Stanley Kubrick: Fear and Desire – DVD review

Video thumbnail for youtube video Stanley Kubrick: Fear and Desire - DVD reviewFear and Desire
Director: Stanley Kubrick
DVD
Released 28 January 2013

In a beautiful new restoration, Eureka Entertainment release on Blu-ray and DVD, for the first time ever in the UK, the late, great director Stanley Kubrick’s debut black and white feature, Fear And Desire. It is the only Kubrick film, along with A Clockwork Orange (1971), that was nearly impossible to see in the UK for several decades.

Independently financed with contributions from Stanley Kubrick’s family and friends in an era when independent cinema was still in its infancy, Fear and Desire was shot in 1951 and first saw release in 1953 at the Guild Theater in New York, thanks to the enterprising distributor Joseph Burstyn, who had brought such films as Rossellini’s Rome Open City and Da Sicâ’s Bicycle Thieves to the US. Now, with new restoration carried out in 2012 by The Library of Congress, a film that for over forty years has remained nearly impossible to see will at last appears in an official release format in the United Kingdom.

A savage is war waged is being waged in the near future between two similar, unnamed military forces. In the middle of the conflict, a plane carrying four soldiers, led by LT. Corby (Kenneth Harp) crashes behind enemy lines. Corby is charged with leading the men back to their own lines. This is a vicious cutthroat world of execute or be executed in which a female hostage (Virginia Leith) is taken on account of supposedly being a potential informer and an enemy general and his aide (played by the same actors as the stranded soldiers) are discovered during a scouting mission. It is obvious that all is not going to end well for many of these motley, disunited group of soldiers as they inexorably move from their hazardous landing point in the forest towards the frustrated Sergeant Mac, (Frank Silvera, easily the best actor in the cast) on his final preposterous makeshift-raft-floating-downstream-assassination-mission.

As his career developed, Kubrick became increasing ashamed of When Fear And Desire. By the end of the 1960s, when he was an internationally renowned auteur filmmaker, he removed the print from distribution. When a rare print, without his assistance, was shown at the Film Forum in New York in 1994, Kubrick told the local press that he thought the film was a “bumbling amateur film exercise¦ a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.”

Kubrick was unduly harsh in his appraisal of the picture, which admittedly does obviously reveal the paucity of his budget (shot for about $9,000 with a further cost of $20-30,000 for post-production, according to James Naremore’s notes that accompany this release) and his excess of artistic vision at the time. Fear And Desire is certainly no ‘lost’ masterpiece but it does bring into the spotlight for the first time the same fatalistic thematic concerns that would obsess the director in such future masterworks as The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Full Metal Jacket (1987).

As in many of Kubrick’s movies, the plans of mortal men in Fear and Desire are shown to quickly unravel into the realms of absurdity, while a mood of existential hopelessness is all-pervasive. Paul Mazursky, who would eventually become a leading director, plays (or rather overplays) the increasing deranged Private Sidney, the first of Kubrick’s totally unhinged protagonists, stretching from Sterling Hayden’s General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove through to Jack Nicholson’s aspiring writer in The Shining (1980) and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket.

Though much of Fear and Desire seems rather clunky in execution (the clumsy use of overly florid narration, obvious allusions to Kurosawa and Eisenstein’s “montage of attractions” editing style) and concept – for instance, having the Enemy General (Kenneth Harp) own a dog named Proteus alludes to the sea-god of Greek mythology and the character in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, whose schemes unravel in the final act – this picture makes for a fascinating glimpse at the outset of a dazzling career of near-complete artistic freedom, which to this day remains unparalleled in the annals of Hollywood history.

There is not much evidence of the trademark Kubrick long takes or tracking shots that would become so recognisable in his classic work, but there are numerous distinctive bold compositions (particularly during a sequence of a raid upon an enemy cabin), revealed through rapid editing.

Fear And Desire evinces remarkable innovation too. As critic Bill Krohn notes in the film accompanying this disc, a scene in which the troops are marching in single file through the woods and their individual interior thoughts blend on the soundtrack anticipates similar sequences in Terence Malick’s war 1999-war film The Thin Red Line by five decades. Though his cast are distinctly limited in their acting ability (Silvera excepted), Kubrick makes the best of what he has to work with, highlighting the self-destructive impulses inherent in military conflict and man himself another perennial Kubrick theme.

The Masters of Cinema edition also contains Stanley Kubrick’s complete early shorts (Day of the Fight, Flying Padre and The Seafarers) made in the run-up to Fear And Desire, presented completely for the first time on an official release. Day of The Fight, a 1951 16-minute documentary about champion boxer Walter Cartier and his twin brother is a magnificent work.

Made with Kubrick’s childhood friend Alexander Singer, who worked at The March of Time in New York, the noir feel of the documentary, influenced by Kubrick’s work as a seventeen year old photographer for Look magazine on the streets of Manhattan, would shape specific scenes and the general mood within Kubrick’s second picture Killer’s Kiss (1955) and his third film, the incredible The Killing (1956), arguably the director’s first masterwork.

Produced with Kubrick’s savings of $3,900, and featuring a score by Gerald Fried (another old friend and Julliard music student, who would score Kubrick’s first three movies), Day of The Fight was sold to RKO for $4,000 and kick started the filmmaker’s career. Following the fighter through the tense hours before a crucial middleweight engagement with black boxer Bobby James, Day of The Fight is worth the price of this disc alone. The 1951 nine minute short Flying Padre, made with a $1,500 advance from RKO on the strength of Day of The Fight, and the 30 minute colour The Seafarer (1953) documentary are also intriguing examples of Kubrick’s early work as a filmmaker for hire.

In addition to the shorts, there is a new and exclusive video introduction to the films by perceptive Kubrick scholar, film-critic, and Cahiers du cinema American correspondent Bill Krohn shot in LA in November 2012 & a fully illustrated booklet featuring Kubrick’s own “Statement On The Film”, and a new and highly informative essay on Fear And Desire and the early shorts by Kubrick researcher, professor and film critic James Naremore.

If you are a hardcore Kubrick devotee, Fear And Desire is an essential acquisition.

All words by Ian Johnston. You can read more from Ian on LTW here.

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