FC5: Left-Handed Guns
1) THE ASPHALT JUNGLE 2) THE KILLING.
“THE ASPHALT JUNGLE became the model for a number of films of this genre,” wrote John Huston, modestly enough. As well as inspiring probably 60% of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, the movie served as a source of inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s first really good picture, so it seems worthwhile to look at the two together, to see what aspects of Kubrick come from Huston and where he breaks out on his own. Film Club meets the Fever Dream Double Feature.
Calhern and Lawrence.
“Crime is a left-handed form of human endeavour,” opines the paymaster of Huston’s gang, Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), and Huston says this line encapsulates “the tone of the film.” Not it’s message, you understand. Huston, who arguably didn’t believe in very many things, doesn’t tend to have messages in his movies, he merely adopts different tones. He’s sincere in his belief that these tones are honest representations of the way the world feels to some of his characters. He doesn’t necessarily give them credit himself. When he was preparing to work on the script of SERGEANT YORK, co-writer Howard Koch reminded him that their previous collaboration, a stage play entitled In Time to Come, was about peace through collective security, and that this, by contrast, was a pro-war picture. “Well, we’re in a war,” said Huston, sketching away unperturbed.
Huston disdains to preach at us, which makes him seem quite modern in some respects — THE ASPHALT JUNGLE picks up on those aspects of ’30s Warner gangster movies which made it past the censor without neat morals branded on their hides, and looks forward to the movies of Scorsese. It coolly portrays a certain lifestyle with the eye of an anthropologist, not an apologist. Huston has some sympathy for his characters, especially the most hopeless. His later masterpiece FAT CITY would likewise find most compassion for those most without a chance. It’s odd that Huston, who some people found cruel and sadistic, should show these traces of tenderness in a tough movie. And it’s odd that MGM made this one — I guess somebody was dazzled by the “Crime Does Not Pay” conclusion. But it’s really “Crime Often Does Not Pay — Sadly.”
Whitmore and Hayden.
The biggest loser in this bunch is the hooligan, Johnny Guitar/Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden), a failed farmer, gambler and strong-arm man. His backstory (“that black colt”) gives him a poetic sadness, which in Hayden’s gristly hands becomes a kind of monomania. It’s also noteworthy that his self-pity prevents him from feeling anything for his sometime girlfriend, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a rather pitiable creature and possibly the model for all the women in Kubrick’s more misanthropic THE KILLING.
Huston’s adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel, co-scripted with Ben Maddow (INTRUDER IN THE DUST, which I hope to see soon) reputedly sticks close to the book and only made adjustments for the sake of the censor, working around their strictures with care and guile. When the Production Code enforcers stipulated that Louis Calhern couldn’t kill himself if he was in his right mind, Huston had him tear up his suicide note before blowing his brains out. The fact that this professional lawyer can’t finish a simple note proves that his mind is in total disarray, argued Huston. They bought it.
The other main sop to the censor was the police commissioner’s speech near the end, designed to excuse the presence of a corrupt cop in the story. This is very nicely written but rather drags the film down in its last third, and in plot verisimilitude terms the cop shouldn’t really have been caught at all.
Albert Band, later a producer of drive-in trash and straight-to-video nonsense, was Huston’s production assistant, according to Lawrence Grobel’s excellent book The Hustons. Huston announced that he was going to cast unknowns, and started with Marc Lawrence as Cobby, the bookie who finally puts up the money for the heist when Calhern can’t. “Marc was probably the most famous criminal face in the movies at that time,” laughed Band. Huston had already used him in KEY LARGO. (And THIS is why I’m referring to the actors by character names from other films.) Huston also screen-tested writer and artist Ludwig Bemelmans for the part of the gang’s mastermind, but when producer Arthur Hornblower showed him a reel of Sam Jaffe, Huston happily cast his actor friend. “The film was very well cast,” is just about the only thing Huston says about it in his autobio.
Only Huston wanted to cast Monroe. “Look at the ass on that little girl,” he mused.
With the High Llama’s plan, the job goes ahead, amid extreme chiaroscuro lighting effects, beautiful unfamiliar cityscapes (especially scene 1), and an atmosphere of foreboding, since Ambassador Trentino plans to sell them all out, ditch his invalid wife and run off with Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe), his mind-bogglingly luscious girlfriend. Joining the gang are Anthony Caruso (whose honest wife is the only woman with any backbone in the film) and hunchbacked James Whitmore. The scheme itself seems surprisingly simple, at least since we’ve become accustomed to the Rube Goldberg-meets-Machiavelli scheming of THE KILLING, RIFIFI, et al. There are two reasons it goes wrong (discounting the requirements of the censor)…
The first is luck, or fate, and it’s explicitly pointed out by Jaffe. A prowl car responding to another crime unexpectedly shows up. A gun goes off by itself. The kind of things you can’t plan for, or if you did, you wouldn’t risk doing anything.
But Jaffe himself comes to realize there’s a second reason. The plan fails because of who the people are. Calhern is untrustworthy. Lawrence is weak. Jaffe himself is undone by his fondness for pretty girls. So Jaffe and Whitmore are caught (Whitmore will still be serving his sentence in 1994, as the Birdman of Shawshank). Caruso and Hayden are killed, Hayden’s death a strange variant on that of the donkey protag in AU HASARD, BALTASAR.
It’s a stunning film, and I’v very glad I watched it again. I’ve been working my way through the lesser-known Huston films in recent years, which are often far better than their reputations suggest, so it was interesting to come back to one of the celebrated films and find it holds up. The cast are extremely good — I especially like the weaklings, when they break down (I empathise so readily with a good sniveling weakling): Lawrence and Calhern. The burst of violence when Hayden erases Calhern’s private eye sidekick is sensational in its staging, anticipating the startling abruption of THE KILLING’s massacre. Harold Rosson lights the seedy locations with harsh yet moody effects, and Miklos Rosza not only contributes a marvelously doom-laden score, he does something he rarely ever did: stays out of the way for most of the film. I love Rosza, but he has a tendency to overdo things. Not here.
Gerald Fried’s music for THE KILLING, a bunch of snare-drum and aggro, is a lot less pleasing to the ear. I wonder if Kubrick didn’t switch to largely sourced music because so many of the composers he worked with weren’t very interesting? But he always had a weakness for this kind of martial theme, just as he frequently turned to war as a subject or metaphor in his work.
And, ugh! that voice-over. I guess they needed something to make sense of the timeline, especially for audiences at the time, but it does make me wince a little, especially compared to the beautiful VO in BARRY LYNDON. Although I guess it wouldn’t have made sense for them to hire Sir Michael Hordern to narrate this one. Might make an amusing mash-up though. The KILLING guy, Art Gilmore, sounds kind of dumb. The writing is part of it: since this is a spoken element of the film, it should really have been scripted by Jim Thompson, but I fear it wasn’t.
A little bird tells me there’s actually a mistake in the film’s complicated timeline, but doesn’t tell me where. Seems too dull to go looking for it, even though I’ve long championed the notion of Kubrick not as a perfectionist machine-mind, but as a kind of shambling, dopey muddler — but I’ll reward anybody who locates it for me. But I *did* notice that one of the horses in the first race we overhear appears to be called Stanley K. The first example of SK’s in-jokey side (given free rein in EYES WIDE SHUT)?
Sterling Hayden is back, as a very different kind of character, less sympathetic but the perfect man to mouth Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled, hard-assed dialogue. Boiled-ass? Having a half-decent budget for the first time, Kubrick is able to build upon his experience from his first two cheapies and make a far more tight, visually logical film, and he’s able to fill the frame with great character players. Jay C. Flippen is robbed of all his usual aw-shucks mannerisms and plays it hard but human. Elisha Cook Jnr. is maybe the first guy to go Over The Top And Beyond Infinity in a Kubrick film. And Marie Windsor, as his scheming wife, now strikes me as the heart and soul of the film. “You’ve got a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart,” as Hayden tells her.
A handsome couple.
Kubrick, like his hoods, was always on the lookout for the main chance, picking his next film with care to raise his profile, consolidate the critical respect he had so far, and move higher up. In 1956 his chief task was to get a really good B-movie under his belt, something that would qualify him for A-picture jobs. PATHS OF GLORY (one of my very favourites) was the A-picture, where according to Kirk Douglas (whom I don’t exactly trust) Kubes’ greatest concern was to have a commercial hit, to which end he attempted to add a happy ending. Never quite been able to bring myself to believe that, wholly. SPARTACUS was the epic, but without any artistic control, Kubrick was unhappy and shrank down for LOLITA, using the book’s reputation (as masterpiece; as scandalous and unfilmable) to garner a rep for iconoclasm. And so on. The difficulty in choosing a project increased as SK’s acclaim increased, and the more things he was celebrated for, the fewer things were left for him to try…
So one of the terrific and liberating things about THE KILLING is that it’s made at a time when Kubes has everything to prove, and he goes all out to do so, but on a small scale. The artistic ambition of the film itself is modest, Stan’s ambitions in general are vast. Borrowing Huston’s set-up, leading man and lighting style, he grafts on Ophuls’ unchained camera, gliding through walls like an Overlook Hotel spectre, shamelessly foregrounding the cheap sets and cheaper dialogue, making one of the first art-house noirs (maybe DETOUR is the first?) if we can allow such a thing. That non-linear timeline — who else was doing that in ’56?
Against the obvious strengths, weaknesses are pretty insignificant. Hayden’s plan is over-elaborate (the great Timothy Carey’s role is redundant and if he got caught and told who hired him, the gig would be up) and could easily miscarry in a thousand ways. As in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, Hayden has apparently the ability to knock out a healthy cop with a single punch. I never quite believe this in movies. I’m not sure about the biology of it, but if Mike Tyson takes several blows to fell an opponent, I don’t get how a man like Hayden can do it in one. OK, he’s not wearing gloves, but that’s surely more likely to result in busted teeth/nose/jaw/knuckles, and doesn’t increase the chances of unconsciousness greatly. It’s the back of the head you have to hit to bring on that kind of brain damage (Joe Turkel’s injury in PATHS OF GLORY is much more convincing, horribly so: and spot Joe at 4.57 into this one), preferably with a blackjack. Sorry, I didn’t intend this as a how-to guide, I’m just saying movies win extra points from me if they avoid implausible cliches.
The photography by Lucien Ballard (Mr. Merle Oberon) does a superb job synthesizing the stark, source-lit noir aesthetic with the fluid camera style, even if Stanley K. had to threaten to fire the guy on day one (a case of establishing the juvenile auteur’s authority over the pushy veteran cameraman: Kubrick was just 28). The Elisha Cook massacre, perhaps inspired by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE’s shockingly sudden whip-pan shooting, is jolting and quite credible, even if the aftermath is hard to make sense of. By reducing the action to a couple of quick shots, Kubes gives us the impression that we’ve seen a coherent exercise in gunplay, even if we haven’t.
The movie’s influence is all over Tarantino’s work, from the questions-first, answers-later structure of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION to the way the guy comes out of the kitchen shooting in the latter film (although the outcome there is different: it’s kind of a joke about THE KILLING’s total slaughter that the guy blasting away at Travolta and Jackson misses every shot). More than spaghetti westerns and kung-fu flicks, THE KILLING is the film that’s necessary to QT’s existence. But personally I think Kubrick’s morally blank, cool stare is more compelling and meaningful than QT’s hip, flip referencing.
A teenage audience member in Belfast once asked me about this scene. I was amazed: “You’re a teenager in Belfast and you don’t know what a cavity search is?”
I’ll own up to the latter myself though: in my film CRY FOR BOBO I shamelessly swiped Kubrick’s faulty suitcase for my own CRY FOR BOBO (non-UK residents, see HERE), along with the strip-search from CLOCKWORK ORANGE, also drawing on Kubrick’s symmetrical, wide-angle lensed compositional style. It’s the post-modern age, I’m afraid.
The burst suitcase is another instance of the Fickle Finger (or poodle) of Fate meddling in human affairs, as in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, but it can also be argued that Hayden’s impatience is to blame. If only he’d bought a couple of smaller, better cases! It’s been argued that Kubrick’s films are all about what HAL 9000 would call human error, the inherent faultiness of human nature leading to complex systems collapsing in disarray. That certainly holds good for DR STRANGELOVE, and can be read into 2001… is the system in question in EYES WIDE SHUT the institution of marriage? Is THE SHINING really just about how not to look after a hotel? A sort of gothic Fawlty Towers? But it’s fair to say SK’s work is united by a somewhat skeptical view of humanity’s virtues, with the Spielberg footnote A.I. looking forward to a day when we will all be replaced by more efficient, humane machinery, lording it over an ice-palace New York. So there’s that to look forward to.
Love the vacant taxi which blatantly drives right past Hayden and his girlfriend without slowing. “I don’t stop for losers!”
Photoshopping Hayden doesn’t seem to make that much difference.
“What’s the difference?” mumbles Hayden at THE KILLING’s end, a more than usually pointed and depressing summation of the noir ethos.