The motionless red-eyed lens of an evil computer; gallons of blood spilling out of an Art Deco elevator; a group of sinister, top hat-wearing teenagers strolling down a dreary riverbank in slow motion; an older man watching a young girl sunbathing while wearing heart-shaped sunglasses; an Army Major riding a nuclear warhead like a bull at a Texas rodeo: All of these images from the career of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick have been seared into the collective conscious of cinema history. But there’s one Kubrick film that even the most serious film geeks would be hard-pressed to remember. Kubrick’s debut feature, Fear and Desire, was virtually unknown for decades for one reason: Kubrick hated it, and the legendary perfectionist didn’t want anybody to see it.
The future filmmaking genius was anything but when he was a 24-year-old kid who quit his full-time job as a photographer for Look magazine in the early 1940s. Kubrick was hired by the magazine right out of the Bronx's Taft High School, when he caught the publication's eye after snapping a photo of a newspaperman grieving over the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. He was quickly sent out on assignment, and eventually took photo portraits of a Bronx-born middleweight boxer named Walter Cartier for a January 1949 feature spread called “Prizefighter.”
The rough and tumble world of boxing inspired Kubrick to eventually pitch the idea of a short film to RKO Pathé, a production company that commissioned documentary shorts for a continuing series called The March of Time. The “Prizefighter” spread gave Kubrick the credentials to convince RKO to hire him to direct 1951's Day of the Fight, a 12-minute film about Cartier’s pre-fight routine. The photographer had become a film director.
But making a feature film wasn’t easy. Kubrick sold one more short documentary to RKO called Flying Padre—about a catholic priest in New Mexico who flies around his 4000-square-mile parish to offer his followers spiritual guidance—before venturing out on his own.
Inspired by the Korean War, which broke out in 1950, Kubrick decided to make a war movie, and enlisted his high school buddy Howard Sackler to write the script (Sackler would later go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his 1969 play, The Great White Hope, and is perhaps best known by movie fans for writing Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws). To foot most of the bill, Kubrick asked his uncle—a wealthy California drugstore chain owner named Martin Perveler—to finance the film’s budget. The movie idea that Kubrick and Sackler called The Trap, then later The Shape of Fear, reportedly cost somewhere between $20,000 and $40,000 to make.
To cast the film, which was about four soldiers who take a woman hostage after they become trapped in a forest behind enemy lines, Kubrick looked in unorthodox places all around New York City for unknown actors. He eventually found a college student and actor named Paul Mazursky, who was acting in an Off-Broadway play called He Who Gets Slapped, to play the film’s sadistic Private Sidney. (Mazursky, of course, would go on to become a filmmaker in his own right, helming films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and An Unmarried Woman.)
“He was very intense, dark hair, round eyes, and I was not nervous so much as impressed by a fellow pretty much my own age with his own apartment and a wife, my gosh,” Mazursky said of Kubrick in a 1994 interview with NPR. “He said, ‘Okay, you got the part. We leave Monday, unscheduled flight from Newark Airport. We pay $100 a week, room and board.’”
The skeleton crew shipped out to shoot the film in California's San Gabriel Mountains, which were chosen over a closer New York locale because of concerns about east coast weather. To those who worked on the film—which was basically the cast and three Mexican laborers hired to carry the film equipment—the assured rookie director took on an outsized role in every facet. In his memoirs, Show Me The Magic - My Adventures in Life and Hollywood, Mazursky expounded upon his impressions of the budding perfectionist’s methods.
“There was no dolly track, just a baby carriage to move the camera,” Mazursky wrote. “Stanley did all the shooting. No matter what the problem, Kubrick always seemed to have an answer. To me there was never a question that Stanley was already master of his universe.”
But when Kubrick returned to New York in the winter of 1952 with a completed film, he needed a way to get people to see the movie. He approached a veteran film distributor named Joseph Burstyn, who had only released films from foreign directors like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. But the foreign-minded distributor agreed to buy the movie and sell it as a kind of American art film. The sensationalized poster tagline of the young filmmaker’s first film screamed “Trapped ... 4 Desperate Men and a Strange Half-Animal Girl!”
The press at the time mostly sang the film’s praises. The New York Times wrote that, “If Fear and Desire is uneven and sometimes reveals an experimental rather than a polished exterior, its over-all effect is entirely worthy of the sincere effort put into it,” yet also called Kubrick’s direction “far from inspired.”
The movie was not a financial success, and so a dejected Kubrick was forced to take for-hire jobs, like directing a drab promotional short called The Seafarers for the Seafarers International Union. He soon attempted to move on by raising money for his next feature film, Killer’s Kiss, but the filmmaker’s disdain for his own debut feature began to take on a near-mythic status as his own cinematic stature grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Legend has it that Kubrick destroyed the film’s original negative and sought to do the same to any leftover prints after the failed film fell out of circulation following Burstyn’s death.
The notoriously guarded Kubrick trashed his first movie as often as he could. He referred to the film as “a serious effort, ineptly done,” and in a 1964 interview with The New York Review of Books, he called his debut “a presumptuous failure.” In Joseph Gelmis’s book, The Film Director as Superstar, Kubrick reminisced about Fear and Desire, saying, “It’s not a film I remember with any pride, except for the fact it was finished.”
The film’s copyright eventually lapsed, and Fear and Desire fell into the public domain, which allowed it to be legally shown by anyone who managed to find a print of it. Eventually, New York’s famed Film Forum attempted to show a version of the film in 1994 that was found and restored by The George Eastman House. It was the first time Fear and Desire had been publicly screened since its release 41 years prior. Kubrick himself personally sought to put a stop to the screening, tapping Warner Bros. to issue a press release stating that Fear and Desire was “written by a failed poet, crewed by a few friends, and a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious,” and that it was a “bumbling amateur film exercise.”
In a 1994 NPR interview, Film Forum’s director of repertory programming, Bruce Goldstein, said Kubrick’s hatred of the film only added to the mythos behind it for the screening. “It really is a must-see, because now it’s the picture Kubrick wants to suppress,” Goldstein said. “So that makes it even sexier as a box office attraction. So I think he’s increased our attendance four-fold.”
Kubrick undoubtedly made better films, but the seeds of his cinematic trademarks are there in Fear and Desire, right down to its theme of best laid plans gone awry. The Eastman print was the only available version of the film, except for excerpts seen in the 2001 Kubrick retrospective documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. A new restoration was made at the Library of Congress in 2012, and released on home video by Kino that same year. You can also watch the film in its entirety below.
Now anybody is free to judge whether Fear and Desire really is an amateur film, or a simple prelude to the masterpieces that would follow it. But just remember: Kubrick wouldn’t approve.