Article: Stanley Kubrick - A Film Odyssey Part One

The Movie Sleuth begins its journey through the films of Stanley Kubrick with part one, The Genesis of Kubrick.

The Genesis of Kubrick

There isn't much one can say about the art of Stanley Kubrick that hasn't already been said.  His films defy expectation, categorization, and are crafted with a clean, almost God-like precision.  To see a film of his once is never enough.  Although the territory might be familiar from previous viewings, each experience with a Kubrick film can be re-read as something fresh and new.  

Key to the timelessness of his images is the inability for them to age.  Each film is as fresh, subversive, groundbreaking, shocking, and transcendent now as they were when they were first released.  Unlike other directors who wear their influences on their sleeve, Kubrick's primary inspiration first and foremost was his own.  And even further still, Kubrick is still regarded as an artist years ahead of his viewers and critics in both intellect and technique.  With this retrospective, let us take a gander through the films of what is probably cinema's greatest film making genius and my own personal idol, Stanley Kubrick.

Fear and Desire (1953) 4/10

The debut of who would eventually become one of the world's greatest directors, Stanley Kubrick's Fear and Desire is an existential war film about four soldiers who find themselves behind enemy lines.  Devoid of sides or country, the soldiers wander amid the countryside trying to escape before happening upon a young woman who doesn't speak their language.  Fearing the presence of enemies nearby, the men apprehend the woman in an attempt to flush out enemy fire. The film takes on the feel of a fever dream as the men close in on their 'enemy'. 

True to most directors finding their niche, Kubrick's debut is admittedly rife with problems.  For the impeccable technical master, there were issues with blocking such as actors entering the wrong side of the frame, requiring optical flipping for continuity.  The film was shot without sound, opting for post-dubbing later, which exceeded the expenses of the production's tight budget.  Kubrick went so far as accepting additional short film jobs to garner the expenses required to complete production on Fear and Desire.  While traces of Kubrick's close-ups and framing are visible, the graceful tracking shots one is accustomed to when viewing a Kubrick film are noticeably absent here. 

Kubrick himself was dismayed by the end results and withdrew the film from circulation.  Upon conducting a retrospective on the director, a theater double-billed Fear and Desire with Killer's Kiss.  Kubrick then went on to dub Fear and Desire as 'a bumbling amateur film exercise'.  In recent years the Library of Congress, in conjunction with Kubrick's estate, produced a restored Blu-ray transfer of Fear and Desire, which included one of his short films, The Seafarers (the UK edition includes Kubrick's other shorts The Day of the Fight and Flying Padre).  Although a curious viewing experience for Kubrick aficionados (myself included), this is strictly for those keen on his work.  Much like it's creator, I cannot recommend it to the average moviegoer.

Killer's Kiss (1955) 4/10

Kubrick's second feature, Killer's Kiss, finds the young and budding artist working within the conventions of late 40s film noir.  It tells the story of a flailing boxer named Davey (Jamie Smith) living in the bronx across apartments from a beautiful taxi dancer named Gloria (New York Times writer Chris Chase billed as Irene Kane).  Watching her disrobe night after night from his window (think Hitchcock's Rear Window) he grows infatuated with her.  Meanwhile she continues to fend off her sleazy, smitten boss Vincent (Frank Silvera from Fear and Desire) and his unrelenting come-ons.  After a violent domestic dispute with Vincent, Davey comes to her rescue and the two fall in love.  But Vincent isn't ready to let go of his obsession with Gloria quite yet, and in typical noir fashion, the two troubled suitors lock horns in a violent battle to the death.

Much like his previous feature debut Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss runs just over an hour in length and showcases the eventual master filmmaker finding his niche.  An innovative approach to the boxing match, with low angle close-ups and stark lighting of the heavyweights throwing punches at each other's sweaty bodies, would predate the iconic camerawork and editing of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull.  It should be noted that Kubrick edited Killer's Kiss in addition to cinematography and direction.  There's an inspired chase sequence involving Davey evading Vincent and his goons amid the barren cityscape of New York before happening upon an abandoned factory full of female mannequins (Clockwork Orange, anyone?).  That Vincent challenges Davey with an axe couldn't help but conjure up images of Jack Nicholson's infamous use of the said weapon in The Shining.  Davey's consistent voiceover narration can also be traced to Alex in Clockwork Orange, inviting us to share in the experience of a fighter living on the edge.

Still, Killer's Kiss became second to Fear and Desire as a feature that would inspire chagrin from the master filmmaker when people would ask about it.  For one thing, the ending was altered by the studio opting for a more optimistic denouemont, against Kubrick's wishes.  To try and imagine Kubrick not having complete control over his films seems unthinkable, but even the cinematic God himself still had yet to earn that kind of respect.  Though beautifully photographed (as expected), the plot itself is pulp fiction, traditional noir without any of the intellect infused within his images.  While a second disappointment for Kubrick, the film inspired a cinematic treatise on the making of the film called Stranger's Kiss and also ultimately provided Kubrick with the opportunity to make his first fully fledged masterpiece, The Killing

The Killing (1956) 8/10
Continuing with the noirish tradition set up in Killer's Kiss with greater control over the finality of the product this time around, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing is a superb heist picture, a mobster drama which involves the audience fully in the planning, execution, and aftermath of the crime.  Told in the typical disjointed fashion of noir but with greater, cleaner technical precision and a stronger story than previously, we are drawn into a plot involving the robbery of a racehorse track's money counting room, masterminded by a veteran criminal named Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden).  Intending on pulling off one final robbery before settling down for good, he enlists several key players intended to distract from the robbery, include a sniper ordered to kill one of the racehorses and a fight spilling out into a lobby.  Despite all the effort and success of the heist, the conspirators turn on one another once the money is on hand and the plot goes awry.
Following through with his convictions which he wasn't allowed to express in Killer's Kiss, The Killing is the kind of classic film noir which sees the story through to it's logical end.  By that, Kubrick doesn't let his characters off the hook so easily, as the consequences of the conspirators' actions gradually catch up with everyone.  It's a theme Kubrick would explore fully in later films like Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, the idea of evil ultimately cancelling itself out with time and tide.  By the point of The Killing, Kubrick fully mastered his craft of the motion picture camera, creating his sharpest, cleanest and fully polished film to date.  Kubrick's perspective, precise dolly shots and tracking shots, indicated an almost quantum leap of technological advancement over his previous film.  It's worth noting The Killing also sports an early Sterling Hayden as a leading man in a gangster film, foreshadowing the work to come as General Jack T. Ripper in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
Over the years, the reputation of The Killing as Kubrick's first fully controlled masterpiece has only grown in stature.  Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, for instance, points to The Killing as the primary influence on his own directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs.  Where Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss showcased the early scribblings of a budding artist, The Killing announced Kubrick as a major talent emerging within the film community.  Not satisfied with basking in the light of his first critical succes, Kubrick was ready to create yet another masterpiece, and one of the most profoundly affecting anti-war films of all time, Paths of Glory.

Paths of Glory (1957) 9/10
Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is at once a masterful anti-war epic and an expression of true patriotism and duty.  In only two hours it manages to encapsulate the full spectrum of horror regarding combat battle and the ruthless, counterproductive politics behind the war machine.  Set during WWI surrounding trench warfare between France and Germany, the film is loosely based on the true story of a Regiment Colonel's (Kirk Douglas, in arguably his greatest role) efforts to defend three soldiers wrongfully indicted with charges of cowardice, picked at random as an example to the Regiment for failing to seize a German position known as 'the Anthill' in order to deflect attention from the court marshall's own order to the Regimen to fire upon his own squad.  While filled with sweeping vistas of warfare set deep in the trenches, the real battles are fought in court concerning innocent soldiers needlessly sent to death for the reckless egos of their superiors.
An early indication of the impeccable technical quality of Kubrick, Paths of Glory contains some of the cleanest, most beautifully photographed sequences of combat ever lensed.  Films like Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and it's D-Day sequences clearly took note of the inter cutting between wide shots of armies charging ahead into a barrage of bullets and explosions and close-ups of grimy faces of men huddled together in the trenches.  Kubrick's symmetrical use of perspective, medium shots and his sharp, clinical editing is as fully developed and pristine as the footage of his later world-famous efforts such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clockwork Orange, and his 2nd anti-war epic, Full Metal Jacket.  Kubrick's perfectionism also began to bloom with Paths of Glory, as stories of veteran actor Adolphe Menjou losing his temper over being asked for repeat takes by the director, albeit a precursor to Kubrick's request that Scatman Crothers explain the process of 'shining' to actor Danny Lloyd 148 times for The Shining
The anger Kubrick's tragedy fills his viewers with is palpable, with its obvious hypocrisy regarding the unfair trial of innocent men's lives as convenient coverage for their superior's own infractions.  Less about war itself than the personified images of those purporting to fight it, it's an indictment of the war machine sacrificing the lives of the innocent in order to fulfill their own reputation.  For years, due to it's portrait of the French General command, the film was withheld from release in France until the mid 1970s.  Only during the film's symbolic finale when a German woman (Kubrick's future wife, Christiane Kubrick) sings a children's folk song to a drunk and rowdy Regimen after the execution does the film's anti-war language become universal and clear.  While war is a ruthless meat grinder devouring nearly all who participate in it, it's the battles fought behind closed doors that are the most vicious and deeply haunting.

Spartacus (1960) 6/10

Considered by many to be the first film to depict gladiatorial battle, Stanley Kubrick's gargantuan historical epic Spartacus is the director's first foray into the Hollywood mainstream.  Originally directed by epic filmmaker Anthony Mann for one week, Kubrick was hired to take over a production in turmoil and wound up pulling together a successful blockbuster, proving he could work within the system amid movie moguls and still hold his own.  The film also dared to openly defy the Hollywood blacklist, with full proclamation of Johnny Got His Gun writer Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter, garnering the support of President John F. Kennedy to help end the blacklisting.  Though Kubrick conceded to giving up final cut, a move which caused him to write off Spartacus for many years, the film wound up becoming one of Universal Studios most commercially successful films of all time, earning Kubrick the long sought after right to make films precisely as he intended to.
Loosely based on the title character, Spartacus tells the story of a slave who forms a rebellion and nearly overthrows the Roman Empire.  Starring Kirk Douglas as the iconic warrior, the film is a standard historical epic, an overblown Hollywood spectacle, and in some circles, “the manliest film of all time”.  Spanning three hours, the anti-slavery epic contains extravagant battle sequences consisting of thousands of extras, many of which would influence the bloody ground battles in Mel Gibson's Braveheart.  It's famous chant of extras shouting 'Hail, Crassus!' and 'I'm Spartacus', incidentally, was recorded at a Michigan State Notre Dame college football game.  A precursor to the musclebound action picture, Spartacus is among the first historical epics produced by Hollywood not dealing with Christianity or God.  There's also an infamous sequence  (restored to the film's 1991 re-issue) dealing with Roman sexual deviance, with Laurence Olivier being bathed by his slave Tony Curtis.  All in all, this was a Hollywood superproduction that managed to challenge many standards of the system in terms of censorship and sensibility.

Despite garnering several Academy Award nominations and solidifying Kubrick's status as a major force to be reckoned with, Kubrick ultimately wound up disowning the film over the lack of final cut.  For instance, Kubrick rejected the idea of a faultless protagonist, standard to Hollywood melodramas, and the director wound up clashing with both screenwriter Trumbo and Kirk Douglas over the finality of the piece.  Others cite Spartacus as the one bearing the fewest visual trademarks of it's master director.  Though excluded from Kubrick's canon, the film still has an enormous following and Kubrick did give his blessing on the 1991 restoration.  The Criterion Collection laserdisc and DVD releases themselves were supervised and approved by Kubrick, who would later say “I really don't know what to say to those who come to me and say 'Boy, I really loved Spartacus'”.  In spite of Kubrick's disappointment with the piece, it gave him the carte-blanche to make his first film completely free of the constraints of the studio system and the expectations of others.  Kubrick earned with Spartacus the right to final cut for the rest of his career.

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-Andrew Kotwicki