The film is about Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), a 29-year-old welterweight New York boxer at the end of his career, and his relationship with his neighbor, taxi dancer Gloria Price (Irene Kane), and her violent employer Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera).
The drama begins with Davey in his apartment room, mentally preparing for a big fight against Kid Rodriguez. On the other side of the building across the courtyard, he gazes upon Gloria, an attractive taxi dancer, getting ready for work. As they both walk out of the building, they run into each other but say nothing. Gloria is picked up by her boss Vincent.
As Davey is losing his fight, Gloria is dealing with her boss in his office as he tries to kiss her repeatedly. That evening Davey is awakened by screams coming from Gloria's apartment. As he looks across the courtyard, he sees that Gloria is being attacked by Vincent. He runs to her room, but Vincent has made his getaway. Davey comforts Gloria and she goes to sleep comfortable that Davey is in the room to protect her. However, Vincent is not deterred and proceeds to interfere in their lives. When they decide to leave town, Davey and Gloria arrange to get money they are each owed. Gloria tries to get money from Vincent at the dance hall, and Davey asks his manager to meet him there as well. When a street performer steals Davey's scarf, he chases after him. Davey's manager arrives but does not see Davey. Vincent sends two goons out to rough Davey up, but they mistake the manager for Davey and kill him in the alley.
Vincent kidnaps Gloria and has his two goons hold her hostage. Davey returns to Gloria's apartment and sees the police across the courtyard in his apartment. They assume he killed his manager. Davey leaves to rescue Gloria, but he is captured and restrained as well, leading to a chase and confrontation in an abandoned warehouse full of mannequins. During the struggle, Davey kills Vincent and rescues Gloria. He and Gloria are cleared of all charges by the police, and Davey buys a train ticket back to the West Coast. At the train station, Davey assumes she will not join him, but at the last minute, Gloria rushes in, and they kiss.
This was Kubrick's second feature. Kubrick removed his first film Fear and Desire from circulation over his dissatisfaction with it. Kubrick was 26 years old when he directed this movie, and had to borrow $40,000 from his uncle, who owned a drug store in New York.
Kubrick began to shoot the film with sound recorded on location, as was common practice in Hollywood. However, frustrated by the intrusion of the microphone into his lighting scheme, Kubrick fired his sound-man and decided to post-dub the entire film as he had with his first film. The film is notable for its location shots in the old Penn Station, which was demolished in 1963, as well as Times Square, and the run-down streets of the Brooklyn waterfront and Soho loft areas.
Ballerina Ruth Sobotka, Kubrick's wife at the time, was the art director for this film, as well as for Kubrick's next, The Killing. She is also featured in a long dance solo, playing the role of Iris. Irene Kane (real life writer Chris Chase, née Irene Greengard) is the female lead.
Against Kubrick's wishes, United Artists required the film be recut with a happy ending. United Artists paid $100,000 for the film and also agreed to provide $100,000 for Kubrick's next, The Killing.
The film features a song "Once", written by Norman Gimbel and Arden Clar. It is one of Gimbel's earliest contributions to a film, although his lyrics do not actually appear in the final version.
When released, the staff at Variety magazine gave the film a mixed review, and wrote, "Ex-Look photographer Stanley Kubrick turned out Killer's Kiss on the proverbial shoestring. Kiss was more than a warm-up for Kubrick's talents, for not only did he co-produce but he directed, photographed and edited the venture from his own screenplay [originally written by Howard Sackler] and original story...Kubrick's low-key lensing occasionally catches the flavor of the seamy side of Gotham life. His scenes of tawdry Broadway, gloomy tenements and grotesque brick-and-stone structures that make up Manhattan's downtown eastside loft district help offset the script's deficiencies."
More recently, New York Times film critic Janet Maslin reviewed the film, and wrote, "Killer's Kiss brought the director onto more conventional territory, with a film noir plot about a boxer, a gangster and a dance hall girl. Using Times Square and even the subway as his backdrop, Mr. Kubrick worked in an uncharacteristically naturalistic style despite the genre material, with mixed but still fascinating results. The actress playing the dance hall girl, billed as Irene Kane, is the writer Chris Chase, whose work has frequently appeared in The New York Times. Jamie Smith plays the boxer, whose career is described as 'one long promise without fulfillment.' In the case of Mr. Kubrick's own career, the fulfillment came later. But here is the promise."
Rotten Tomatoes rates it 84% "Fresh," based on eighteen reviews.
WinsLocarno International Film Festival: Prize, Best Director, Stanley Kubrick; 1959.
In 1983 Matthew Chapman directed Strangers Kiss, a film that portrayed the making of Killer's Kiss.
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray as a special feature of The Criterion Collection's release of Kubrick's The Killing.