Ask filmgoers to name their favorite Stanley Kubrick pictures, and you’ll hear many of the same titles over and over again: Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange. These and the five other feature films Kubrick directed between 1960 and his death in 1999 hold permanent pride of place as some of the most enduring and influential works in the history of the form. His fourth picture, 1957’s Kirk Douglas-starring, World War I‑set Paths of Glory, has drawn a good share of critical acclaim, but nothing before it in his body of work has yet commanded the level of respect associated with Kubrick and his cinematic legacy.
In 1956, he’d made the noir The Killing on the cheap; the previous year, he’d made the noir Killer’s Kiss on the cheaper. But before even those came Fear and Desire, Kubrick’s very first feature, an existential war movie produced in 1953 with money raised from his wealthy drugstore-owning uncle and proceeds from a job shooting second-unit on a documentary about the life of Abraham Lincoln. You can watch the whole film, which has fallen into the public domain, at the top of the post, or in a restored version, preceded by a brief 1966 interview with Kubrick, right here.
By the time of Fear and Desire, Kubrick had already logged a certain amount of filmmaking practice directing shorts. Still, he could never quite get over his own perception of the movie, which he made at age 24 fresh from his job as a photographer at Look magazine. He considered the film “a bumbling amateur film exercise” and “completely inept oddity.” He later, having burned the negative, sought to prevent its screening and distribution whenever possible. Yet it had its high-profile appreciators even at the time of release: “Its overall effect is entirely worthy of the sincere effort put into it,” said the New York Times; “Worth watching for those who want to discover high talent at the moment it appears,” said critic-scholar Mark Van Doren. Though far rougher than every film Kubrick would go on to make, Fear and Desire offers several moments that reveal him as the director we now know he would go on to become. Grantland’s Steven Hyden, in an article on the movie, quotes an attendee at one of its particularly disastrous preview screenings who remembers that “there were giggles in the wrong places, and it all seemed overdone and overwrought.” He also quotes Kubrick’s full reflection on the experience in a New York Times Magazine profile: “Pain is a good teacher.”
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.