As someone who has more interest in character than spectacle or plot and ideas than visuals as a general rule (but of course not an exclusive one), Stanley Kubrick is an unusual director for me. Obviously many people love the man’s work dearly, and I certainly put in my hands and vote for the original Warner Kubrick set as one of the first DVDs ever purchased in my household (albeit on the wispy understanding of his historical importance, rather than an appreciation or awareness), though at this point still for my father. I’ve liked all of his movies I’ve seen, though I did have to try twice at Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and missed a lot of The Shining, but it has oddly been more about the things listed above as more important to me, completely contrasting with that Kubrick is most often mentioned for, which is his style. I’m a little wary every time I go in to view one of his movies for this fact, expecting something as drawn-out and clinical as 2001: A Space Odyssey every time, but rarely actually seeing that. They do usually end up pretty lengthy though, so I might be the only person who would respond positively to the idea of Kubrick doing film-noir without actually soiling my trousers in the process. He’s not my favourite director and likely never will be, but I do like his work anyway.
Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), racetrack clerk George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), patrolman Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), and racetrack bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) have planned the perfect heist. They all know the racetrack well enough that they’ve perfected the way to distract the racetrack’s detectives enough to free up the money for the taking while drawing the attention of crowds to keep themselves lost in the confusion. Clay is the professional, planning and performing most of the execution, especially the criminal portions. George and Mike are inside men who can put things into position, Unger is the money man who seeds the dough for the extra hands needed–gunman Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey) and brawler Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani)–and Randy, as office of the law, forms an easy shield for some of the actions they need to perform to pull it all off. George’s manipulative wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) unintentionally baits George through her usual emasculating abuse into revealing the fact that they are soon to come into money, then pushes further for details. She informs her lover Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) and suggests that they take all this money for themselves. George wants the money to earn the love of his wife, while Mike wants to take care of his sickly wife Ruthie (Dorothy Adams), Randy needs to pay off a debt to Leo the loanshark (Jay Adler), Unger has at least a crush on Johnny (despite the best attempts of some viewers to ignore it or re-write it), and Johnny plans to take his girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray) away with his cut. Told in a fashion that repeats moments of time through different routes (following Maurice, then Nikki, then Johnny, etc), we see how the crime is carried out–what was prepared for and what wasn’t.
I just got a bit lost in a thread debating the homosexuality of Unger and was utterly confused. I read a similar thread about The Mechanic, which seemed more like wishful thinking for men who think Charles Bronson (or Jan-Michael Vincent) is hot, or from people looking too hard. This one, though? It’s right out there. It’s almost relaxing that, for once, the inevitable “homosexual subtext” discussion is spot on. Why does this even matter? Because it continues to say something about Kubrick. He never shied away from stories he wanted to tell or methods he wanted to use. He’d be controlled by studios and collaborators on occasion, but his intentions never wavered. If he wanted to do it, he at least tried to do it. Vision is the element Kubrick is most credited for, and this essential credit I whole-heartedly respect. The fact that he makes his choices and sticks by them as best he can is admirable, and that he twists the efforts of studios that won’t let him is even more so. When it comes to something less than entertaining (2001 is a bit drawn out for my liking, if memory serves–you’ll all know at some point when I re-watch and review it), the film suffers, but never the director. Here Kubrick adapts Lionel White novel The Clean Break, using Jim Thompson’s dialogue for Kubrick’s own screenplay, allegedly to the letter, or at least to the sentence or paragraph. It’s not linear, but not in a Tarantino-esque stylistic way, but in the same way that Kubrick always has an element of the clinical: this is how it is, so this is how he filmed it. There’s a coldness to the characters and events, or at least to the eye viewing them–almost colder than the typically dispassionate eye of Eastern directors (like Kurosawa), almost witnessing more in a technical fashion than in a hovering god-like disinterest.
The focus of the plotting on the perpetration of the crime only reinforces this feeling, with any emotional interference treated as a new mechanical element that affects the overall mechanism of Johnny Clay’s plot. When Sherry and Val plot to take the loot from the boys planning it or George gets frustrated with his wife or Nikki unintentionally forms too close a bond with a mark he needs to get in place (a guard played by Herbert Ellis), it’s an intruding subplot, not an emotional development. The ironic end of most of these subplots and even the main plot is thoroughly dispassionate, the eye of the camera far more interested in displaying the detailed effects on the character’s emotions and on the way the world and its events work than on helping us to feel the disappointment, anger or delight of the characters. Of course, this doesn’t prevent Kubrick from instilling a full-on supply of tension to the viewer, with the mystery of the film’s clockwork plotting being revealed piecemeal and leaving us always wondering, “So what was participant X doing right then…?” until we learn their acts and move on to the next. What effect will the unfaithful Sherry have on the course of events? Sure, we don’t like Sherry or how she treats George (unless we’re heartless bastards and dislike George more for being so easily manipulated–but that’s not my way), but we’re more interested in what this does to their plans than what it does to George. Alongside it we have the technical fluidity of the camera’s eye, with shots of Johnny’s place that follow along the missing fourth wall to cross from room to room as he paces alongside it, a shot so artificial only Kubrick would try it without blinking.
What Kubrick notoriously did not want, though, was a narrator. This is actually the only element of the film that doesn’t work. While I don’t know how it would follow without (since I cannot view it without the narrator and did not look up enough to know the narrator was unwanted before viewing), it’s distracting and obnoxious. The narrator, Art Gilmore, sounds like a voice that belongs in an old commercial, designed for perfect enunciation and projection over all else, with no character and no life to it, but not a flat-Dragnet style about it either. It’s grossly misplaced by studio insistence and flies in the face of the film it is attached to. Kubrick got his revenge, though, by feeding inaccuracies and falsities through the narrator, just to make it pointless. It’s a small comfort, but it’s still a comfort, and helps to bring an excellent movie out of the shadow of a stupid addition.*
*Seriously. Why do studios insist on putting narration on noir? Is it pure coincidence that Blade Runner suffered a similar fate? Are these the only examples? Somehow, I doubt it. But maybe they are.