(BTW, I saw this for the first time on Criterion's BD and mistook the first shot of Albert, the fight manager, at the boxing gym as a rear projection. "Wow, this really is low budget - they just used stock footage instead of a set or a location!" Then later on, using the same setup, we see Albert still at the gym, this time standing in the 'background' before moving into the foreground to use the phone - the same position he was in during the earlier shot. The lighting was just different and the focus a bit sharper in the foreground. Anyway, thought that was funny...
I had the exact same thought watching it, and I wonder if that wasn't an intentional bit of lighting trickery on Kubrick's part? A pretty interesting effect regardless.
Pzadvance, I agree entirely with your points concerning Killer’s Kiss
striking visuals. As for the gym scenes that appear to be rear projection, maybe I’m giving Kubrick too much credit, but I definitely think this was intentional. It seems to me that Kubrick constantly plays with space in Killer’s Kiss
so as to heighten this sense of loneliness and isolation that I’ve been trumpeting in the film. Obviously, there are the two shots of Albert at the gym that give this false sense of the character being separate from the environment. There’s also the beautiful shot of Gloria leaving Rapallo’s office after the fight, crossing a busy street at night, that has the same effect. In both settings, although the characters are amongst other people, they never fully fit in.
There is another sort of optical illusion in the third scene, as Davey restlessly paces around his apartment just before the fight. We at one point in the background see a kitchenette with a standard kitchen knife hanging on the wall. Maybe it’s just me, but the first couple times I watched the film, I was tricked into thinking that this was not a kitchenette jutting into the foreground, but a full size kitchen extending into the background, complete with a large machete hanging on the wall. I don’t have the scene right in front of me, but I believe it’s not until Davey interacts with a cup or some object on the kitchenette that the true scale of the scenery becomes clear. It quite changes ones view of the lead character to believe he is a man who keeps a machete at the ready on his wall rather than an average household knife.
Kubrick reveals this interest in space in yet another way in that same scene. The camera deliberately follows Davey around the apartment, formally showing the viewer all four walls of the environment. The cramped apartment feels like safe refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city and violence of the boxing ring, because Kubrick right away allows the viewer to become well acquainted with the space.
This sort of visual metaphor is introduced in other, more subtle ways, also. Consider that Rapallo’s jealousy is aroused when he first mistakes Gloria and David as a couple. Gloria and David (who don’t yet know each other) both happen to exit the apartment building at the same time and, by chance, walk side-by-side to the street. It’s this invasion of personal space that causes Rapallo to say to Gloria, “You’re doing quite well for yourself,” in reference to Davey. “He just lives in the building,” (quoting from memory) replies Gloria.
Furthermore, consider all the uncomfortably cramped environments in which Kubrick chooses to place his characters: crowded streets, subways, train stations, dance halls, arenas, etc. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Gloria and David make their living with work that forces them to smash up against strangers (a dancer and a boxer, respectively). You could, of course, also extend this argument into other parts of the film, such as the train station at the opening and closing, the mannequin factory and the "surreally empty NYC" streets, as you put it, psadvance. Maybe I'm reading too much into all of this, but I can't help but feel that most of these elements are part of a purposeful experiment by Kubrick to explore how people move through urban spaces. Or maybe in the first few examples I cited he was just interested in showing off his skills with the camera/lighting and I've over-analyzed everything else. I'm interested to hear what others think.