in specifics like that, and in the more general way that he creates distorted, uncanny realities for his characters - two of the other stand-out moments include a climax set in a mannequin warehouse, in which the violence casually meted out on the dead-eyed, featureless simulacra of women is even more freakish than the already-creepy shots of those mannequins simply standing around in the half-light; and the interiors of Rapallo's dance hall, with a bluntly non-realist sound mix that turns the generic set (with some oddly-positioned white picket fencing as wainscoting) into a hallucination of need and sweat and desperation that doesn't merely prefigure the hellish ballroom scene from The Shining, it arguably betters it.

This does not all add up to Killer's Kiss being the secret lost masterpiece of Kubrick's early career: one thing he'd learn almost immediately would be how to yoke his undeniably brilliant visual sense to stories which could be teased out and deepened by his camera. The best thing he'd consistently do later in his films was to make what amount to narrative experiments: using screenplays that are in some ways deeply broken, and turn them into masterpieces precisely because of how their dysfunctions take place, and how they are visually staged to exacerbate and emphasise everything that is is "bad" about their stories by all the usual rules. But while Kubrick frequently made genuine, I would even say objective masterworks out of conventionally "bad" screenplays, he would never after this do so with such an altogether lazy script as he and Sackler saddled Killer's Kiss with. For all its visual potency, it never feels, like later Kubrick, of a filmmaker deliberately redeeming a dodgy story through the the way the images interact with that story; it feels like somebody showing off their visual talents without particularly caring if the story is in any way remotely compelling or free from the most tired clichΓ©. There's enough great filmmaking here to me to be genuinely confused by why Kubrick included it among the three features he'd later disown, but it's impossible to pretend its not part of his learning curve, however accomplished it might be in some deeply important ways.