The 1953 New York Times review opened with the kind of qualified, mildly patronizing praise that's become the default critical response to first-time filmmakers whose ambition exceeds their results. "The need for encouragement of fresh talent and its fairly common concomitant, the audacity of youth, was never made more pointed than in Fear and Desire," wrote a reviewer credited as "A.W." (most likely longtime Times critic A.H. Weiler). "And it augurs well for the comparative tyros who made it."
The "comparative tyro" credited as Fear and Desire's director, photographer and editor was Stanley Kubrick, whose greatest hits screen this weekend at the American Cinematheque.
Kubrick later disowned his first feature, and for decades, as his career ascended, was able to block the shot-on-a-shoestring war drama from public exhibition. Although the George Eastman House held a print, the film was considered to be lost. But in 1993, the Telluride Film Festival mounted a screening that, according to Kubrick biographer Vincent LoBrutto, "was highly anticipated but met with mixed reaction." And a year later, when Film Forum in New York screened a double feature of Fear and Kubrick's next film, Killer's Kiss, Kubrick released a statement through Warner Bros., dismissing his debut as "boring and pretentious."
That self-assessment is valid. The American Cinematheque will pair Fear with silent shorts from the Eastman House, which is fitting: The film's framing and face-centric performances are reminiscent of pre-sound cinema. In fact, Kubrick shot silent and post-dubbed the sound, a technique that allows for some interesting play with internal monologues but doesn't always flatter the limited range of some of his performers — nor Howard Sackler's shrill and portentous script. (When a young soldier, played by Paul Mazursky, goes mad, he frantically quotes The Tempest.) Kubrick's staging is sometimes hopelessly static, his visual storytelling heavy on horizontal wipes and insert shots, but his photographer's instincts are solid: Some of the isolated images here are gorgeous.
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One of the last pictures released by Joseph Burstyn — the midcentury peddler of mostly foreign art films, whose Supreme Court victory over the censorship of Roberto Rossellini's The Miracle was instrumental in the extension of the First Amendment to cinema — Fear was sold with a cleavage-heavy poster that hinted at sexploitation. Anyone who bought a ticket looking for kicks likely was disappointed: Sober to a fault, Fear is hardly in line with the go-go aesthetics of a Russ Meyer flick.
That said, its best scene is an extended encounter between Mazursky and a female hostage (played by the sultry, nearly silent Virginia Leith), which is shot through with both cynicism and a twisted sexual energy. It's phenomenally weird, and it makes Fear and Desire more than just a curiosity for Kubrick completists.
Mazursky will be present for a Q&A at the Egyptian after the film.
FEAR AND DESIRE: American Cinematheque, at the Egyptian Theatre, Fri.-Sat., Sept. 10-11, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 461-2020