The Influence of Cocteau's Orpheus on Killer's Kiss

Killer's Kiss

Go to Table of Contents of the analysis (which has also a statement on purpose and manner of analysis and a disclaimer as to caveat emptor and my knowing anything authoritatively, which I do not, but I do try to not know earnestly, with some discretion, and considerable thought).

The most important thing which must be kept in mind with Kubrick's films is there is the surface or principle story and then the internal or sub-story. In many of his films, if we're really paying attention, set elements pretty much immediately destroy the surface naturalism. One may not notice this destruction the first, second or third time one watches the film. Through constructive disorientation and disconnectedness, and sleight of hand as to where our eye focuses, Kubrick, the magician, intentionally obfuscates these elements that destroy the overt and naturalistic story line. The surface story lines are the principle ones, and this is maintained and supported by the intentional obfuscation of the deconstructive elements which keep them sub rosa. At the same time, these deconstructive elements are plainly there, alongside his tremendous effort to make things look real and believable, and once we bypass the disorientation and his purposeful refocusing they become a puzzle, annihilating the sense of reality. This destruction of the film's naturalistic story line is difficult enough to conceive of and accept that most people stop at this point and decide these puzzling aspects of Kubrick's films are errors when they are not. They are part of the art of a director cleverly designing the overt story line to be unimpeded by an internal story that tears it apart. Indeed, the sub rosa elements of the internal story may be discreet but they are enough in evidence to complicate the surface story with an aura of attractive, indefinable mystery, which is one of the reasons viewers return to Kubrick again and again. To work with the "reason" and "why of the internal story line is to try to settle into Kubrick's sensibility, examining how these internal stories form a dialogue in his oeuvre with repeating themes and ideas, elaborated upon from film to film. The internal stories haven't a "plot"; they aren't that kind of story. Instead, you have to be willing to deal with comprehending the themes and ideas represented in them as instead ultimately forming a different terrain for the setting of the surface story, guiding and interacting with the overt story and giving it a new form.


Gloria as Eurydice and Davey as Orpheus

Davey's Dream and his Crash through the Window

Davey's dream (shots 139, 140, 141 and 142) has the city streets in negative as a heckler's voice berates him as a flop, telling him to go home. He wakes from this to Gloria's scream, sees Vincent in her room, and races over to rescue her.

Killer's Kiss

When Davey is on his way to rescue Gloria, the empty street of shot 335, in the Dumbo district, reminds very much of this dream. Davey's crashing through the window in shot 399 also takes us back to the dream. The lighting is such that we have the same sense of positive and negative reversal on Davey's body.

Killer's Kiss

Some people make notice, as a goof, of how Davey is wearing dark socks before he plunges through the window, then when he lands on the street outside he is wearing white socks. I wouldn't be too sure it's a goof. It could very well be a reference back to the dream negative inversion, consolidating a relationship to the plunge through the window.

Shots such as these make me wonder if there is a nod to Jean Cocteau's Orpheus (1950).

The plot of Orpheus is based upon the myth, but there are considerable differences in Cocteau's film, such as that in the end Orpheus and Eurydice are returned to the land of the living.

In Cocteau's version, Orpheus is a poet, which will be given as the reason he is able to cross from the world of the living into that of death. At the film's beginning, he is present at a cafe when a younger rising poet is killed by Death's motorcyclists. This younger poet had caused Orpheus some consternation, he feeling challenged by this other poet's brilliance and popularity. Death, disguised as a princess, had arrived at the cafe with the younger poet and after he is hit by the motorcyclists she has him put in her car. Orpheus doesn't know yet that she is Death when she calls upon him to accompany her in her car, transporting the youth who Orpheus believes only to have been injured. She states she needs him as a witness. In the car, he realizes the youth is dead. After they are briefly stopped by a train, Death instructs her chauffeur to take the "usual route" to her mansion. It is at this point that the normal landscape viewed outside the window switches to a negative view.

In Killer's Kiss, we have Davey's negative effect dream/nightmare from which he awakens to hear Gloria screaming as she is assaulted. This dream/nightmare anticipates Davey's descent into the warehouse area later to search for Gloria, who has been kidnapped. The plot of Orpheus involves his rescuing his wife, Eurydice, from Death and the Underworld, and one can look at Davey's journey in Killer's Kiss as possessing some of the same elements, he having to rescue Gloria from Vincent.

In Cocteau's Orpheus, Orpheus' attention becomes focused entirely on messages from the underworld that come to him over the car radio, which he copies directly and gives as his own poetry. These are being sent by the poet who had been killed. Death has fallen in love with Orpheus, and he with her. Orpheus no longer paying attention to his wife, Death takes his wife to the underworld without permission, and then towards the end, out of love for Orpheus, she had reversed time and returned Orpheus and his wife to the land of the living with no memory of their travails.

The below shot is the final one from Orpheus, Death is led off with her chauffeur, Heurtebise, who has assisted her in transgressing the rules imposed on Death, he having fallen in love with Eurydice. Having been found guilty of breaking rules, they are to be punished. One does not know what will happen with Death and Heurtebise, only that it will be "unpleasant" and harsh.

That shot of Death and Heurtebise being led off to their punishment reminds me of the below.

Davey's manager is mistaken for Davey and is killed by a couple of Vincent's thugs in an alley. This is as they are leaving the scene of the murder, having disguised the death to look like a robbery.

Davey had told his manager to meet him at the dance hall at 49th and Broadway, but New Yorkers will recognize that the dance hall is at 46th and Broadway. Kubrick may have determined that the flip of the 6 to a 9 in 49th street was to be another demonstration of an inversion/reversal. But some of Kubrick's films have outright "errors", such as in Fear and Desire a portion of Shakespeare's The Tempest was paraphrased with an error.

In Orpheus, mirrors are beautifully used for moving between the world of the living and that of death. Sometimes the mirrors behave as water. In the scene in which Death steals away Eurydice, the mirror is instead broken.

First we see Death in her black dress. Here she is standing before the three-paneled mirror which is covered.

Cocteau cuts away from Death briefly. When the camera returns to her, Death's dress has changed so it is white. She faces the mirror and there is a brief flare of light that brightens her.

Death breaks the center mirror and the bright fill light is darkened. She steps through with Eurydice.

After they have passed through the mirror, it reforms.

Already, in Fear and Desire, when the General is shot, Kubrick employees a like effect of having a front fill light extinguished with the shooting.

fear and desire

fear and desire

Kubrick employees the same effect when Albert, Davey's manager, arrives at 46th street (which should be 49th). He steps out of the taxi and Kubrick keeps the camera on the taxi as it pulls away, so that we see a man behind who is pulling something. The fill light that was on Albert stays ever so briefly on this person then goes dark. Our attention is thus briefly drawn up to the Himberama sign above.

Killer's Kiss
Shot 277 a

Killer's Kiss
Shot 277 b

In Fear and Desire, the General had been shot at his table but isn't killed until he crawls out onto the porch, where he is confronted with his double in the Lieutenant, who kills him though he cries out that he surrenders. Albert, too, is a double of Davey in that he is confused with being him and killed in his stead.

In Killer's Kiss, before Davey leaps through the window he has on dark socks.

When he leaps through the window we are reminded of the negative effect had in his dream. One may also be reminded of Cocteau's use of mirrors in Orpheus.

Killer's Kiss

Landing in the street, Davey's socks are now white.

It seems to me there may be a nod to Orpheus and Cocteau's use of positive/negative, that positive/negative observed also in the changing of the black dress to white as Death breaks the mirror in order to transport Eurydice to the other side.

Eyes Wide Shut has a noticeable black/white shift. The bedroom of Bill and Alice, when first observed before Victor's party, has a white phone beside the bed. The next night, when Alice and Bill fight and Lou Nathanson dies, the phone is black and the lamp has changed so it has a black base. The scene just previous involves Alice looking into the mirror of the medicine cabinet from which she removes the weed they smoke. Her earlier complaint in the film is that Bill doesn't even really see her anymore. In a sense she is lost to him with his no longer seeing her, just as Eurydice was lost to Orpheus.

If we look at Killer's Kiss as also being partly a retelling of the Orphic tale, as with Cocteau's Orpheus. we have Davey and Gloria happily reunited in the end following Cocteau's version of the tale.

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