DVD Review: FEAR AND DESIRE (1953)

PrintE-mail Written by Julian White

Review: Fear and Desire / Cert: 12 / Director: Stanley Kubrick / Screenplay: Howard Sackler / Starring: Frank Silvera, Kenneth Harp, Paul Mazursky / Release Date: Out Now

Even dreamt of becoming the next Stanley Kubrick? Then you might be curious to discover how the actual Stanley Kubrick started out. Not, until recently, an easy question to answer, for the simple reason that the director was far from fond of his first feature – shot outside of the studio system and financed with family money – and did his best to discourage people from seeing it. Which is odd because, in general, early Kubrick holds up very well – arguably better than late Kubrick. Here's a thought – maybe it was too good? Almost embarrassingly precocious? So totally awesome it put the rest of his career to shame? Wouldn't that be something?

Sadly, that's not the case, and you can't blame the maestro for trying to keep this cinematic blunder under wraps. Fear and Desire is one of those tyro efforts that's all about a creative genius learning how not to do it. It tells the tale of four soldiers stranded behind enemy lines – a sound enough premise, you would think, but it goes belly-up the moment a voiceover proclaims that this could be any war, in any time or place. In a stroke, an air of hazy generality descends, and the movie never recovers. Scriptwriter Howard Sackler struggles to find anything for these crude archetypes to talk about, and you don't even believe that they're soldiers – the sense of an oppressive military pecking order that makes Paths of Glory so astringent is notable by its absence, and you get none of the near-documentary touches that underpin the satire of Dr. Strangelove.

Still, Kubrick does a good job as cinematographer, notching up some nice footage of the California mountains in full leaf. And the movie sputters to life briefly when the quartet capture and restrain a young girl (the mesmerizing Virginia Leith) in hopes of pumping her for info, only for one of their number to molest her in a bug-eyed frenzy. It's a moment that pre-echoes the nastier scenes in A Clockwork Orange, and it shows just how deep-seated was Kubrick's interest in that sort of thing. (Maybe that's why he excluded the film from his canon. It was dirty laundry.)

The extras include Kubrick's three early documentaries. These are about as compulsively watchable as you would expect 60 year-old documentaries to be, but, as with the main feature, the transfers are ace. An informative talking head piece by critic Bill Krohn is spoilt slightly by an annoying chirping in the background that might be a dripping tap, a defrosting fridge or a canary with diarrhoea of the beak. A treat for Kubrick completists and film academics, but the general viewer should scope it out with caution.

Extras: Three Kubrick shorts: “Day of the Fight”, “Flying Padre,” “The Seafarers” / Video introduction by Kubrick scholar Bill Krohn / Booklet featuring new and exclusive essays

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