Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Fear and Desire


Hold the phone! Stop the presses! Tear up the front page! I happened to stumble on a showing of Fear and Desire on Turner Classic Movies. I TiVoed it, and sure enough, “For the first time on television,” there was Robert Osborne talking to a guy from the Eastman House, about the film, and about film preservation. There was no explanation about why, after 58 years, they decided to take their 1989 restored print out of the vault and show it to a mass audience. I don’t really care. I wanted to see this, and now I have.

This movie is everything I expected it to be—that is, not very good at all—and a little more, that is, much better technically than it had any right to be. Most of the trouble comes from having a really lousy script. Four soldiers from an imaginary country (we are told this in a pompous narration at the beginning) are in a plane crash behind enemy lines. They try to get back. Along the way, they encounter a woman and tie her to a tree. The scene is very creepy, with the man in charge stroking her hair, and then leaving her with the weakest of the group while they go off to reconnoiter, or something. She gets one word of dialogue (“Boat?”), and soon she is dead. The guard—played by a very young Paul Mazursky, who should be a lot more ashamed of this movie than Kubrick ever was—didn’t really need to shoot her. His overacting would certainly be fatal at point-blank range. It practically killed me, all these years later. He and all the others, though they know she doesn’t speak their language, operate on the well-known principle that if you speak loudly and space your words out, she’ll understand. Well, that’s certainly real enough, people do that. Who would have guessed that Mazursky would go on to be a good actor and a great director? It’s all awful, simply awful.

Where the movie does shine is in two aspects. One is getting your money’s worth on a no-budget privately financed project like this. You take a camera out into the woods with a few friends, and the result is usually amateurish and unwatchable. This one might remind you of The Blair Witch Project, though it does have two actual sets.

The other good thing, no surprise, is the cinematography. Kubrick was a photographer first, a filmmaker second. He knew black and white, everything you could do with it. The picture has a great look, with stark close-ups, backlighting, and some impressive Eisenstein-style editing in a scene where the men overpower and kill three enemy soldiers.

Moving from this one (a piece of shit, let’s face it) to Killer’s Kiss, to The Killing, and then to Paths of Glory (the first of many masterpieces) in only four years, you can see Kubrick learning. That’s the only reason I could recommend it.