Kino Lorber // 1953 // 61 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 6th, 2012
Trapped...Four desperate men and a strange half-animal girl!
For decades, very few people had the opportunity to see Stanley Kubrick's experimental war film and directorial debut Fear and Desire. Kubrick essentially disowned the film shortly after it was released, feeling embarrassed about what he perceived to be the film's amateurish nature. During Kubrick's life (and for years after his death), the film could only be screened (and only by individuals -- no groups allowed) in the Kodak archives in New York. Given the generally sloppy, somewhat rushed feeling of Kubrick's second feature Killer's Kiss, many assumed that Fear and Desire was more of a significant historical artifact than a genuinely compelling film. Now that the film has received a handsome Blu-ray release from the fine folks at Kino, I can report that while the movie is well below the usual standard of Kubrick's best work, at times it's a surprisingly polished and thoughtful effort.
Our story takes place in the middle of a war. Which war? Well, I'll pass that one to the narrator:
"There is war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, or one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist, unless we call them into being. This forest, then, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear -- and doubt -- and death -- are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind."
If that sounds a bit like the opening of a particularly pretentious episode of The Twilight Zone, well, that's more or less what the film feels like a good deal of the time. This feeling is further enforced by such heavy-handed lines of dialogue as, "Well, we have nothing to lose but our futures," and "No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago, before the Ice Age. The glaciers have melted away, and now we're all islands -- part of a world made of islands only." Still, through all of the heavy-handedness, there's no question that we're looking at the work of a genuinely gifted filmmaker. For every moment of eyeroll-inducing self-importance, there's something that proves truly affecting.
The film follows a quartet of soldiers trapped behind enemy lines during this imaginary war. Their goal is to make it back to their own side by traveling down a river on a makeshift raft. That's more or less the extent of the set-up, and Kubrick uses the journey from point A to point B as a springboard for his philosophical musings on the nature of war. In the film's strongest and most unnerving sequence, the men capture a woman (Virginia Leith, A Kiss Before Dying) and tie her to a tree. The manner in which this section unfolds is thoughtful and genuinely creepy, culminating in a stormy scene of one soldier breathlessly ranting about Shakespeare's The Tempest. You can see flickers of the brilliance Kubrick would eventually harness (such as the manner in which he cuts disgusting shots of spilled stew into a scene of violence to amplify the ugliness of the moment), but they don't add up to much in this meandering effort.
The film's stark tone (complete with a constant rumbling sound that could easily be either distant cannon fire or war drums on the soundtrack), philosophical nature and stark black-and-white cinematography make Fear and Desire feel a bit like the films Ingmar Bergman was making at the time (even the title sounds Bergmanesque), but it lacks both Bergman's clarity and his sense of humor. The film's biggest undoing is that it insists on being regarded as a Very Important Movie, but there's too much Rod Serling and too little genuine substance for it to really achieve that goal.
Fear and Desire (Blu-ray) actually looks quite strong for a 60-year-old film made on a miniscule budget (IMDb claims it was only $33,000). Detail is sharp throughout, and depth is impressive. There are surprisingly few scratches and flecks onhand, with only the faintest bits of damage making an impression. The PCM 2.0 Mono track is crisp and clean, though this is a pretty quiet track that mostly relies on dialogue and very understated sound design. The only supplement on the disc is a short documentary film directed by Kubrick called "The Seafarers," which is essentially a promotional video for the Seafarers International Union. It's not particularly riveting stuff, but Kubrick buffs may be glad to have it. However, I would have preferred some substantial supplements discussing the history and substance of the main feature.
Fear and Desire is arguably the least important part of Kubrick's filmography (well, it's a toss-up with Killer's Kiss), but it's an undeniably ambitious early effort that foreshadows the director's eventual transformation into a master of cinema.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 61 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film