Bright Lights Film Journal

Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (1953)

For years, Stanley Kubrick’s independently financed first feature, Fear and Desire, was a suppressed film, next-to-impossible to see. The man responsible for suppressing it was Kubrick himself, because he considered his youthful effort to be “nothing more than a bumbling amateur film exercise . . . a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.”

One could hardly blame him.  This would-be allegorical war film’s super-low budget (roughly $33,000 – accounts vary) did not allow for the kind of technical perfectionism for which Kubrick would eventually become notorious. But now, here it is on YouTube, in 8 parts.

One of the film’s most obvious embarassments is a noticeably post-synchronized soundtrack.  Aside from a few isolated images, it doesn’t even look like a Kubrick film until about 4 and 3/4 minutes into Part 2, when the platoon of American soldiers – our “heroes” – bursts into an enemy cabin at night. Kubrick is suddenly more confident lighting and cutting this noirishly violent nighttime interior scene than he was in the daytime exteriors that preceded it. His personality, his peculiarly Hobbesian way of looking at life, shines through.

Fear and Desire’s screenplay was by Howard Sackler, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for his drama, The Great White Hope. The cast includes future writer-director Paul Mazursky as sensitive Sidney, and Virginia Leith, best known for her remarkable performance as “Jan-in-the-Pan” in the sleaze classic, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. She’s effective here, too, as a peasant girl taken prisoner by the soldiers, acting mainly with her eyes. That’s her in the newspaper advertisement on the left.

If I’m not mistaken, the second feature depicted in that newspaper ad is the American version of El Bruto (also 1953), a Mexican film directed by Luis Buñuel. Both movies were apparently marketed as exploitation films. In those days, one never knew what kind of treasures might show up at the local grindhouse, in this case a pair of very early films, one a failed experiment, the other a commercial potboiler, by two of the most distinctive auteurs the cinema would ever know.