A Kubrick Shot

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Quite late in ONE-EYED JACKS, directed by star Marlon Brando after Stanley Kubrick departed the project, there is an unmistakable Kubrick shot.

We follow Brando, a prisoner, and Karl Malden and Slim Pickens, his captors, into the jailhouse. The party advances towards us then turns to head screen right —

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— tracking screen right, the camera passes THROUGH a wall —

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— through various cells, following Brando and Malden and Pickens —

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— emerging at the the stairs to a tower —

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— and as the characters start to climb, the camera begins an ascent also…

Then the shot stops abruptly, cut off by a rather jagged angle change which abandons the phantasmal fluidity — having declared that prison walls can’t hold it back, the camera abruptly gives up the ghost-walk and jerks to a higher angle. Understandable, in a way — Brando is about to kick Pickens downstairs, and this is not the kind of action I, personally, would care to stage repeatedly (or at all!) at the end of a long, complicated camera move. Better make it a single, locked-ff shot and then the only thing that can go wrong is the stunt itself. With luck, you can just do it once and hope “Slim” doesn’t crash through the set wall.

What’s incredibly striking is how Kubrickian the shot is — under the influence of Ophuls, Kubrick was tracking through walls A LOT in THE KILLING, and would do so even more in LOLITA, the project he jumped ship onto immediately after his collaboration with Marlon ceased to seem tenable. (After LOLITA, Kubrick’s camera loses its power to become intangible and pass through solids — I don’t recall any instances of permeation in STRANGELOVE.)

The second striking thing — or maybe this struck me first — is that the shot is totally un-Brando-like. His filming so far ha been decent enough, elegant even, but he hasn’t shown any interest in long, fluid camera movements. Arguably he doesn’t show much interest here either, hacking into the shot as soon as he is decently able — sooner, even.

One would be tempted to assume that Kubrick filmed this sequence before his untimely departure, and maybe Brando chopped it up, contemptuously — but all accounts suggest SK left the film before photography began. What gives?

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My best guess is that maybe the set was prepared to Kubrick’s specifications — and it must have looked surreal, all those jail cells with a missing back wall — with a specific shot in mind. In filming there, Brando was certainly tied into one good angle — a long, graceful track-and-crane shot would be the only alternative to a series of choppy entrances and exits. Based on his usual approach, Brando might have preferred to put the camera at one end of the cells and have the characters approach from the far end, and perhaps the incomplete cells made this impractical.

If the whole thing is coincidence, I think it’s an interesting one, a novice filmmaker falling into the style of another director he’s just fired.

Incidentally, many versions of Kubrick’s departure have been told, most of them involving a script meeting and a bell or gong. What story did YOU hear?

Also, incidentally — Kubrick stole Slim Pickens for DR. STRANGELOVE after Peter Sellers wriggled out of playing Colonel Kong. And Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado were stolen by Sam Peckinpah, who had been fired from this project by Kubrick and Brando, when Peckinpah remade the story as PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

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20 Responses to “A Kubrick Shot”

  1. Kubrick copped this “Look Ma — No Walls!” technique from his idol, Max Ophuls.

  2. Exactly — he dedicated a shot to Ophuls on the set of Paths of Glory after learning of the maestro’s death.

    I’m not sure if there’s a discernible reason why he abandoned the approach after Lolita — I think perhaps he became concerned about exposing the artifice of his sets. I don’t recall him doing it in Spartacus. When his films became more fantastical as narratives, he may have felt the need to reinforce their reality by treating the locations as real. Of course, as we now all know, he played some tricks on us with the sets of The Shining…

  3. James Mason probably had something to do with it.

  4. There is a tiny bit of the free camera in SPARTACUS, though not much; for one, SK didn’t have control over the set design, and for another, one wonders if there was, for lack of a better term, a “bulkiness” to the production that might have gotten in the way.

    LOLITA is truly a fulcrum point for Kubrick as I would argue (and have!) that it’s by far his most Ophulsian film, where he finally gets his primary influence out of his system. Aside from the camera movements, we have a tale of romantic folly and an Old World sensibility (James Mason helps deliver that, of course, and had worked with Ophuls too).

    Prior to STRANGELOVE, Kubrick had both the “tunnel” and lateral tracking shots, as well as the Ophuls sweeping, unfettered tracking shots, such as you describe here and in LOLITA. STRANGELOVE has a few tunnel shots, but not many; each of the three plots has its own camera style, and the Ophuls style doesn’t fit into either. Once 2001 comes, the camera equipment precludes any big tracking shots (the main tracking shot is one of a guy running in a wheel — where it’s the camera sitting still while the set moves around it).

    A CLOCKWORK ORANGE then re-sets the style Kubrick uses for the rest of his career: the wide-angle lenses from THE KILLING, the tunnel and lateral tracking shots he had frequently used, a heavy reliance on slow zooms to set scenes, and a deliberate pacing he first used in 2001. (2001 was also the first time he coordinated images to music; it was during its production that he was introduced to the Jean Mitry short “Pacific 231”, wherein the action of a train is cut along to a piece of music. You get a ton of this in CLOCKWORK [think of the “dancing Christs” with the second movement of the 9th] and, while it’s less pronounced in the subsequent films, it certainly show up in those as well.

    The one big exception to the style is BARRY LYNDON, which of course does rely heavily on the zoom and musical synchronization, but has relatively few tracking shots and also, due to the use of the specially-made Zeiss lenses, uses lenses are far longer focal length than you typically see in Kubrick films. Using the f0.8 lenses for the candlelight scenes clearly led him to forgo his usual 18mm and 25mm lenses to create a consistent look (and one that does add to the painterly look of the film, particularly in the close-ups, which being shot with longer lens more closely resemble portraits). By the time you get to EYES WIDE SHUT, he has cut down on the zoom, but almost all the shots are in the 18mm or 25mm range (interestingly, a number of shots of Cruise in the big pool table room scene appear to be shot with a longer lens, creating a shallower depth of field that emphasizes how “out of focus” the world is around him as he tries to piece together the events of the previous evening.)

  5. “I think I know the reason why
    producers tend to make him cry,
    invariably demand
    some stationary set-ups, and
    a shot that does not call for tracks
    is agony for poor dear Max
    who separated from his dolly
    is wrapped in deepest melancholy
    Once, when they took away his crane
    I thought he’d never smile again”
    –James Mason

  6. In the antediluvian days before it was common knowledge (cough) that Kubrick was gone before shooting began, it was a fun game to watch this on late night TV trying to figure out just which shots were Kubrick and which were not. This shot was always an “of course,” as were all the waves crashing on Big Sur or wherever it was. Gen. consensus at NYU’s Weinstein dorm: Kubrick shot at least 60%. Oh well. Anyway, it still looks like an “of course” and your best guess has got to be correct. At the very least it must have been proposed in pre-production, and it’s easy to imagine Brando liking the idea and asking how they could pull it off. // Did the title song get any airplay across the pond? Always liked that “Ten cracks of the sheriff’s whip cut deep / The pain-filled Rio cursed /
    ‘You’d better kill me while you can or I will get you first.’ “

  7. David E., what a great poem! Please tell me he wrote one about Tobe Hooper

  8. The shots that appeal to Tobe Hooper
    Would get put in the reel that’s labelled “blooper”
    For Max Ophuls this man is not
    But he rules the roost on Salem’s Lot.

  9. Paul Clipson Says:

    Off the Kubrick, Ophuls, movement topic, but it being a Paramount film, I always had a weird feeling that some of the bell tower set from VERTIGO was reused in this film. Haven’t watched ONE EYED JACKS in years (though I love the film), but I remember being distracted throughout the jailhouse scenes of Brando’s film and slowly started getting the feeling that some of the stairwell, landscape painted backdrop, etc., from the Hitchcock film were reused or augmented the jailhouse sets for this film. Probably just a dream I had…..Do you ever have dreams where real films get mixed together into new ones?

  10. I wish I had more film dreams. I didn’t see any great resemblance between the sets, beyond both being towers, but I am tempted to make a direct comparison now…

  11. Well, maybe not VERTIGO, but a (kind of) plausible, non-Kubrick explanation for that shot would be access to a set already constructed for that (kind of) shot. If you saw that, how could you NOT want to paint it to look like a jail and use it? So, big budget Paramount movie shot in ’57 or ‘8, with a visually inventive director? My top two suspects would be COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (Eugène Lourié) and THE GEISHA BOY (Frank Tashlin).

  12. Paul Clipson Says:

    Sam Comer is listed (on IMDB) as the one of the set decorators for COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, GEISHA BOY, ONE-EYED JACKS and VERTIGO…

  13. Wow, it starts to look quite plausible. At any rate, you might well expect furniture and props to get reused, maybe doors and other features too…

    But I can’t recall any tower of that kind in Colossus of New York…

  14. This is big. I need a drink.

  15. ONE EYED JACKS is apparently getting a full restoration. Due to complicated rights issues it is now owned by Universal and has only been available in lousy PD discs. Looking forward to seeing this is a pristine version.

  16. There’s a quite strong French Blu-ray already. The credits are in French (What’s French for “Slim Pickens”?), but otherwise as pristine as you could wish. So restoration may already be done, just awaiting a release elsewhere.

  17. What’s French for “Git up you scum-suckin’ pig!” ?

    Taylor Mead was a huge “One-Eyed Jack’s fan. He thought Brando’s performance was Pure Camp.

  18. “Vous êtes un cochon! Vous inspirez écume! Leve toi!”

  19. So….I did a quick viewing of VERTIGO and ONE-EYED JACKS, watching the first tower sequence of the Hitchcock film and the first jailhouse scene in the Brando film, and guess what? The painted backdrops are the same out of the window in the backgrounds of these scenes! Most clearly identical are the rooftops of a building in the far distance, as well as some grassy hills and clouds. As both films in whole or part take place near Monterey, both were filmed on the Paramount lot for the interiors, and both have the same set decorator, I guess it’s not that much of a stretch, but I’m still surprised! David, I’ve sent you some frames from the films, as I don’t know how to post them here. I wasn’t dreaming!

  20. Great — I’ll get a whole new blog post out of that, thanks!

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