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Fear and Desire: The Movie Stanley Kubrick Didn’t Want You to See

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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.”

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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.

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

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iStock
Hollywood's 5 Favorite Movie Villains
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iStock

Movie villains are meant to bring out the best in a hero, but with the right script, director, and performer in place, these bad guys can sometimes steal the show from their clean-cut rivals.

Take any horror movie, for example—chances are you’re not watching Friday the 13th to root for the absentminded teenagers down at Camp Crystal Lake. And Steven Spielberg certainly didn’t become a household name by directing a shark movie titled Three Guys on a Boat Drinking Narragansett.

The Hollywood Reporter set out to celebrate these iconic agents of evil by surveying 1000 professionals in the entertainment industry (directors, producers, entertainment attorneys, etc.) on their favorite movie villains. A rogues' gallery of murderous AI, mafia bosses, and a diabolical fashion magazine editor all made the top 25 list as the worst of the worst, and while they’re all deserving, the top five are the gold standard. They include:

5. Nurse Ratched: Played by Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
4. The Joker: Played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Wicked Witch of the West: Played by Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
2. Hannibal Lecter: Played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001), and Red Dragon (2002)
1. Darth Vader: Played by David Prowse and James Earl Jones in the Star Wars movies (Prowse 1977-1983, Jones 1977-present)

That top spot might not come as a surprise to most, unless you’re still in your twenties: According to The Hollywood Reporter, survey respondents in that age group put Darth Vader in the sixth spot—behind Regina George from Mean Girls.

To check out the entire list, head to The Hollywood Reporter.

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