Reviews

Fear And Desire

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A Kubrick rarity resurfaces at last

The movies of Stanley Kubrick continue to exert a powerful fascination, as 2012's The Shining theory-fest Room 237 showed.

Fans of the late auteur will be eager then to acquaint themselves with his little-seen debut feature, if only to scan it for Kubrickian motifs, familiar themes and future genius.

Yet were the director still among us – and there are a deluded few who refuse to accept he isn’t – he would be the first to decry its reappearance after almost six decades.

Fear And Desire was a lousy feature,” he confessed in 1959, dismissing it as “roughly, and poorly, and ineffectively made”.

“It’s not a film that I remember with any pride, except for the fact that it was finished,” he shrugged in 1970. “The ideas which we wanted to put across were good,” he told Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker. “But we didn’t have the experience to embody them dramatically.”

Elsewhere he was blunter, declaring it to be both “a very inept and pretentious effort” and “a bumbling amateur film exercise”.

Back in 1953, however, Fear And Desire – the title chosen after both ‘The Trap’ and ‘The Shape Of Fear’ were rejected – had some high-profile supporters.

“There are too many good things in the film to call it arty,” said critic James Agee, while Mark Van Doren – the academic now better known as the father of Quiz Show cheater Charles – said it had the potential to “make movie history”.

“There were a few good moments in it,” conceded Kubrick in 1966. “The film got an arthouse distribution, and it even got a couple of good reviews.”

Yet that did not stop him doing his utmost to suppress it in later life, reportedly acquiring all the prints he could and exhorting audiences not to watch the few he couldn’t.

Viewing Fear And Desire now, with the benefit of almost 60 years of hindsight, it’s plain that old Stan was perhaps being a tad harsh on his formative offering.

True, this tale of four soldiers caught behind enemy lines during an unspecified conflict is primitive technically and indifferently acted, its cast’s stilted performances made even more so by the disastrous decision to post-synch the dialogue after filming in California’s San Gabriel Mountains was completed.

(Having used the technique on his documentary shorts Day Of The Fight and Flying Padre, Kubrick believed it would save him money; instead it added $30,000 to the $9K budget.)

The screenplay, meanwhile, is ponderous twaddle.

Howard Sackler – a friend from the Bronx who went on to receive a Pulitzer for his 1967 play The Great White Hope – swamps the narrative with specious philosophising, competing interior monologues and heavy-handed literary references.

(“No man is an island?” pontificates the urbane Lieutenant Corby at one point. “Perhaps that was true a long time ago, before the Ice Age. The glaciers have melted away and now we’re all islands – parts of a world made of islands only.”)

But as compromised as it is, the film nevertheless highlights its director’s keen visual sense and ability to manipulate mood, notably in the unsettling scene – likened by some to the home invasion in A Clockwork Orange – in which Paul Mazursky’s deranged Private Sidney professes his love for the silent peasant girl (Virginia Leith) he has shackled to a tree.

The dehumanising effect war has on the film’s protagonists – typified by the scene in which they slaughter the inhabitants of a guard hut, then sit down to finish their dinner – appears to presage Full Metal Jacket, while having the actors Kenneth Harp and Stephen Coit play combatants on both sides of the skirmish tips the story into the realm of the surreal.

Just as strange are the raft-bound climax’s parallels to Huckleberry Finn and Mazursky’s gibbering nods to The Tempest.

You wonder too if Kubrick anticipated Apocalypse Now by taking the same inspiration Coppola did from Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness.

“It will, probably, mean many things to different people, and it ought to,” the director mused in a letter to Joseph Burstyn, the distributor behind Fear’s limited US release.

Audiences, alas, spurned the opportunity to have their horizons widened, resulting in a film that Kubrick would later bemoan, “never returned a penny on its investment”. Luckily, the family members who put up the money – among them Stanley’s uncle, druggist Martin Perveler – were eventually repaid in full out of profits from subsequent titles.

Burstyn was past caring, though, his death in November 1953 from a heart attack suffered on a Transatlantic flight robbing him of the chance to witness the glittering career his patronage helped facilitate.

There are fewer hints of the virtuoso that Kubrick would become in The Seafarers, a rare 30-minute documentary made for the Seafarers International Union that accompanies the 62-minute Fear on this edition.

Yet being his first film in colour makes it worth a look, as does a slow tracking shot through a cafeteria that the director’s fans will immediately recognise as one of his trademark camera moves.

Also included is a discussion featurette from Cahiers Du Cinéma expert Bill Krohn and a glossy booklet containing rare archive imagery.

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