Archive for Spartacus

Flashback Friday: The Reign in Spain

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2015 by dcairns

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Continuing my trawl through past glories — I did an “Anthony Mann Week” some years back — Fiona complained bitterly that it was all too Mannly, but she did like WINCHESTER 73 a lot. In general, she’s had bad luck for these themed weeks, dropping in on films she couldn’t get along with (eg Losey’s BOOM!) and missing a few she would probably have loved (Mann’s A DANDY IN ASPIC, MAN OF THE WEST). She does like THE TALL TARGET, TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (screwball noir!) and REIGN OF TERROR, but I haven’t ever gotten around to writing about the first two.

I never got around to EL CID, i think because I didn’t have a widescreen copy. It’s a film I’d glimpsed over the years in pan-and-scan abomination form, and like most widesecreen epics, it seemed dull on TV. That’s because the composition of the shots is the whole show — it’s very dynamic in its framing, and the storytelling obeys a visual logic of shape and movement and cutting that’s quite unreal, rather comic book, and wholly glorious. And it’s almost totally dead on a human level, despite having Sophia Loren, a magnificent actress when cast in something human. here she’s used more as a shape, like Chuckles Heston himself, an impressive piece of sculpture.

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Terry Jones said that in preparing LIFE OF BRIAN he looked at epics and they all seemed to have something that might be called “epic acting,” which he then impersonated by putting on a declamatory, Sam the American Eagle voice — pure Heston. And if that’s what the film is, Heston is your man. Co-star Douglas Wilmer told him he was “a great journeyman actor” and Heston got all offended and Wilmer smoother his eagle feathers by saying that “journeyman” wasn’t an insult and that Olivier was also a great journeyman. Heston was happy to be named in that company.

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He was called an “axiom of the cinema” too, but maybe he’s more of an axis — a sturdy compositional element around whom a shot can pivot. He’s like a pillar, but poseable. The strongest emotion he can project is STRAIN, strenuous seriousness or a dynamic tension of the emotions in which he’s simultaneously holding back and putting it all out there. Wyler got a great effect from him in THE BIG COUNTRY, by telling Carroll Baker to pull her wrists free from his great ham-hand which held her, and telling Cheston not to let go. Her wrists got red raw, and the agony of hurting a lady brought him to life — you saw the strain turn inwards and sort of ripple out across the veins in his head and the sinews in his arms.

For this kind of thing, if you’re going to make it and I’m not saying you should — he’s somehow perfect. An advance on the he-men of German epic cinema, the “bounding idiots” of DIE NIBELUNGEN and METROPOLIS. Chiseled beefcake with more visible bone than the bodybuilders of Italy, and a far more convincing ability to move about.

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Spain! Where the diopters are as plentiful as paella. For some reason, the Samuel Bronston sword-and-sandal sagas reach for the split-focus lens more than any other films. Though Nick Ray’s pair of bloaters deploy the effect self-consciously, daring you to notice that while the foreground and background are sharp, the midground is a blur, an effect impossible to achieve with the naked eye. Mann disguises the joins so well you often aren’t quite sure there’s hanky-panky afoot.

Mann’s epic phase saw him work with both stars of BEN-HUR, and feels quite reactive to that blockbuster. SPARTACUS, which he shot the opening scenes for before Kirk Douglas fired him, was also a response to BH, an attempt to show you could make that kind of thing on US soil without taking advantage of cheap labour and tax breaks on the continent. The Samuel Bronston films (this and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE) arose from the bizarre historical accident that the Hollywood studios were making a lot of money at the Spanish box office but were unable to take that money out of the country, so they had to invent films to shoot in Spain as an excuse to spend money. EMPIRE and 55 DAYS AT PEKING are surreal at times (especially the latter) because they have no sane reason to be Spanish films, and because they’re throwing money at scenes that don’t matter, with colossal overblown sets which dwarf the actors — in fact, “dwarf” is too weak a word. They ANT the actors.

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Here, at least the Spanish castles are real, so it’s only the dementedly huge crowd scenes that beggar belief, fancy dress extras staked out in the sun to bake, contributing nothing save slight distraction, swelling scenes already overstuffed with Herbert Lom or Frank Thring. Despite the authentic setting and the constant twirlings of Miklos Rosza’s score, the world of the film never feels remotely Spanish, because look at who’s in it. The Spanish are Americans and Italians and English and Scots. The Moors are Czech and English and Australian.

A good thing about EL CID is that although it’s all broadswords and bluster, it has bits that are western and bits that are noir, the two genres at which Mann excelled (I’ve never see his two musicals. Anyone?) When a patrol of Spaniards is ambushed by dusky (painted) archers, we’re a stone’s throw from THE LAST FRONTIER. The early part of the story where Sophia is betrothed to Charlton and wants him dead is good doom-laden romance. The wedding night is a symphony of expressionist angst — alone at the dinner table, Heston paces like Garbo memorizing her room in QUEEN CHRISTINA, only clutching frustratedly at every phallic object in reach except himself.

Mann said that the ending of the film was his sole reason for doing it, that with an ending like that you could get away with almost anything. He’s sort of right — but even he, using the highly stylised approach he’s established, and a leading man whose natural destiny might seem to be as a carry-on prop, can’t entirely stifle the giggles as Heston is mounted on his horse, dead, a wooden framework holding him in position like a fake house in a western street. It’s too hideously apt as a piece of satire.

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“Please tell me this was a colossal flop,” groaned Fiona, wearied by the length and annoyed by Sophia’s headgear. Afraid not: the world has bad taste. But I dug it on a shot-by-shot basis.

The Round-Up

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by dcairns

PAIN

James Stewart in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE.

James Mason in THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.

One could of course go on… Stewart suffers considerably in Mann’s westerns, being shot through the hand in both LARAMIE and THE FAR COUNTRY (like Robert Ryan in MEN IN WAR), while Mason’s hand-burning ordeal in TFOTRE seems like a direct reprise of LARAMIE. Both are co-written by Philip Yordan, and in fact both feature a recognisable trio of characters — an ailing patriarch (Donald Crisp in LARAMIE, Alec Guinness in TFOTRE), his stupid and vicious son (Alex Nicol and Christopher Plummer) and the devoted friend and almost-adopted son who should inherit by right of being the competent one (Arthur Kennedy and Stephen Boyd). See also Yordan’s MEN IN WAR script for another ailing surrogate father.

Mann’s films pair up in interesting ways, often via casting — he was fond of reusing actors he liked, often in wildly contrasting roles: there’s very little of the stability one finds in Hawks or Ford’s use of their stock company. Of course, Jimmy Stewart is always the leading man when he’s around, but his roles vary considerably in amicability — as has often been noted, Mann’s pushing of the Stewart persona into neurotic and obsessive territory prefigures and prepares for Hitchcock’s use of the star in VERTIGO.

THE FAR COUNTRY and BEND OF THE RIVER, which I watched back-to-back, very nearly blur together due to the similar gold rush background and the repeat casting of and Harry Morgan and Royal Dano and Jay C Flippen (Manny Farber is amusingly horrified by this guy: “Probably the worst actor that ever moved into a movie.” My friend Comrade K semi-concurs: “He has a face like a tick”).

STENTORIA

“Only a trained investigator would have attached any significance to those two words: steam baths.”

After making twelve movies, including DESPERATE and RAILROADED which feel pretty mature and Mann-like — Mann entered the realms of the strident voice-over: known as STENTORIA.

In Stentoria, all the stories are factual, and only the names have been changed, to protect the innocent. Stentoria encompasses T-MEN (above and below images) and HE WALKED BY NIGHT and SIDE STREET and BORDER INCIDENT, but the voice-over diminishes in prominence and increases in subtlety as Mann develops. The VO guy in T-MEN sounds like he has a bad cold (as does Robert “terror of Salzburg”  Cummings in REIGN OF TERROR), and he talks for HALF THE FILM. I protested against this, until my friend Comrade K pointed out how scary the film gets when the VO suddenly and unaccountably GOES AWAY (“From here on you’re on your own!”) and leaves us in the meaty hands of Charles McGraw. By the time Knox Manning opens and closes BORDER INCIDENT with a few reassuring words, we have a guy who seems to be impersonating Mark Hellinger’s famous VO in THE NAKED CITY: much more laid-back and mellifluous. And as previously noted, VO guy Robert Rietty in FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE sounds like Mann himself.

T-MEN: John Alton, photographer:

A DANDY IN ASPIC, photographed by Christopher Challis.

Thinking about Charles McGraw — as I do — I realize that not only must Mann be responsible for McGraw being in SPARTACUS, but that the Mann scenes in that movie are not only the best scenes, but also the most Kubrickian! All the gladiator training stuff which so neatly prefigures FULL METAL JACKET… and MEN IN WAR is clearly the movie that Kubrick’s tyro effort FEAR AND DESIRE wants to be…

“Freedom isn’t a thing you should be able to give me, Miss Ginny. Freedom is something I should’ve been born with.” An impressive line delivered by Ruby Dee in the equally impressive THE TALL TARGET.

DELICIOUS HOT

A fellow film blogger in New York admitted to limited experience of Mann and wondered if he wasn’t perhaps a cold filmmaker — I wouldn’t agree, although in their different ways T-MEN, TFOTRE and A DANDY IN ASPIC either avoid or miss the warmer emotions. Certainly the gentler passions are less likely to figure prominently in Mann’s work, but nobody can make cold movies with Jimmy Stewart. I’d point to Aline McMahon’s abiding love for Donald Crisp in LARAMIE as a good example of the powerful feeling Mann can evoke without seeming to try too hard, and the affection of Stewart for Walter Brennan in THE FAR COUNTRY is a similar example.

Here’s my shortlist of Mann favourites, all of which have tender moments as well as angry ones —

RAW DEAL — a great “women’s noir” with a groovy theremin theme. I like Marsha Hunt a lot, but Claire Trevor steals the show.

WINCHESTER ’73 — just about my fave of the Stewart westerns. Borden Chase (I heard he took his name from Lizzie Borden and Chase Manhattan Bank, figuring the combo would be memorable) had a real flair for rambling structures which somehow achieve a feeling of tightness — maybe just because they’re so action-packed, maybe also because they’re tied to strong characterisations for Stewart each time.

THE TALL TARGET — beautiful train thriller to compare with Fleischer’s THE NARROW MARGIN, and it uses its little scrap of history (heavily embroidered, no doubt) to tackle some actual politics.

THE NAKED SPUR — Stewart’s most driven performance for Mann, with fine support from Ryan and Meeker.

THE LAST FRONTIER — well, *I* like it anyway. Apart from the tacked-on ending, this is another study in the exercise of power by the inadequate (a big Mann theme — well, he did work under the studio system!) and the taking of power by the better suited.

MEN IN WAR — maybe the best Korean War movie? Hearing Robert Ryan deny the existence of the USA carries a blasphemous thrill.

MAN OF THE WEST — the best, because the darkest, of all Mann’s westerns. The abuse of Julie London’s sympathetic Billie borders on the gloating, and the fact that her character is virtually abandoned at the “happy ending”, while disturbing, is what makes this so powerful. For once, too much has happened for a Hollywood ending to mean what it should.

The only “cold” film on the list of real greats might be REIGN OF TERROR, but I’m not sure “cold” really applies to such a blazing, apocalyptic yarn.

NOIR AWAY SO CLOSE

I’ve been alert, hopefully, to the transition of Mann’s noir sensibility to westerns and epics, and find it really invigorates some traditional-looking oaters: THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is a proper detective story, with Stewart being constantly warned to stay off the case, being framed for murder, etc. (It also has a weird, mythic/biblical side, with prophetic dreams that influence a major character’s actions.) The romantic triangle of RAW DEAL is reconfigured in later epics like TFOTRE and, I seem to recall, maybe EL CID too. Certainly HEROES OF TELEMARK has it, and Mann says in the DVD extra interview that this was part of what attracted him.

Think of it: Mann made noirs in the ’40s, westerns in the ’50s and epics in the ’60s. At the end, he made an espionage movie, and that might well have been the next phase of his career had he lived longer (REIGN OF TERROR is basically a Hitchcockoan spy thriller set in the past). Mann was Mr. Fashionable.

T-MEN and A DANDY IN ASPIC.

COUNTRY LIFE

“Help me, Ty Ty!”

“Where are you, Pluto?”

“Ah fell in a hole!”

“Well, which hole you in?”

“This very, very deep one!”

The “comedy” of GOD’S LITTLE ACRE is only occasionally funny, despite the presence of Buddy Hackett, whose face is funny even in repose (and it’s never really in repose). Buddy Hackett is known in the UK as “that fat guy in the back of Herbie.” All in all, the movie is like the unsuccessful comedy cousin of THE FURIES, and while Robert Ryan might have been able to play Huston’s role, he’s not ideally suited to his own — much as I love him, he doesn’t have funny bones.

THE FURIES is striking for many reasons, one being the flaunting of the Production Code — apart from the scissors flung in Judith Anderson’s face, there’s the fact that morality has little to do with which characters are sympathetic in this movie, and it fails to determine which are alive at the end.

YOU NEED HANDS

In the edition of the BBC’s The Movies featured as an extra on Criterion’s lovely disc of THE FURIES, Mann cites Murnau as an influence (he seems about to name a couple more directors, but the piece seems to have been edited to exclude them — Welles would seem like a plausible name to drop though, wouldn’t he? Incidentally, the BBC seems to have hung onto outtakes from several Movies interviews, so it’s not impossible a diligent researcher might find what else Mann said…). He talks with enthusiasm about the way figures grow from small and distant to large and close in Murnau, and the dramatic force this imparts, and reminisces about the climax of TABU —

Mann certainly shows skill in his use of size… the way his compositions bristle with repressed, barely contained energy, and the way each edit snaps the tension into a new configuration is one of his key qualities. This single shot from REIGN OF TERROR maybe shows the influence of Murnau —

The Terror of Strasburg checks his teeth in the mirror —

Then adjusts his wig, at which point Robert Cummings POUNCES LIKE A TIGER —

In the struggle, the mirror is tilted downwards so it now reflects the T of S’s hand as it clutches the dresser, and then Cummings comes in with a dagger — Cummings is apparently NUDE, it seems — all ready to steal the T of S’s clothing and identity.

The clutching hand spasms and falls from view after the dagger descends.

In a purely whimsical touch (grim whimsy), the naked hand reaches up and post-coitally snuffs the T of S’s candle.

BEHIND THE DOOR

Just watched THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY. Robert Taylor as an Indian is one of the silliest bits of casting I can imagine, and he always bored me as a star, but if you can get past the shoe polish he actually gives a good perf. The pro-Indian stance is commendable, and John Alton’s inky photography, Mann’s dynamism, and Guy Trosper’s script, which gives all the poetic lines to repellant-yet-suave villain Louis “Ambassador Trentino” Calhern, stop it being anything like a PC snooze.

Mann’s westerns nearly always centre around a powerful injustice — count the minutes until Jimmy Stewart gets robbed in each one — and DEVIL’S D politicizes this. It’s an incredibly strong hook, the theme of injustice, which communicates to everybody: “When a child says, ‘It’s not fair!’ the child can be believed,” says Tom Stoppard’s script for SQUARING THE CIRCLE. Even those who are regularly unjust themselves usually got that way because they suffered injustice and decided life wasn’t fair. Yet this universally powerful theme is largely avoided in modern movies — I have a theory audience testing may be reponsible — when they ask the mob, “What was your least favourite scene?” the mob are going to say, “I didn’t like it when they burned Jimmy Stewart’s wagons / shot him in the hand.” Of course, you’re not meant to like them! So those scenes don’t get made nowadays, and the films stop being about anything. The heroes in modern action movies seem to spend the whole films WINNING.

THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY has the bleakest ending of any Mann, I think. He was apparently very pleased with it.

FINAL FRONTIER

In THE LAST FRONTIER, Victor Mature plays Cooper, a scout who laughs at danger! Ah-ha-ha-ha! Despite using rather urban types in its cast — Anne Bancroft and Stuart Whitman offer strong support — the movie still evokes a convincing atmosphere of Civil War era Indian fighting, perhaps because it avoids cliched behaviour so thoroughly. In scene 1, Big Victor and his trapper pals are surrounded by hostile Indians. They sit down and eat lunch. You don’t see that every day.

If filmmakers avoid cliche (big if) and if they believe in the anti-cliched behaviour they present (as someone like Hawks clearly did), it seems they have a good chance at presenting interesting situations.

For all that it presents maybe the first thoroughly bad cavalry officers in western movie history (a very good Robert Preston, snagging moments of sympathy when the script exposes his underlying insecurity), the heart of the film is primitive Victor’s relationship with Bancroft, the officer’s wife, which is painfully convincing. The adulterous triangle leads us into strong noir territory, as do the covert liaisons in EL CID and ROMAN EMPIRE, which were also co-scripted by Philip Yordan, whose keen interest in military life is also displayed in a Mann masterpiece, MEN IN WAR.

And with its widescreen photography, the movie is perhaps Mann’s most handsome colour western.

FILMS I HAVEN’T WATCHED

Couldn’t get EL CID or DOCTOR BROADWAY in time, but hope to see them soon.

Wasn’t sure if THE BAMBOO BLONDE was worth it.

Didn’t bother with THE GLENN MILLER STORY yet, despite Fiona’s vivid memory of being frightened by the iron lung.

THUNDER BAY was in a sense topical, with it’s oil men versus fishermen plot, but the solution, suggesting that the oil biz would be good for fishing, sounded like it might come off as embarrassingly dated. Still, I bet the movie’s at least interesting.

The former Anthony Bundsmann is a somewhat mysterious figure, little being known about his past. I’m frustrated by not knowing any films he wanted to make but was unable to — these unmade films are often most revealing. I’ll offer one up — with his obsession with determined men whose refusal to compromise has fatal consequences, he’d have been the perfect man to film Von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas. Instead, Milos Forman made it as part of RAGTIME and John Badham made it as THE JACK BULL.

The End… almost.

Buy: Man of the West

FC5: Left-Handed Guns

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2009 by dcairns

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vlcsnap-11572401) 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.

vlcsnap-154983Calhern 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.”

vlcsnap-154719Whitmore 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.

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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.

vlcsnap-155770Only 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.

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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.

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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.

vlcsnap-1157156A 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?

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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.

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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.

vlcsnap-84081A 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!”

vlcsnap-1163840-1Photoshopping 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.

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