Cinema visionary Stanley Kubrick got his start directing low-budget crime thrillers. “The Killing,” newly restored on a Criterion DVD, is one of the best.
This 1956 film was Kubrick’s third feature. He had been a staff photographer for Look magazine at 17, while still in high school.
In 1950 he quit his job to direct short films and then raised the money to make “Fear and Desire” (1953) a micro- budget war movie starring a very young Paul Mazursky that Kubrick later disdained, and “Killer’s Kiss” (1955), a poverty-row film noir about a boxer and a dame that is also included in the Criterion collection. Its ad line: “Her soft mouth was the road to sin-smeared violence!”
“Killer’s Kiss,” which Kubrick also edited and photographed, contains some extraordinary Weegee-like images of Times Square, downtown Manhattan and the old Penn Station. It also features a much copied fight sequence set in a manikin factory, with flailing body parts impeding the killer’s pursuit.
These features were the equivalent of student training films for Kubrick. He was making feature films outside the studio system long before the indie movement took off in the 1990s.
But he also wanted into the system. “The Killing” was shrewdly designed to be his passport to the big leagues at a time when Hollywood was busy churning out crime noirs.
Based on a Lionel White pulp novel about a racetrack heist, it featured a dream cast including Sterling Hayden as the gang’s ex-con master mind, Elisha Cook, Jr. as a nebbishy racetrack teller and Marie Windsor as his blowsy, vampiric wife. A student of B-movies, Kubrick knew all these actors by reputation.
The film’s narrative structure, in which the unfolding of the robbery keeps rewinding to pick up the stories of its various protagonists, confused audiences and probably accounted for its commercial failure. Seen today, the film seems almost avant-garde. (After one disastrous preview, Kubrick, according to a Criterion interview with producer James B. Harris, tried to recut the film before deciding to go with his instincts). The only flaw is the film’s stentorian voice-over narration, with its echoes of “The March of Time” and “Dragnet.”
“The Killing” had in spades what his earlier films lacked: a meaty story and sharp dialogue, the latter courtesy of that hardboiled legend Jim Thompson, author of such classics as “Hell of a Woman” and “The Killer Inside Me.”
Thompson, 22 years older than Kubrick, had written twelve books in the previous nineteen months and was eager to crack Hollywood. Thompson resented Kubrick’s credit-hogging on “The Killing.” The writer’s contribution is listed as “Additional Dialogue,” later changed on some prints to “Dialogue.”
But the two men needed each other and collaborated on the script for Kubrick’s next film, the anti-war classic “Paths of Glory” (1957), the film that finally gave Kubrick the credibility he craved.
Kubrick was known even back then as a world class control- freak. Although he hired the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard for “The Killing,” Kubrick insisted on setting up the shots and the lighting to the point where Ballard refused to attend the screening of dailies. Ballard was renowned for his work with Marlene Dietrich on “The Devil is a Woman” and would subsequently shoot “The Wild Bunch.”
Another marvelous DVD extra is a 1984 interview with Sterling Hayden done for French TV two years before his death. With his big, bearded face and seafarer’s growl, he looks like Ahab incarnate. Hayden teamed up again with Kubrick as General Jack D. Ripper on “Dr. Strangelove.” He tells us that his famous “purity of essence” speech in that film required 48 takes. Well worth it.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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