The legendary director was ashamed of his debut, Fear and Desire. But viewed 60 years after it screened, it plays like a dress rehearsal for the rest of Kubrick's dazzling career.
Since his death in 1999, Stanley Kubrick has enjoyed an acclaimed afterlife. 2001: A Space Odyssey this year placed at No. 6 in Sight and Sound magazine's once-a-decade poll of film critics' favorites—making it the youngest film in the top 10. Rodney Ascher's excellent documentary Room 237, which will be released next spring, offers five obsessive fans of The Shining a platform to deliver their rather questionable interpretations of the film. Clockwork Orange seemed as beloved as ever when it turned 40 in February.
Why do his films continue to resonate? Part of the answer lays his 1953 debut feature Fear and Desire, which has just been restored and released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber after nearly 60 years of obscurity. The director was ashamed of the film and suppressed it during his lifetime, barring it from most public screenings. While it's no lost classic—it suffers from a pseudo-philosophical voice-over and overly ambitious, often jagged editing influenced by silent Soviet cinema—it's not the abject crap one might expect from Kubrick's reaction to it. Moreover, the movie's worth watching to see the first development of themes that would dominate his later masterworks. It demonstrates his interest in warfare, later depicted in Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. More surprisingly, it displays aggressive and perverse male sexuality, suggesting the beginnings of A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut. All these later films deal with their subject matter more satisfyingly, but Fear and Desire shows that Kubrick's polished vision didn't emerge from a void. He had to start out with a rough draft first.