Stanley Kubrick

Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)

The first half of Barry Lyndon, very nicely delineated on screen with a title card and then an intermission, is a black comedy. The second half is a tragedy. The epilogue explicitly reconciles the two, but there’s also Michael Hordern’s narration, which does the most expository work of anything in the picture. For the most part, Barry Lyndon’s characters are inscrutable. There are occasional exceptions, usually driven from ambiguity by rage—often directed at the titular protagonist, played by Ryan O’Neal—like first nemesis Leonard Rossiter and final nemesis Leon Vitali. Rossiter and Vitali’s souls lay bare. Most everyone else’s do not. Least of all O’Neal’s. O’Neal and his protagonist, subject of the narration but not the film, are forever a mystery. The narration often will describe O’Neal’s actions and reactions, even their motivations, but sometimes not. For example, in the first half of the film, when O’Neal deserts and assumes the identity of an officer, we never know why O’Neal doesn’t put more work into his disguise. In the second half, and far more consequentially for everyone, it’s never clear if O’Neal knocking off the drinking and carousing once he marries rich widow Marisa Berenson is sincere and, regardless, what made him knock it off.

Part one of the film follows O’Neal from poverty in Ireland to military success—albeit enlisted—in the Seven Years War on the continent, then his escape from the military into professional gambling, which leads him to Berenson. The scene where O’Neal seduces Berenson is exquisite and singular, a sublime mix of various movie magics—Kubrick’s direction, the actors silent looks exchanged over a card game, John Alcott’s glorious, gorgeous lighting, Tony Lawson’s editing, the music—the film’s main theme is a Handel piece, which Kubrick trains the audience throughout the first half to recognize for what it accompanies dramatically and then is able to use it later to amplify sequences—not to mention Ken Adam’s production design, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund’s costumes. Every frame of Barry Lyndon is resplendent in one way or another, often in many ways. Kubrick doesn’t do a lot of camera movements, instead relying on zooms to reveal and hide various actions.

Part two of the film is O’Neal and Berenson’s marriage, complicated by his mother (Marie Kean) and her son (Dominic Savage then Leon Vitali), amongst others—not to mention O’Neal’s callousness and cruelty as he assumes control of Berenson’s riches. He’d seduced her while her first husband, aged Frank Middlemass, was still alive and, once his prize is secured, he becomes quite the dick. Again, it’s impossible to know whether O’Neal was always a dick—he’d picked out Berenson as a target, during his days with mentor Patrick Magee, a fellow Irishman pretending to be a Frenchman to card sharp around Europe. O’Neal’s his committed sidekick.

O’Neal and Berenson’s eventual child, David Morley, provides a kind of touchstone for everyone to connect around, even Vitali, who’s seen through O’Neal the whole time and hates him. But it also ends up being Morley who will finally break Vitali’s fragile place in this home he loathes, with his final outburst arguably setting everyone’s lives on a path of destruction. The narrator tells the audience when it’s all too late, some fifty minutes before the end of the film, announcing when it’s time to prepare for the descent, a luxury the characters are without.

The first part of the film is full of entertaining supporting cast members, a somewhat eclectic, somewhat mundane bunch O’Neal meets as his destiny—already rerouted in youth as his father died in a duel just after securing stable employment—moves towards its inevitable conclusion. There’s cousin Gay Hamilton, who teaches O’Neal his way around a woman—it’s unclear how young thirty-two year-old O’Neal is supposed to be playing, but it’s like… seventeen or something. And O’Neal’s frequently blank look is perfect. One of the mysteries is how much O’Neal is grokking things around around him. The Hamilton stuff, at least then O’Neal’s naivety isn’t in question. Hamilton isn’t seriously going to marry her cousin so she warms up to a British officer, aforementioned first nemesis Rossiter, who O’Neal has no problem confronting and making his first duel. The film opens with O’Neal’s father’s death in the duel, so it’s always hanging around. O’Neal is actually fearless while his betters pretend to be and he wields that situation for his own class improvement. Again, does he do it consciously or instinctively… it’s intentionally unclear.

Because while O’Neal is an interesting historical figure to track through these turbulent times, he’s not a sympathetic one. He’s more sympathetic than many and he frequently deserves at least a measure of empathy, he’s never Kubrick’s tragic hero. The tragic hero of the film, its actual subject but not protagonist (because it’s not possible for her to be one) is Berenson. There are tragedies abound in the second part of Lyndon and none of them don’t serve to further devastate Berenson, who weathers them all onscreen in silence, with Kubrick and Alcott’s camera and then Lawson’s cuts all scrutinizing her. O’Neal gives a fantastic performance in Barry Lyndon, but Berenson is the performance the film hinges on. She’s got to convey all the answers without addressing them—or having them addressed in the narration—while O’Neal gets to embrace the inscrutability because, well, he’s a man. And the men of Barry Lyndon place very little value on anything.

The film doesn’t engage much with the fatalism of dueling culture but it’s ever-present. It lurks in the background, waiting for an opportunity to lunge. Similarly, while the first half of Barry Lyndon is very much a war film, it never greatly engages with it; often it’ll happen out-of-shot, but heard, a technique Kubrick utilizes to great effect throughout the first half. Reaction shots from the listener without showing this line or that line being spoken. Eventually it scales up to be the gunfire, which Kubrick actually foreshadows without sound effects earlier in the film. It’s all very intricate, very precise, very delicate.

Everything needs to work for the third act, say the last fifty or so minutes, to deliberately walk its tightrope.

Most everyone O’Neal meets along his way are distinct and excellent—Arthur O'Sullivan’s highwayman only gets a couple scenes but is memorable, Godfrey Quigley’s kindly captain is the closest thing O’Neal, the film, and the audience have to a wholesome role model. Murray Melvin is excellent as Berenson’s personal reverend. Philip Stone’s good as the suffering estate accountant.

Vitali’s got the hardest part in the film and he pulls it off. He manages to be loathsome—he always saves some of his lashings out for Berenson, spitting venom at her once he’s got everyone’s attention—and hateful but never exactly villainous. He’s a very interesting mirror for O’Neal, though neither (apparently) acknowledges it.

Barry Lyndon, especially in the first half, is a history lesson (of sorts); it examines particular times and places, particular cultural norms and mores, without engaging with the larger scale historical events passing. The second half just focuses it in more, examining the participants of the unfolding drama, watching them struggle with their historical contexts… doomed by them, actually. But with a sense of humor about it.

It’s a singular motion picture, always grandiose but never unwieldy, with a superb script from Kubrick, every technical contribution an achievement, and perfect performances. There’s nothing else like it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick, based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; director of photography, John Alcott; edited by Tony Lawson; production designer, Ken Adam; costume designers, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Honoria Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Marie Kean (Mrs. Barry), David Morley (Bryan Patrick Lyndon), Murray Melvin (Rev. Samuel Runt), Philip Stone (Graham), Patrick Magee (The Chevalier du Balibari), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Leonard Rossiter (Capt. John Quin), Godfrey Quigley (Capt. Grogan), Hardy Krüger (Capt. Potzdorf), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Diana Körner (Lischen), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Lyndon), Dominic Savage (Young Bullingdon), and Arthur O’Sullivan (Capt. Feeny); narrated by Michael Hordern.


Flying Padre (1951, Stanley Kubrick)

Flying Padre has three types of impressive shots. The first two types involve an airplane. The short is about a New Mexico priest who flies around his 4,000-square mile parish. There are interior and exterior shots of the plane and director Kubrick gets some fantastic shots from inside out. He’s also got some great shots of the plane from the ground, though they’re occasionally a little jerky. Given how smooth the camera movements tend to be in Padre, the jerks have got to be unintentional.

Then there are the close-ups. Kubrick gets these great shots of the priest’s parishioners when he’s performing services. Sometimes there are great shots involving the priest himself, but more often it’s when Kubrick can get a shot of the ostensibly enraptured parishioners.

The shots with the priest tend to involve action, not reflection. Flying Padre is–in its nine minutes–a bit of an adventure story. The priest, Father Stadtmueller, goes from funeral to children’s counselor to erstwhile ambulance driver. I suppose the funeral’s real? Though it seems a little macabre either way. Because the children’s counselor bit–and then the ambulance flier bit–those two are definitely staged. They might be based on real events, but they’re dramatized for Flying Padre.

The short’s got no natural sound. There are occasional diegetic sounds, like the bullied child knocking on the priest’s door or the priest’s birds chirping, but they didn’t record any sound during filming. Or, if they did, they didn’t use it, which is too bad because Father Stadtmueller is frequently talking. There’s constant narration to explain what’s going on.

The narration also establishes the narrative distance, something Kubrick relies on once the staging is obvious. When Father Stadtmueller has to fly a mother and her sick baby to a medical services, there are shots of the mother talking to the Father. While they’re on the plane. And it’s obvious there’s no way they both could’ve fit in the plane with a camera.

Kubrick even pokes fun at the priest at one point, when the narration describes him as a crack shot with a rifle and then Father Stadtmueller misses not just the bullseye but the any of the target’s rings.

There are some excellent shots and some great location shooting to get Padre through.

Flying Padre’s interesting but disposable. Kubrick’s got some ambitious filmmaking but no ambitions for the short itself.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Photographed and directed by Stanley Kubrick; edited by Isaac Kleinerman; music by Nathaniel Shilkret; produced by Benjamin Burton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fred Stadtmueller; narrated by Bob Hite.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

2001: A Space Odyssey has five distinct parts–the “Dawn of Man” sequence, then the space station and moon visit, then the main action before the intermission, then the main action after the intermission, then the “Jupiter” sequence. The prehistoric sequence, where an advanced alien device puts the vegetarian, prey-to-carnivores missing links on track to become carnivorous and murderous human beings. Given the setting and characters, it’s no surprise Kubrick changes style a bit when he gets to the future. 2001 starts with a shot of the planets aligning, then goes to the missing links. Kubrick visibly changes the film’s presumable trajectory. The prehistoric stop-off.

That sequence is done in vignettes, the first time editor Ray Lovejoy gets to astound. Kubrick characterizes the apes, but never anthropomorphizes them. The film establishes their regular lives–bickering with boars for plants, bickering with other tribes for water, getting killed off by hungry big cats. Kubrick and Lovejoy hold each shot just long enough. Kubrick establishes mood, then reveals the narrative. But he never gets overenthusiastic for big events; even with 2001’s always magnificent sometimes dramatic choice of music, the visual pacing of the film never changes. The music accompanies, never dictates (which leads to some interesting effects in the second section).

That second section follows scientist, bureaucrat, and questionably dedicated father William Sylvester to the moon. Lots of beautiful filmmaking here, the music against the exquisite, ageless, and all around perfect special effects sequences. Spaceships, space stations, the Earth, the moon. It’s magnificent. It’s also where Kubrick lets himself have a laugh or two. If not a laugh, then at least a smile. Because despite 2001 being a literal travelogue of the future in the Sylvester section, Kubrick’s got no interest in exposition. Except when it develops Sylvester’s character and reveals the strangeness of future folk. But Kubrick is interested in doing the travelogue–so there are lots of things with instructions, lots of placards. Lingering shots, giving the viewer long enough to consider the possibilities. And the ten steps to the zero g toilet.

And through most of the second section, 2001 feels very epical. Sure, the first part of the movie was doing a serious ape-man prologue, but there’s rising action in the second part. There’s mystery. There’s Sylvester maybe forgetting about his daughter’s birthday. There are Russians. There’s bureaucracy. The Sylvester as bureaucrat scenes are so weird, in such a good way. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s script saves the best dialogue for the main action and for someone in particular, but the future decorum in the Sylvester section is peculiar, intriguing, and wonderful.

Shame it doesn’t turn out to be the main plot. When 2001 cuts from ape-men to space men, it does so with a lot of grace. When it cuts from space bureaucrats to space explorers, it’s done so with metal machine music.

Besides having a single setting–the Discovery spaceship–and a set cast (bland leading man types Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood and then the red eyed computer, voiced by Douglas Rain), the third section also has an entirely different feel, visually and aurally. The tone of the music has changed. It’s still lush, but it’s not magnificent. Because space is empty in the third and fourth sections of the film. It’s empty, it’s quiet, and it’s lonely.

Kubrick and Clarke quickly establish the setting and characters, doing so as part of a lengthy summary montage. Kubrick’s expository interest is a little different now. The second section was the commercial for space travel, the third section is the lonely reality for Lockwood and Dullea. It’s also the section where Kubrick shows off the most with the interior special effects. There’s a lot of exterior stuff in the second part, but the third and fourth parts just have the one or two spacecraft. It’s otherwise empty space. So the future gawking is on the interiors, with all sorts of gravity-related design choices. And it’s all just functional. Dullea and Lockwood just getting through another day.

But, really, Kubrick is just setting up the computer to be a full character. That omnipresent red eye. Rain’s soothing, dulcet voice. Kubrick and Lovejoy cut Rain’s scenes–and Dullea and Lockwood’s interactions with him–deliberately, with a lot of time for deliberation, as Dullea and Lockwood (and the cast) wonder what Rain is really thinking. Except it’s just that voice and that red eye.

The fourth section has the same setting, same cast, no music, completely different editing pace. It’s got the action, it’s got the drama; it’s got the Frankenstein. And it’s also got completely different needs of the cast. Well, Dullea and Lockwood anyway. When things go wrong, Kubrick and Clarke don’t offer any expository outbursts. The quiet of the fourth section extends to the characters–they work intensely and silently.

The third and fourth parts have their own epical build too. Yes, the style changes after intermission, but not the narrative drive. Except it turns out Kubrick’s not really interested in that narrative drive. He’s had action in exterior prehistoric, exterior future, and interior future. For part five, most of it, the film is a point-of-view shot as the explorer encounters the unimaginable. Kubrick starts with special effects shots, then moves on to photographic process ones. For ten minutes, the film mesmerizes, free of time, free of plot. But with music again. Music comes back for part five.

Rain’s performance is a startling creation. Rain, Kubrick, Lovejoy, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, whoever came up with the red eye. It’s an achievement and probably the film’s finest. Maybe the finest. There are quite a few achievements happening in 2001; big ones, little ones. Technical ones (so many technical ones), narrative ones (many less of these, but significant ones). But Rain and the red eye, it’s where Kubrick excels. Kubrick shows off a lot in 2001, but never with HAL.

Dullea and Lockwood are good. Dullea’s a little better. Sylvester’s good. Lead ape-man Daniel Richter is good. Technically it’s fabulous. Lovejoy’s editing keeps getting better; the fifth section needs a lot of cutting and Lovejoy’s always got the right one. Unsworth’s photography is great. Production design is great. 2001 is a phenomenal film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on a short story by Clarke; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Ray Lovejoy; production designers, Ernest Archer, Harry Lange, and Anthony Masters; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Keir Dullea (Dr. Dave Bowman), Gary Lockwood (Dr. Frank Poole), William Sylvester (Dr. Haywood R. Floyd), Daniel Richter (Moon-Watcher), Leonard Rossiter (Dr. Andrei Smyslov), Margaret Tyzack (Elena), Robert Beatty (Dr. Ralph Halvorsen), Sean Sullivan (Dr. Bill Michaels), and Douglas Rain (HAL 9000).


This post is part of the Outer Space on Film Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

Lolita (1962, Stanley Kubrick)

The first half of Lolita is a wonderful mix of acting styles. There’s James Mason’s very measured, very British acting. There’s Shirley Winters’s histrionics; she’s doing Hollywood melodrama on overdrive but director Kubrick (and Winters) have it all under perfect control. And then there’s Sue Lyons as the titular character. She’s far more naturalistic than either Mason or Winters–and certainly more than Peter Sellers in his supporting role. The second half of the film loses that mix. Instead of Mason playing off other styles, he’s mostly left to his own hysterics.

And Winters was better at them.

Lolita is a difficult proposition as Mason, as a supreme pervert, has to be somewhat sympathetic. Winters, who should be sympathetic, has to be a villain. Lyons, who is a victim, has to be villainous. And what about Sellers? He has to not run off with the picture, which he almost does every time he’s in the movie.

That first half, which Kubrick tells in summary, is gloriously well-paced. It moves in short sequences–sometimes just a shot with actors entering and leaving–and it moves it lengthy scenes. It’s far more interesting stuff than the second half of the film, which is a Hitchcockian thriller without any thrillers.

Great music from Nelson Riddle, great photography from Oswald Morris.

Everything sort of falls apart in the third act as Kubrick rushes to find a conclusion. The second half, with Mason’s outbursts and arguments, can’t compare to the sublimity of the first.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov, based on his novel; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Anthony Harvey; music by Nelson Riddle; produced by James B. Harris; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Mason (Prof. Humbert Humbert), Shelley Winters (Charlotte Haze), Sue Lyon (Lolita), Jerry Stovin (John Farlow), Diana Decker (Jean Farlow), Lois Maxwell (Nurse Mary Lore), Bill Greene (George Swine), Marianne Stone (Vivian Darkbloom) and Peter Sellers (Clare Quilty).


Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)

Paths of Glory takes place over four days, runs just under ninety minutes and has thirteen or so significant characters. It’s hard to identify the most significant character–Kirk Douglas’s protagonist the viewer’s way into the film, but he’s not the most significant.

The film opens with George Macready (who, along with Wayne Morris, is my vote for most significant character) and Adolphe Menjou. The film then moves on Morris’s story (with Ralph Meeker); Douglas shows up in this period too. At no point is the film’s second half, a court martial trial, forecast. Director Kubrick and co-screenwriters Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson pace the film brilliantly–everything is immediate. In the penultimate scene, when Menjou proposes to Douglas the idea of the opposite, it confounds Douglas and reveals the cognitive disconnect to the viewer.

Then Kubrick gives the viewer–and Douglas–some hope for the human race in the last scene. He handles it carefully–he and editor Eva Kroll cut Glory sublimely. There’s never a wasted moment, but Kubrick never gives the sense of being too precise or reductive. He just balances it all.

Great photography from Georg Krause.

In the lead, Douglas is fantastic. He gets a big trial scene, but his quiet seething scenes are even better. His often cautious reactions to Macready and Menjou are phenomenal. And they’re both great. Macready more, just because he gets the most to do in the film.

It’s a perfect film. Every moment is spectacular, quiet or loud.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb; director of photography, Georg Krause; edited by Eva Kroll; music by Gerald Fried; produced by James B. Harris; released by United Artists.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Col. Dax), Ralph Meeker (Cpl. Philippe Paris), Adolphe Menjou (Gen. George Broulard), George Macready (Gen. Paul Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lt. Roget), Richard Anderson (Maj. Saint-Auban), Joe Turkel (Pvt. Pierre Arnaud), Christiane Kubrick (German Singer), Peter Capell (Chief Judge of Court-Martial), Emile Meyer (Father Dupree), Bert Freed (Sgt. Boulanger), Kem Dibbs (Pvt. Lejeune) and Timothy Carey (Pvt. Maurice Ferol).


The Seafarers (1953, Stanley Kubrick)

Only half of The Seafarers really feels like Kubrick. While he handled photography and editing on the entire film, the second half moves out of his comfort zone (or interest level). The film’s a promotional for the Seafarers International Union; the second half has most of that promoting.

Kubrick stays interested during the first half, where he’s composing his shots like still photographs, only with motion. There’s a tour of the Union hall and its activities, which Kubrick’s able to do wonders with. He goes for the iconic shot every time, especially of a secretary on a ladder in front of a huge card catalog.

But the second half, dealing with member benefits and recruitment, Kubrick zones out. His shots of members listening to speeches show these disinterested, unsure faces. At that point, one wonders more about the film’s making than its content.

The Seafarers is problematic, but still worthwhile.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Photographed, edited and directed by Stanley Kubrick; written by Will Chasen; produced by Lester Cooper; released by the Seafarers International Union.

Narrated by Don Hollenbeck.


The Killing (1956, Stanley Kubrick)

I first saw The Killing when I was in high school. I had a great video store and one of the employees–lots of the employees were film school students–recommended the film to me, raving about Kubrick’s use of fractured narrative. He didn’t call it a fractured narrative, I don’t remember what he called it, maybe he just described it; I rented it and watched it and loved it. In some ways, it’s the most lovable of Kubrick’s films because it’s so good and requires so little from the viewer. Years later–I learned Kubrick didn’t come up with the fractured narrative. The source novel had it and he liked the structure.

The heist scene, where The Killing (seemingly–did anyone else use a fractured structure to elucidate a heist before this film?) sets such a precedent, comes after the film’s already wowed. The heist scene, beautifully paced, exquisitely directed (I love the way the camera moves at the bus station, with Kubrick using camera movement akin to sentence or paragraph structure), is a blast. Like all good heist scenes, it’s all about the precision and The Killing doesn’t disappoint. It’s a great heist scene–maybe not the best ever (it gets a tad long as Sterling Hayden gets ready in the locker room), but the best stuff in The Killing isn’t the heist. It’s Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor.

Oh, there’s some other great stuff in the film. Coleen Gray as Hayden’s crestfallen fiancée–with The Killing, Kubrick gives a lot more time to characters than he usually does. It’s a large cast with people having different levels of involvement in the story overall, but the texture of the characters–look at the relationship between James Edwards and Timothy Carey. It takes up maybe four minutes of screen time but it’s exceptional; it has its own arc. Or Jay C. Flippen’s–unspoken–melancholia. It’s all just so amazing, because it’s so un-Kubrick. The Killing runs less than ninety minutes and it’s boiling over with material.

But Cook and Windsor… their relationship–their scenes together–is amazing. Windsor’s performance is spectacular, because she infuses it with such intelligence and evil, but is also able to make the viewer believe other people can buy it when she’s acting coy. Cook’s got the film’s best role and he gives the performance of his career–and Kubrick seems to know it. The Killing‘s got great sound design, both at the race track during the fractured heist scene, but also during the conversations between Cook and Windsor (Jim Thompson’s dialogue is fantastic). Kubrick holds the camera on Cook, letting him go through a whole range of emotions and thoughts in just thirty or forty seconds. It’s a brilliant moment of cinema.

Then the heist goes on too long and the film starts to slip a little.

Kubrick brings it all back together at the end though, as he infuses an action-oriented sequence with the characters’ unspoken misery. It’s a great big downer, but it’s such a beautifully made film–and it’s near impossible to truly identify with any of the characters outside of enjoying their actions–it works.

Hayden’s great, Ted de Corsia’s good, Joe Sawyer’s good. Gray’s very good in the few minutes she has of screen time. Kola Kwariani’s hilarious in a smaller part. He’s got these great monologues and, with his thick Russian accent, it’s hard to understand what he’s saying, but he’s foreshadowing the entire story for the viewer.

It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick and Jim Thompson, based on a novel by Lionel White; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Betty Steinberg; music by Gerald Fried; produced by James B. Harris; released by United Artists.

Starring Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay), Coleen Gray (Fay), Vince Edwards (Val Cannon), Jay C. Flippen (Marvin Unger), Elisha Cook Jr. (George Peatty), Marie Windsor (Sherry Peatty), Ted de Corsia (Policeman Randy Kennan), Joe Sawyer (Mike O’Reilly), James Edwards (Track Parking Attendant), Timothy Carey (Nikki Arcane), Joe Turkel (Tiny), Jay Adler (Leo the Loanshark), Kola Kwariani (Maurice Oboukhoff), Tito Vuolo (Joe Piano) and Dorothy Adams (Mrs. Ruthie O’Reilly).


Killer’s Kiss (1955, Stanley Kubrick)

The chase scene in Killer’s Kiss, which occupies almost the entire third act, is a marvel. From the moment Jamie Smith jumps out the window and hits the pavement, the film leaps beyond the potential Kubrick has instilled it with until that point. Before, there’s a lot of great low budget filmmaking, there’s a lot of great edits (I love the way Kubrick sets the viewer up to expect a cut, then holds off for a second–at least one time, he does it by cutting on a sudden noise, then repeating the noise, but not the edit). It’s a beautifully made film. The way Kubrick substitutes environment sound and music for conversation–again filming without sound–it’s an abstract viewing experience.

Kubrick’s able to create a film without much of a script. The writing’s fine, some of the conversations interesting; it’s not about the plot though. Smith’s silent voyeurism–in his apartment full of family pictures, Kubrick introduces a character of almost limitless potential depth. It’s a beautiful move, one mirrored a little by Frank Silvera’s dialogue defining him quickly, but Smith gets that scene riding the subway, before reading the letter from his uncle, and the character’s whole life becomes immediately clear. It isn’t a hard life to discern. Kubrick keeps Killer’s Kiss very, very simple. The story can’t distract.

There’s also–same idea, different execution–the ballet sequence as Irene Kane explains her situation to Smith. Instead of using a flashback or just expository dialogue, Kubrick not only gives the viewer the information, he also produces a whole character–the ballet dancer is, presumably, Kane’s sister. The narration of the dance makes the dancer more sympathetic than Kane by the end. It’s beautiful execution and a great narrative shortcut. It deepens Kane while making space the film didn’t indicate it had for the sister.

Much like the boxing match, the ballet is one of Killer’s Kiss‘s memorable sequences. The end in the mannequin factory, of course, is also a memorable sequence… but these scenes aren’t required for the story to work. They’re Kubrick showing off. The boxing match is maybe the least narratively important, but it’s during the mannequin sequence where–with his cuts to the decapitated heads and hanging hands–Kubrick’s putting his talent on display.

As for the end, which I started with and promptly lost….

Kubrick shoots with an unbelievable deep focus. The endless, empty streets, a visual reference to Smith’s earlier dream, quiet the film. It should be loud, but there’s nothing around to make a sound except Smith’s running feet. The chase across the roof is seeing the bridge in the background or watching Smith run the perimeter of the frame. By the time Smith gets into the mannequin factory, it doesn’t seem like Kubrick could top it. Of course he does, almost immediately, with Smith and Frank Silvera’s intense fight scene. Killer’s Kiss excels.

So it’s almost inevitable–after framing a narrative with awkward, present tense narration–Kubrick can’t close it right. Killer’s Kiss is one of his most traditional plots and the end confirms it. It either ends too soon or goes on too long, depending on the viewer’s mood. But it’s an astoundingly well made film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Edited, photographed, written and directed by Stanley Kubrick; music by Gerald Fried; produced by Morris Bousel and Kubrick; released by United Artists.

Starring Frank Silvera (Vincent Rapallo), Jamie Smith (Davey Gordon), Irene Kane (Gloria Price), Jerry Jarrett (Albert) and Ruth Sobotka (the ballerina).


Fear and Desire (1953, Stanley Kubrick)

Fear and Desire‘s a mess to be sure, but it’s hard to understand why Kubrick later strove to have it willfully forgotten. The film’s greatest faults–the script and the acting–pale when compared to Kubrick’s success as a director and editor. He described the film as amateurish and that adjective certainly does describe the script well (I was sort of stunned to see Sackler went on to so much), but the visuals are fantastic.

Kubrick shot Fear and Desire with a lot of control–he shot without sound, which allowed for dubbing later. The looping matches quite well and the general lack of close-ups with dialogue–the characters tend to speak from out of frame–creates a real tone for the picture. The technique emphasizes what the characters are saying–maybe not the best result overall, given the wordiness of Sackler’s script–while concentrating on Kubrick’s composition. The only times Kubrick stumbles is when the shot’s got to be constrained due to budget. Kubrick’s not a low budget filmmaker. He doesn’t have the chops for it. His frustration at the limitations are visible.

The best sequence is when Paul Mazursky goes nutty on a captured female civilian. Contemporary critics also cited this scene and it’s fantastic, due to Kubrick’s shots, his editing and Virginia Leith’s wordless performance. It’s got a lot to overcome too–Mazursky’s performance is terrible. Sackler’s script is full of existentialist monologues–occasionally in voiceover, which annoys rather than edifies–and his approach to Mazursky’s character is silly. Mazursky is creepy when he’s not rambling on and it helps with the scene’s success. What a compliment for a performance–he looks like a creep.

The other sequence comes at the end and the budget hampers Kubrick. The gruff sergeant, played by Frank Silvera (in the film’s best performance), goes downriver on a raft. There are voiceovers and they don’t work, but the editing of the scene is right and it works. It’s the kind of big Hollywood war melodrama scene Kubrick would never do again–it’s like Kirk Douglas racing in front of the firing squad in a jeep–but it shows off just how much Kubrick could do.

The script’s a big logic hole though. Leith’s enemy civilian doesn’t speak English or Spanish, while the enemy soldiers speak English. Silvera refers to the enemies as cannibals a couple times, though the general’s uniform seems to be based on a German army uniform. Maybe. Someone–either Kubrick or Sackler–thought not identifying the conflict, making it a grandiose statement about the nature of war itself (and the narration at the beginning is even nice enough to let the viewer know about this approach). It backfires from the first scene, because by telling the viewer to ignore the omission, they just draw attention to it.

Kenneth Harp, as the cowardly lieutenant, is terrible. Kubrick should have found someone else to dub in his dialogue. Stephen Coit’s fine as the nondescript soldier (he doesn’t get any monologues).

Lots of Fear and Desire is worth seeing. It’s just some of it would be better on mute (not really, since Kubrick’s sound design is fantastic).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Edited, photographed, produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; written by Howard Sackler; music by Gerald Fried; released by Joseph Burstyn.

Starring Frank Silvera (Sgt. Mac), Paul Mazursky (Pvt. Sidney), Kenneth Harp (Lt. Corby / enemy general), Stephen Coit (Pvt. Fletcher / aide-de-camp) and Virginia Leith (Young Girl).


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