Two Early Films of Stanley Kubrick: “The Killing” (1956) & “Paths of Glory” (1957)

The Killing (1956) starring Sterling Hayden, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr, Joe Sawyer, Timothy Carey, & Coleen Gray

None of these men are criminals in the usual sense. They’ve all got jobs. They all live seemingly normal, decent lives. But, they’ve got their problems and they’ve all got a little larceny in ’em. -Johnny explains re: his team

After being released from a 5 yr. stint in prison, Johnny Clay (Hayden), has assembled a five man team, incl. two insiders, to carry out a $2M heist at Lansdowne Racetrack. Besides Johnny, none of the men are criminals in the usual sense. He has also hired two men (external to the team) for a flat fee; these men won’t know re: the bigger plan. Each of the five men has a specific reason for wanting his share of the money. Johnny wants to marry his long-time girlfriend Fay (Gray). Mike (Sawyer), a bartender, wants better healthcare for his sick wife. A cashier- George (Cook Jr.)- wants to make his cold/sarcastic wife- Sherry (Windsor)- happy.

I know you like a book. You’re a no good, nosy little tramp. You’d sell out your own mother for a piece of fudge; but, you’re smart along with it. Smart enough to know when to sail and when to sit tight and you know you better sit tight in this case. …You got great big dollar sign there, where most women have a heart. -Johnny sizes up Sherry

The total budget for the film was only $320,000; United Artists provided $200,000 and the rest was raised by producer James B. Harris. Initial test screenings were poor; the non-linear structure was the main problem, so Kubrick (just 27 y.o.) edited the film in a linear fashion (making the film even more confusing). In the end, it was released in its original form, and is often cited as being an influence on Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. Kubrick wrote a script outline, then asked Jim Thompson to add the dialogue. The narration was added by the studio; Kubrick hated the idea. The film wasn’t marketed much by United Artists, premiering as the second half of a double feature. However, Kubrick (working for the first time w/ a professional crew) impressed Kirk Douglas  (who soon hired him for Paths of Glory).

I read praise re: this movie recently (on Twitter and Facebook); it’s notable in the genre of film noir. The pacing and editing are very well-done. This is one of the first films to use natural lighting (EX: lamps) instead of studio lights, adding to its realism. There are no good/moral/heroic characters- quite rare for a ’50s film. The film had themes and characters identifiable (and recognizable) w/ any period. The supporting characters are almost as interesting as the lead.

Paths of Glory (1957) starring Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Joe Turkel, & Timothy Carey

After refusing to attack an enemy position, a general accuses the soldiers of cowardice and their commanding officer must defend them. -Synopsis

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. -Col. Dax describes Gen. Mireau’s (a line attributed to Samuel Johnson)

[1] It will really make you question things about our troubled, convoluted world and how things are to often immorally and inhumanly run all in the sick name of greed and destructive power. Not too lovely, for the director pulls no punches. This film really has grown more profound (and currently pertinent) since its initial release.

[2] Menjou and Macready portray two different military types. The arrogant MacReady as versus the very sly Menjou. Not very admirable either of them. Menjou was not very popular at this time in Hollywood because of the blacklist. He favored it very much, his politics were of the extreme right wing. Nevertheless he was a brilliant actor and never better than in this film, one of his last.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Kubrick (then only 28 y.o.) purchased the film rights to Humphrey Cobb’s novel for $10,000. He approached Douglas with the script who fell in love with it, saying: “Stanley, I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it.” The film was not a success at the box office. The young director, who became known for his perfectionism, made Menjou (a veteran actor), do the same scene 17 times! Six hundred German policemen were hired as extras to play the French troops, while six cameras tracked the attack, recording their deaths. You see Kubrick’s trademark- the attention to the composition of shots (reflecting his background as a photographer).

The film is set in WWI amidst the incredibly destructive and futile trench warfare between France and Germany. Colonel Dax (Douglas) is ordered to make an impossible assault on a heavily-fortified enemy position. The only reason this charge is being made is that Gen. Mireau (Macready) believes that capturing the position will earn him a promotion. When the assault doesn’t happen b/c of heavy enemy bombardment, Gen. Mireau is infuriated and demands that three men be arbitrarily chosen to stand trial for cowardice (punishable by death). Col. Dax defends these men at their court-martial.

One memorable scene is where a soldier is nervously rambling to his buddy: “Most guys say that if they got shot they’d want to die quick. So what does that tell you? It means there not afraid of getting killed, they’re afraid of getting hurt. I think if you’re gonna get shot and live, it’s best to get shot in the rear than in the head. Why? Because in the rear its just meat, but the head, that’s pure bone. Can you imagine what it’s like for a bullet to rip through pure bone?” This dark humor helps show the insanity of their situation.

There is great use of irony in the film. The title comes from a poem by Thomas Gray called Elegy In a Country Churchyard where he noted that the paths of glory lead but to the grave. In the end, no one finds glory; Col. Dax loses the fight and turns down a promotion (b/c of his disgust for the army). Gen. Mireau is found out and court-marshalled. Churchill said that the film was a highly accurate depiction of trench warfare and the sometimes misguided workings of the military mind.

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