Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. The time, we explore the work of one of cinema’s true great auteurs.
Nobody’s born an arts writer, film critic, or movie buff. Born to be one — maybe. However, that journey from being a young child watching a pre-movie cartoon alongside a parent to bingeing a director’s entire filmography deep into the wee hours of the night follows a basic developmental path: hundreds of treks up and down sticky, popcorn-speckled aisles (often alone); thousands of late-night rentals (also often alone); and a growing, insuppressible urge to tell others about what you’ve seen (it helps if you’re not alone — or at least have a pet).
But there’s one more moment that I think all film lovers share: the very first time we watch a movie and come away thinking, “Oh, so that’s FILM” or “I didn’t know a movie could do that.” I can rattle off dozens of movies that have, to borrow a phrase, shifted the cargo in my haul — from a courtroom drama like 12 Angry Men to a coming-of-age plunge like The Graduate to a perfectly paced thriller like Jaws — but one came before them. That was Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
I will never forget seeing that opening shot in the Korova Milkbar for the first time: that demonic, glassy-eyed close-up; Hell’s own synths acting as ventilation; and the Nadsat slovos dripping from our humble narrator’s tongue like knives falling on marble tiles. Forget all that comes after that initial image. At that moment, I stared and thought, “Oh…”
And while not a very profound observation, I think it’s safe to say that on almost every occasion that I’ve seen a Stanley Kubrick film for the first time, my initial thought amounted to little more than an entranced “Oh…” His are films that open us to worlds beyond our reach, make us reconsider and think more deeply about the world we do inhabit, and, above all, rarely fail to stretch our imaginations to new and richer lengths.
In honor of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s 50th anniversary, we returned to all 13 full-length pictures in Kubrick’s canon. It’s been a daunting task, one that’s left us feeling like fetuses orbiting the Earth, apes beating our chests, and teenagers staring at a screen and thinking, “Oh, so that’s FILM,” all over again.
— Matt Melis
13. Fear and Desire (1953)
Runtime: 1 hr. 2 min.
Press Release: News flash: war’s awful, terrible, and no good. How do we know? Because universally speaking, combat has a way of messing with people’s minds, and there’s no better example of this than in Fear and Desire, which drops four soldiers behind enemy lines. The countries aren’t identified. The battle, presented with nominal backstory or reasoning. No, we simply get four men in almost stage play-like fashion daring to confront their own … you guessed it, fears and desires.
Cast: Frank Silvera, Paul Mazursky, Kenneth Harp, Steve Coit, and Virginia Leith
Score: Fear and Desire didn’t have much in terms of its score, but Gerald Fried did manage to provide some effectively succinct downbeats. The bitter patriotic melody with steadily declining sounds worked like a metaphor for Kubrick’s soldiers and their devolving sanity.
It should be noted that this was Kubrick and Fried’s second collaboration. Fried already worked with Kubrick on the director’s Day of the Fight short. (Which, uh, hey, it’s free on YouTube.) The two would work with each other on later projects like Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, and Paths of Glory.
A Brief History of Stanley Kubrick: Since Fear and Desire’s his debut feature, it’s worth looking at Kubrick’s biography, and how he came to filmmaking. It’s fun to recant the legend every couple of years — inspire the film school troops.
Bronx born-and-raised, Kubrick was an art, literature, and film obsessive and had a knack for photography that landed him a job at Look magazine. His look? Crisp looks at social systems, snarky angles, high-contrast lighting, and subjects like librarians, boxers, and congested traffic among other things. Fast-forward to the ‘50s, Kubrick started making shorts, including Flying Padre and The Day of the Fight. While ostensibly commercial and observational work, his films explored human subjugation and how men punish themselves to get by. God what a gifted sadist.
Right, Fear and Desire. Kubrick raised dough on shorts. Roughly a grand from friends and family, which is quite impressive when your mind wanders to how much a first film can cost at Sundance in 2017. Kubrick knew he wanted to make feature-length films, and he committed to a script from his friend Howard Sackler about the perils of war-mongering, The Shape of Fear.
That script, shaped into Fear and Desire, the allegory we’re talking about right now. And the film, initially pitched as a low-cost, silent experiment, ran over budget, costing $53,000 (again, what a bargain). It flopped. Kubrick had to make another short, The Seafarers, and raise more money for his next film, Killer’s Kiss. The rest is film history.
Lost Fears, But Growing Desire to See This Film: Fear and Desire was certainly no hit. It was grim, and admittedly amateurish, but it had a hard edge that adds an interesting side dish to any Kubrick enthusiast’s desire to watch the filmmakers’ full work. Plus, come on, it’s 62 minutes — sneak it in during your lunch break.
Desire’s distributor died in 1953, and this film fell off the map. Kino, thankfully, Blu-Rayed this in 2012 (complete with a restored version of The Seafarers), and thanks to the weird state of this film’s licensing, you can comfortably watch this online for free without much fear of legal reprisal.
Thee Moment: Poor Private Sidney. It’s a little senseless and overplayed, but Mazursky’s Sidney losing his mind is so rapt and watchable and focused and assuredly dramatic, it could have snuck into Full Metal Jacket. Sidney’s manic-obsessive break shows the actual physical manifestations of war when the mind’s first to go. For 1953, this is relatively daring stuff.
The Master at Work: Funny. Kubrick worked so hard at just getting this film off the ground that none of the trademark mania and control-freak tendencies have been heard about with this film. This was Kubrick at just 25 years old, just trying to get a full-length film made, not the hardcore auteur he would become. Not to be trite, but what the hell did you produce at 25?
Kubrickian Scale (0-10): 6, about. The anti-war flick is a dime a dozen. From The Western Front to Private Ryan, many a mighty filmmaker has tackled the horror, and Fear and Desire acts as more of a debut and proof of skills and tenacity than anything else. It’s not the boldest statement, or a fiercely visionary thing, although … Fear and Desire has that caustic, dark streak of Kubrick’s. Or at least, hints of it.
Analysis: Fear and Desire is a first film, through and through. Kubrick played with creative angles while rambling and telling his story with a lack of authority. The movie explores ideas a little too big for such a small film. And yet, there’s such a jaded worldview on display that it can’t help but feel like a Kubrick.
It’s also a weird film when placed historically. In 1953, the big hits were chipper studio fare, like Shane and The Band Wagon. The biggest anti-war film was Wilder’s Stalag 17, and the most impressive thriller was Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. Fear and Desire wasn’t and is not strong enough to counter any one of those films. But, it does make for a great Cliffsnotes for Kubrick-ia and acts like a young punk stirring something up in the back of the class, and there are rewards within.
It has great performances (especially from future director Paul Mazursky), impressive invention with the camera, and Kubrick’s attempts to scale back warmongering to avoid specific causes and countries is an interesting and impressionistic move. It’s not a bang, but it’s certainly not a whimper either. It’s a curious call for things to come and worth seeking out. — Blake Goble
12. Killer’s Kiss (1955)
Runtime: 1 hr. 7 min.
Press Release: As disgraced boxer Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) prepares to board a train taking him back to his family in the Pacific Northwest, he recalls the last few sordid days of his life, in which his fixation on his lovely next-door neighbor Gloria (Irene Kane) leads to a dangerous path of set-ups, back-alley brawls, and murder.
Cast: Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Frank Silvera, and Jerry Jarrett
Score: The score is split between boldly dramatic strings and conductor Gerald Fried’s unnerving jazz compositions. Fried plays with several dissonances throughout the film, creating the kind of asynchronous unease that Kubrick would come to favor in his later work.
It’s a film scored to wild drums and uncontrollable horn sounds, a notable counterpoint to the traditional “guy and his dame” structure of the story. Silvera’s gangster, Vinnie Rapallo, is a conspicuously violent foil for the era, and it’s the actor’s terrifying countenance, accompanied by Fried’s manic score, that forms so much of the film’s late drama.
The Glories of Film Noir Poster Design: Everything about the poster art for Killer’s Kiss is deliciously vintage. The pulp tagline! The simultaneous tease of indecency and sales pitch of the very same! The menacing axe, suggesting the unnerving depravity (by the standards of the time) of the mannequin-factory climax! Clearly, long before Jack Torrance picked it up, the visual of the hulking figure with the killer weapon was in the director’s head.
The Limits of True Originality: For such a venerable filmmaker, it’s odd to consider that Killer’s Kiss is the last feature the director ever made that wasn’t an adaptation of a pre-existing work, to one degree or another. For as derisively as Kubrick’s “studio days” are sometimes regarded, he found his footing with a series of lurid stories that would guide much of what was to come.
Thee Moment: Killer’s Kiss is an indication that Kubrick excelled at manipulating the audience’s perspective from his earliest days in film. One particularly striking shot sees Rapallo seemingly gaze into the camera, only to destroy the mirror that’s actually reflecting off him. Mirrors are also used when Davey (and Kubrick) takes a longer look at Gloria, as she hovers over his shoulder in the opposite apartment, through the reflection. The act of watching is integral to the film, as it is to so much of the director’s work, and these manipulations build the lingering urban panic of the film through its long stretches of dialogue-free buildup.
The Master at Work: In his twenties, the director wasn’t yet the exacting presence he’d come to be known as in the following decades. But the hallmarks are still present; Kubrick fired his sound director during production due to shadows that interfered with the lighting of some scenes. All of the dialogue was re-recorded in post-production, which leads to some of the visibly odd matches onscreen during the film.
Kubrickian Scale: For a sophomore feature, Killer’s Kiss exhibits a notable leap in the director’s assurance and style. While it would take a few more years/features for Kubrick to truly find his cinematic voice, some of the hallmarks are already present, his affinity for low-angle shots as a method of generating dread in particular.
While the studio-mandated happy ending feels at odds with the rest of the film, it’s essentially an hour-long exercise in wondering if a banged-up prizefighter can survive a long night, and its vacillations between detachment and uncomfortable close-ups are already quintessential Kubrick. (There’s also that shot of the alleyway nightmare, delivered in negative photography, a characteristically surreal image.) We’ll give a solid 5 for this one.
Analysis: At barely an hour in length, Killer’s Kiss is a modest production for Kubrick. Regardless, the signatures are already beginning to visibly form even at this early stage, from the interest in the human gaze to the use of extreme close-ups on bodies pushed to their limits. The disarming nervousness of the boxing sequence is sustained through the rest of the film, from the grit of the “Watch Your Step” sign hovering over Gloria’s head in the office building to the long shot of Davey sprinting around a locked rooftop, desperately searching for safe harbor.
Other interests are equally prevalent, in particular the director’s fixation with the female form; in the nudity of the lifeless mannequins at the film’s end, or the mildly-scandalous-for-the-time shots of a half-clad Kane, Killer’s Kiss lingers on the visual of the onscreen woman in all of her definitions. It’s still a film of stiff performances (particularly from Smith and Kane, although the former fares best when brawling), but it’s a harbinger of successes yet to come and a prevailing mood of deep anxiety that would come to inform Kubrick’s later masterpieces. — Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
11. Lolita (1962)
Runtime: 2 hr. 33 min.
Press Release: European academic Humbert Humbert (James Mason) finds himself a tempting diversion while spending a summer in the intellectual boonies of the American Midwest: his landlady’s (Shelley Winters) underage daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). What lengths will Humbert go to assure that he can be with his little nymphet, and what fate shall befall any and all who come between him and the “light of [his] fire, the fire of [his] loins. [His] sin, [his] soul. Lo-lee-ta”? Quick, somebody call Chris Hansen!
Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, and Peter Sellers
Score: While the Nelson Riddle score and swelling main theme by Bob Harris might be forgettable, the recurring dance song that Humbert hears when he first gazes at Lolita in the garden (called “Lolita Ya Ya,” with Lyon on vocals) became a hit for various artists. This isn’t the last time a musical curiosity from a Kubrick film would go on to find success in the pop charts (see: Full Metal Jacket).
How Did They Ever Make a Film of Lolita?: The original posters for the film (as seen above) all pose this question, and the simple answer remains: a lot of omissions and censorship. As Kubrick has reflected, he wouldn’t have even attempted to adapt Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial classic had he known how much of his vision would need to be tempered.
Not only did the film play ambiguous with Lolita’s age (she was 12 and change in the novel) and employ a noticeably older actress (Lyon was 14 and 15 during filming), but Kubrick greatly toned down the erotic elements of Humbert’s obsession to the point that the film really became Lolita-lite. In his version, we know nothing of Humbert’s past, mental illness, and predatory desires and are almost asked to view him as a somewhat likable, sympathetic character, comedically foiled by the circumstances of a one-off infatuation and wronged by competing parties, rather than as a true monster who will likely continue to discard one nymphet for another.
“I Don’t Think I Wanna Play Anymore”: Peter Sellers, as Clare Quilty or “Dr. Zempf,” steals every scene in Lolita that he appears in, and his offbeat performance hints at what’s to come in the near future. Not only does Kubrick have Sellers sink into several different roles (even though he’s technically Clare Quilty in disguise), but many claim his ruse as school shrink Dr. Zempf marks the origin of the title character of Dr. Strangelove. You be the judge.
Thee Moment: Lolita cannot possibly work without Humbert Humbert smitten at first sight with his little nymphet. When Charlotte Haze insists on showing the polite but disinterested prospective lodger her garden, Kubrick walks his Humbert into an Eden whose sweetest fruit and blossom cannot be plucked. We find a soft-lit Lolita lying on a towel in a bikini, shades, and a glamorous (plumed?) oversize hat, her body welcoming Humbert as if posed by a professional photographer.
Humbert gazes longingly at her before fidgeting, trying to avert his eyes, and losing his composure in speech with Charlotte. Mere seconds after he was ready to make a hasty departure and never return to the dull, unsophisticated Haze household, we find him eager to move in that very day. “What was the deciding factor?” Charlotte asks, oblivious to the spell cast by her daughter. “I think it was your cherry pies,” he returns bashfully. I don’t think it was the pie.
The Master at Work: Nabokov gets the lone credit for Lolita’s screenplay, but very little of what he submitted made it into the final script. Kubrick often got the authors of his source material involved in projects, but it wasn’t unusual for the director and his screenwriters to make like Fleetwood Mac and go their own way once shooting commenced. In other words, thanks for the jump-start. Shirley will pay you on your way out.
Kubrickian Scale: 5. Lolita surely doesn’t bound to mind when we think of the quintessential films of Stanley Kubrick. However, we do see his knack for black comedy here as well as his continued interest in the internal struggles of men. Unfortunately, we barely scrape the surface of Humbert Humbert’s messy and conflicted soul.
Analysis: Nabokov often cited a fascinating anecdote when people would ask him the origins of Humbert Humbert and Lolita. The author would refer to a news story that reported that an ape in captivity had sketched a charcoal drawing that included the bars of its cage. In that sense, we can view Humbert as a man imprisoned and doomed by his nature and disturbing infatuations with young girls.
Obviously, Kubrick was a master at adapting the work of others and adding his aesthetic to their narrative frameworks in order to address themes that mattered to him. Unfortunately, Lolita, being a work that takes place entirely in the fascinating, emphatic memory of a deteriorating predator — along with its sexually taboo subject matter — doesn’t lend itself to exploring Nabokov’s characters on film.
Instead, Kubrick uses the brilliant comedic talents of his cast — the awkward chemistry between Mason and Winters is particularly hilarious — to create a film that succeeds as a black comedy, even if it fails to really get down to the bottom of Humbert Humbert. — M.M.
10. Spartacus (1960)
Runtime: 3 hr. 17 min.
Press Release: : Sword-and-sandals epic follows the story of Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), a slave who leads a rebellion against the masters and government of ancient Rome. During his rebellion, he finds love (Jean Simmons), friendship (Tony Curtis), and odds seemingly impossible to overcome. All he wants is freedom, but Crassus (Laurence Olivier) wants him dead. There is bloodshed. There are stunts. There are Brooklyn accents. There is Spartacus!
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Tony Curtis
Score: Composer Alex North never won an Academy Award. Though his work on Spartacus garnered him a nomination, he didn’t win and honestly didn’t deserve to. The score is a pastiche of the Hollywood epics that came before it. Horns and strings overcompensate for a lack of human drama by a cast doing its absolute damndest.
That North lifts all too frequently from Hugo Friedhofer’s The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t do his main theme any favors, either. The AFI loves it. A lot of people love it. Whatever. A few years later, North would find greater swords-and-sandals success in another epic tale featuring Julius Caesar: 1963’s Cleopatra.
North had not walked with Kubrick before Spartacus, but he would work with the director one more time nearly a decade later. We’ll go into greater detail on that information later in this feature. In the meantime, I’d be remiss to not mention the fact that North composed the music to one of the greatest songs of all time: “Unchained Melody”. God speed your love to me!
Trumbo Trumbophant: You film buffs out there are no doubt familiar with last year’s Trumbo. The great Bryan “Walter White” Cranston portrayed the blacklisted screenwriter to critical acclaim, earning him an Oscar nomination. Trumbo’s return to glory was through his work on Spartacus and that same year’s Exodus, marking the first time in years that he was given official credit for a screenplay.
The symbolism in the film is overwhelming. The heroes are handcuffed and cannot be free as long as the clean men in power puff their chests. Protests from the American Legion for its communist “leanings,” violence, and suggested homosexuality (see below) led to cuts, but we can all enjoy the restored version today. That’s the real victory!
Apples and Oranges. Snails and …Oysters?: My above labeling of Spartacus featuring “suggested homosexuality” is a bit unfair. It’s overt. The relationship between Olivier’s Crassus and best friend Grabbus (played by an overmatched Dahl, so good in Rope) is full of tension in lines like the former thinking of ways for the latter to “repay” him after a military appointment. From the mean streets of Brooklyn, New York (apparently), Crassus acquires Antoninus (Curtis), who proceeds to wash him down in a lengthy bathing sequence. The seduction is on, and at one point the master says to his slave, “My taste includes both snails and oysters.” Long story short, Crassus was down to clown with anybody.
Thee Moment: The most memorable moment from the film almost didn’t happen. Spartacus’ army has been defeated. A Roman soldier promises that the lives of the surviving soldiers will be spared if they identify Spartacus. Just as the man himself is about to rise, Antoninus jumps him and declares, “I am Spartacus!” Dozens follow, and Kubrick gives nearly everyone their own shot as they do so. Douglas musters up a tear. Triumphant music appears. For some reason, the movie goes on for another half hour. It’s a great big “movie” moment in an era full of them. As for why it almost didn’t happen?
The Master at Work: There’s a great entry in Douglas’ I am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist. Douglas was the person who wanted the scene re-written to include the “I am Spartacus” bit, and he wrote Kubrick about it. He didn’t hear back. The next time they saw each other on set, Douglas asked Kubrick about it, and Kubrick responded, “It’s a stupid idea.” Then this happened…
That was the wrong thing to say. I pushed the horse right up against him. She nosed him back against the wall, pinning him there.
“Listen, you little prick,” I said. “I’ve gone along with you on everything and you’ve been right about most of it. You were right about cutting out almost all of my dialogue at the beginning of the movie. You were right about the scene between Varinia and Spartacus just touching hands — it’s much better the way you shot it. You’ve been right about making the battle scenes more realistic. It’s cost us a helluva lot of time and money, but I’ve supported you every step of the way.” “Kirk…” he began. “Shut up. This may be a stupid idea, but we’re going to try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll cut it out, but we’re going to shoot it.”
Kubrickian Scale: 1 out of 10. The reason is simple: Kubrick was a hired gun. Producer/star Douglas was very passionate about his work. He was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the time production commenced on Spartacus, and having a producer credit only made him that much more of a perfectionist. On a film with over 10,000 extras and a budget of $12 million ($100 million today), he butted heads with original director Anthony Mann and fired him a week into shooting.
Douglas previously worked with Kubrick on 1956’s Paths of Glory and called upon his old colleague to help him out. It’s a competently made film, but you can tell it’s lacking a Kubrick stamp from any era before or after. Its legacy? Kubrick disowned the film after he had final cut taken away from him. In a 2016 interview with Variety, Douglas spoke of the director: “Difficult? [Kubrick] invented the word. But he was talented. So, we had lots of fights, but I always appreciated his talent.”
Analysis: Spartacus is Douglas flexing. The modern-day equivalent is when those guys vroom-vroom past you on the street in their souped-up trucks, only Douglas had a reason to exist on the planet. It’s big and bold. It’s got the required sand, sandals, and swords. It isn’t that the film is missing something; it’s that it’s not missing enough. The love story between Spartacus and Varinia isn’t really felt until the 3 hr. 14 min. mark of the film. It clumsily jumps back and forth between senate hearings and slave uprisings, introducing major actors in limited roles and not finding enough time for them.
One person who does stand out is the genius that was Peter Ustinov. His portrayal of slave owner Batiatus is equal parts flustered and blustered. He’s a character too weak in character to be a true threat in the long run yet will outlive even his greatest enemies. Ustinov’s performance is from another planet here, injecting lines and circumstance with his own haughty flair. It no doubt got him cast in Disney’s animated Robin Hood 13 years later. His Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Spartacus is well-deserved.
There are a lot of dated elements that plague the film in ways that don’t even touch earlier Kubrick films like The Killing or Paths of Glory. The severe miscasting of the heavily accented Curtis as a singer who doesn’t actually sing looks bad. The romantic sequences? Paging your grandmother’s favorite soap operas! Having said all that, the scope of the piece is rather incredible to look at. That we’re recommending Kubrick’s fourth worst film says a lot about the man’s storied career. Swords and sandals always optional. — Justin Gerber
09. The Killing (1956)
Runtime: 1 hr. 25 min.
Press Release: A veteran thief plans his big final score, assembling an eclectic team of degenerates with special skills to rob a horse track of $2 million during a big race. But when one of the participants lets slip to his cheating wife that he’s in on the big score, a web of deceptions and double-crosses leads to violence, tragedy, and everybody getting exactly what they deserve.
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook Jr., Ted de Corsia, Marie Windsor, Timothy Carey, Vince Edwards, Joe Sawyer, and Kola Kwariani
Score: Working once again with Gerald Fried, as he did on Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick goes for a sound more in keeping with the heist movies of the time, all frantic high notes and blaring, nervous horns. The arrangements are simple but effective, heightening the tension of the central con while highlighting how doomed it is long before the first betrayal-fueled gunshots ring out.
Kubrick vs. Film Criticism: The Killing offers some of the first notable evidence of Kubrick’s films being underappreciated at the time of their release; in 1956, what’s now considered one of the great noir works of that decade was regarded by The New York Times as “a fairly diverting melodrama.” His work has often been overlooked or dismissed until later appraisal; even some of our favorites on this list encountered backlash upon initial viewing. Some of the criticism centers around Kubrick’s non-linear approach to a heist movie timeline, but this is arguably one of The Killing’s greatest strengths.
Ebert on Kubrick: The late, great film critic added a majority of Kubrick’s films to his “Great Movies” volumes over the years, including The Killing. In his must-read essay, Ebert draws an intriguing through-line between the exacting precision of Johnny’s central hustle in the film and Kubrick’s own chess-like precision. Rather than attempt to condense the prose of one of film criticism’s best-ever writers, we’ll let Ebert speak for himself:
In his films, he had the plan in his mind. He knew where everyone should be and what they should do. Such a perfectionist was Kubrick that he knew every theater his films were opening in, and the daily grosses. It’s said that a projectionist in Kansas City received a phone call from Kubrick in England, informing him that the picture was out of focus. Is that story apocryphal? I’ve never thought so.
Thee Moment: For our money (heh), it’s the fatalistic ending on the tarmac, in which Johnny and Fay see their dreams of a dramatic airline escape thwarted when the cheap briefcase holding the score is dropped on the tarmac, sending all of their riches scattering out into the night.
It’s the first evidence of the director’s forthcoming penchant for nihilistic finales, his characters accepting the non-existence of salvation and accepting their fates, however brutal they might be. It’s not the modern apocalypse of A Clockwork Orange, but Johnny’s wan declaration “What’s the difference?” is its own kind of resigned letdown. For a guy like Johnny, prison was the only end he was ever going to know.
The Master at Work: As legend has it, the studio was vehemently opposed to Kubrick telling the story out of order, to the point where the film was initially recut in sequential order. It didn’t work, leading to the overarching, almost documentary-style narration throughout, which Kubrick equally disliked. This is why some of the information offered by the narrator is slightly inaccurate, maintaining the disorienting sense of mystery and confusion that hangs over the entire film.
Kubrickian Scale: It’s a 6, one for each member of the heist crew. There’s a seediness that permeates through almost every corner of The Killing; nobody is a straight shooter, many of the players have their own agenda, and by the time it all goes to soil, it’s highly unlikely that life would’ve turned out well for them even if the best-laid plan had been followed. Kubrick’s dual interests in perversion (seen here through Windsor’s cuckolding moll) and punishment manifest in notable ways, and after the mandated happy ending of Killer’s Kiss, The Killing instead ends in the only honest way it can: with nobody learning or gaining anything, all undone by Johnny’s hubris.
Analysis: The leap from Kubrick’s early features to this still-modest but far more confident outing is noticeable from the early minutes, in which The Killing manipulates classical storytelling to fit its winding saga of small players chasing a big score. Hayden is the most assured leading man Kubrick had cast up to this point, and his presence goes a long way toward establishing Johnny as the kind of grifter you can’t help but cheer on. But even as he sets the table, it’s clear that Johnny and Fay aren’t going to elope as planned, and watching the dominoes fall is the source of so much of the film’s visceral exhilaration.
The racetrack sequence is a thrilling setpiece, and if the film is built on little more than the anticipation of a collapsing house of cards, it’s a ruthlessly efficient piece of storytelling. Kubrick’s eye for minute details is already sharpened here, and even some of its shaggier, low-budget trappings (a visible studio wall can be seen over the top of one set at one point) only add to the small-time feel of its doomed criminals. It’s just as ambitious as the director’s staggering later epics, in its own modest and viscerally intimate way. — D.S.M.
08. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Runtime: 1 hr. 56 min.
Press Release: Stanley Kubrick returns from a seven-year directorial absence with a story every bit as terrifying as his previous film, 1980’s horror game-changer The Shining. Follow Private J.T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) from his green beginnings in marine boot camp at Parris Island to his first heavy action in “the shit” as his platoon humps through the burning, dilapidated wreckage of a decimated Huế in Vietnam. It’s a harrowing personal journey in the face of realities every bit as cold, callous, and indifferent as a full metal jacket howling through the warm night air in search of a fleshy home.
Cast: Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Adam Baldwin, and Arliss Howard
Score: Kubrick’s daughter Vivian (under the alias “Abigail Mead”) actually wrote the film’s score on synth and Synclavier, used to chilling effect during the two pivotal Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) nighttime scenes in the barracks.
For popular music, Kubrick pulled from chart-toppers of the time, such as “Surfin’ Bird” and “I Like It Like That”. The use of period hits not only bolsters the realism of young men trying to maintain a connection to home and some semblance of normalcy while fighting overseas but also makes Vietnam seem all the more remote and foreign; for instance, “These Boots Are Made for Walking” plays over negotiations with a local prostitute in broad daylight, and “Wooly Bully” spins at a “birthday party” thrown by the Lusthog Squad for a North Vietnamese corpse. Not exactly the scenes you’d expect these swinging oldies to soundtrack.
Maybe strangest of all is that Vivian Kubrick and Nigel Goulding actually turned foul-mouthed Sgt. Hartman’s (R. Lee Ermey) call-and-response cadences into a No. 2 hit single on the UK charts. Jesus H. Christ!
Page to Screen: Kubrick, Michael Herr (author of Vietnam memoir Dispatches), and Gustav Hasford adapted Full Metal Jacket (the name pulled by Kubrick from a gun catalog) from Hasford’s 1979 novel, The Short-Timers. The film accurately adapts the first part of the three-part novel (the training scenes and Pyle’s breakdown) and fleshes out its second half by pulling from the book’s second and third parts.
Perhaps the most significant difference between book and film is that the novel has Joker performing the mercy killing on Cowboy, not on a female sniper. As a final shooting script rounded into shape, Hasford took umbrage with the lack of writing credit he received and at one point even snuck onto the set dressed as an extra with two friends to presumably confront Kubrick. Maybe he thought he was John Wayne?
Last Plane Out of Saigon: By the time Kubrick lost interest in a Holocaust project and set his sights on Vietnam in the early ’80s, the war had already been the focus of several acclaimed pictures. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter had shown the devastating effects of Nam on a group of small-town friends, and fellow auteur Francis Ford Coppola had reimagined the voyage up the Congo River found in author Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a framework for his own surreal take on Vietnam.
However, far more threatening to Kubrick’s Vietnam project was Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon, which took home four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and featured a young Charlie Sheen facing similar internal struggles to Modine’s character. While Stone’s film collected more hardware and won the box office in a landslide, Full Metal Jacket, in most eyes, has gone on to become the more admired film.
Thee Moment: R. Lee Ermey’s soul-crushing and hilarious drill sergeant opening and broken Vietnamese prossy English like “Me love you long time” have become ubiquitous in pop culture, but the moment most identified with the film remains the shocking scene in which Leonard, a fresh Section 8, murders Hartman and turns his rifle, “Charlene,” on himself as a shaken Joker looks on.
The spotless barracks head is bathed in blue moonlight, Vivian Kubrick’s score plinks like empty bullet casings striking bathroom tile, and a glazed-over, slobbering D’Onofrio eyeballs the heavens as Private Pyle readies for that big AWOL in the sky. No matter how many times you watch this scene, it never feels any less disturbing. This is what happens when you break down a man and fail to piece him together again.
The Master at Work: Kubrick, of course, studied footage, images, and stories of Nam for years before making Full Metal Jacket. He also rented a battalion of tanks and imported enough palm trees to make England look like southeast Asia. But as important as it was to make audiences believe they were experiencing Nam in the late ’60s, none of that would matter if those same moviegoers doubted Joker’s emotional authenticity as he stared into the eyes of the sniper who just killed his best friend, Cowboy.
Kubrick was infamous for having his actors perform up to 50 takes of a scene — a practice that could alienate his performers to the point of emotional breakdowns — and one can only imagine how many takes the director may have subjected Modine to (1, 13, 37?) before the actor managed to make his silent intensity scream out as it does in the final cut. He may have been a pain in the ass, but Kubrick almost always got the most out of his actors.
Kubrickian Scale: 8. Though Full Metal Jacket doesn’t get thematically dissected as intensely as more obtuse Kubrick masterpieces, we see several quintessential elements of the director’s signature style: a dedication to gritty realism, a barrage of closeups, a focus on man’s internal struggle, and the willingness to latch on to good ideas wherever they might come from. For instance, about 50% of Sgt. Hartman’s infinitely quotable dialogue comes from Ermey’s improvised audition tapes. Those tapes and insults won Ermey the job, and his foulmouthed rants and put-downs in the film’s opening scene have become the stuff of pop-culture legend.
Analysis: Like war itself, Full Metal Jacket isn’t neat or tidy. It kills off its most entertaining characters in the first half and eschews traditional narrative techniques for a two-part structure that acts as a series of short stories or vignettes rather than adapting the more straightforward plots of most war films.
It’s really not surprising that Platoon initially found more popularity with general audiences. Charlie Sheen’s Taylor can be seen as an agent of justice when he avenges Elias by killing Barnes, and we understand his character’s internal struggle and what he means by “the enemy was in us” as he’s being choppered off the battlefield. Nothing quite that simple can be derived from the final moments of Full Metal Jacket.
Unlike Taylor, we’re not sure about Joker. Is he the squad leader who tried to mentor Leonard Lawrence or the angry private who beat him harder than anyone during a moonlit assault? As he looks down at the girl sniper who killed Cowboy and unloads his weapon, does he become her executioner or angel? Can he somehow be both? Can he exist as both the smart-ass, peace symbol-wearing journalist and the rifle-carrying marine with the words “Born to Kill” inked on his helmet?
Moments after Joker finishes off the sniper, we find him marching in formation through fiery rubble as his platoon playfully sings the lyrics to The Mickey Mouse Club theme song. He’s earned his 1,000-yard stare. Joker tells us how thankful he is just to be alive and insists that he’s not afraid, but it only raises more questions. Part of us wonders how such gratefulness can exist without fear. Another part suspects that Full Metal Jacket, or any war movie for that matter, might not really be about war when it comes down to it. Kubrick leaves so much open to debate, which is partially why we’re still talking about Full Metal Jacket 30 years later.
M-i-c-k-e-y M-o-u-s-e. — M.M.
07. Barry Lyndon (1975)
Runtime: 3 hr. 4 min.
Press Release: The name’s Barry. Redmond Barry. Well, it was Redmond Barry; now it’s Barry Lyndon. Much fancier. Real status in that new name. How do you do?
Barry Lyndon is the saga of one of history’s most notorious social climbers, an Irish lad by the name of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal). Barry’s a cad. A liar. A bit of a loser, too. But he navigates through 18th century life in a way that begets great fortune, by weaseling through armies and marrying upward. And like all vainglorious men, Barry manages to squander it all because of his own stupid selfishness, enemy-making, and all-around apathy.
Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1884 novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, here’s a comedy of manners for the ages. A flip on the big biopic. Because some “great” men just want enough money to coast and carouse. Barry Lyndon. What a guy.
Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Koerner, Gay Hamilton, and Michael Hordern, as the unreliable, roast-happy narrator
Score: Before you cry “stuffy!”, know that Barry Lyndon’s soundtrack only serves to make the film funnier with its pomp and circumstance. Kubrick, get this, was a lover of classical music — as if 2001 or Clockwork Orange didn’t give that away — and Lyndon afforded the opportunity to assemble a sort of all-star playlist. Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Schubert, and Paisello were among the featured composers, and George Frideric Handel’s “Sarabande” became the film’s calling-card composition. The harpsichords, flutes, timpani, and all-around dreary pacing only serve to give the film its cheeky atmosphere. Kubrick knew full well the sound was one of a party you’d feel really uncomfortable at. Nervously laugh through. And it all works wonders as Lyndon’s baroque, ironical music to drop monocles by, and it netted the film’s composer, Leonard Rosenman, a best score Oscar. Adapted and/or original song score, of course. Ha, the Academy in the ‘70s.
A Vanity Affair: A lot of this film’s moves evolved from Kubrick’s R&D on other failed projects. For one, Kubrick struggled through a bit of his career to get a Napoleon Bonaparte biopic produced. That project’s historical research helped with Lyndon after a Napoleon movie never came to fruition. (Which, would some angel buy this for me for my birthday?)
Kubrick also was a big Thackeray fan and wanted to make a Vanity Fair adaptation, but dubbed it too hard to compress, which is ironic given Lyndon’s size. But hey, Mira Nair got that job in 2004, and, um, was it good? Missed that, sadly. Anyway, if not for those failed starts, we might not have gotten Barry and Kubrick’s itch to scratch a voluptuous period drama.
Marty Loves Stanley: This is just cute, but Lyndon is fellow master Martin Scorsese’s favorite Kubrick. Well, okay, it’s never been explicitly called Marty’s fave, but let’s clarify. There’s this great quote that keeps coming up in articles and essays (that’s damn hard to place the origin of — perhaps a book on writing) where Scorsese basically gushes over Lyndon, its reputation, growing esteem, and the fact that he keeps coming back to it.
“I’m not sure if I can say that I have a favorite Kubrick picture, but somehow I keep coming back to Barry Lyndon. I think that’s because it’s such a profoundly emotional experience. The emotion is conveyed through the movement of the camera, the slowness of the pace, the way the characters move in relation to their surroundings. People didn’t get it when it came out. Many still don’t. Basically, in one exquisitely beautiful image after another, you’re watching the progress of a man as he moves from the purest innocence to the coldest sophistication, ending in absolute bitterness — and it’s all a matter of simple, elemental survival.”
Those are the words of a man obsessed, and we dig it. For extra credit, please, do watch Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Movies documentary from 1995, and listen to his observations on Lyndon. Scorsese’s a true fan and a scholar, sir.
Thee Moment: DAMN. To pick a single shot for this film? Celluloid fetishists obsess over Barry Lyndon’s 70mm revelry. The film’s a gallery of 17th century painterly aesthetics, alluding to the likes of Hogarth and Gaines, while maintaining that gorgeously, crisply, curiously gritty ‘70s cinematography. Herm. One second, there’s a sumptuous candle-lit romance here. The next, it’s insanely choreographed telephoto lens marching into battle. Amusingly distant duels. Lacy, depressed bathtubs that are slowly zoomed out of. (Note to self: talk to Warner, sell Barry Lyndon postcards.)
Heugh. For our money, could there be a more perfect opening shot?
The Master at Work: You mean to tell me Kubrick sought out actual clothing from the period, shut out the press from covering this film, and actually insisted on special lenses and painstakingly natural lighting to maintain the period effect?
What a marvelous pain in the ass, that man.
Kubrickian Scale: A 7, if only because while this film totally works off of Kubrick’s fascination with man’s selfishness and arousal over tight images, it’s not as quickly lauded, recognized, or made memetic like his other more commanding works. Perhaps — and this is a cheap but fair guess — the three-hour runtime scares potential viewers off. This writer saw it last in Kubrick’s filmography. What a mistake.
Analysis: If ever a film was the definition of droll.
Barry Lyndon is a tale of two takes: a furiously committed vision of technical super power and a truncated, deadly comical “hero” portrait that’s anything but heroic. But to Scorsese’s previously mentioned point, this movie was not rapturously received upon its initial release. Critically mixed, enough critics lauded the filigree and admired Kubrick’s calculation.
Yet, there was (and probably still is) a strong contingent of viewers that cried “cold!” Nolan and Scott still catch that, too. The movie’s intensely rigid and founded around a man’s selfish pursuit to climb the social stratosphere. More colloquially, Barry’s an asshole and hardly the kind of great figure that gets a movie in this fashion. Cowardly, petty, and just plain sneaky, Kubrick’s ode to selfish delusions of grandeur naturally raises the question: why?
Because it’s damn funny, that’s why. By the mid-’70s, the likes of Gunga Din or Lawrence of Arabia were already passé. The big adventure films? The stately character works? That’s just not Kubrick. But a mocking, comically derisive take on those tropes? Now that’s Kubrick. Lyndon starts off with a petty death and ends in a callow buy-out, it’s the most handsomely staged work about a rotten shit ever made, and it’s almost like a big “eat me” to T.E. Lawrence.
That four-hour film was about a truly great man and set a standard for these kinds of myths, and Kubrick makes light of the form by placing it on mediocrity. To slather Lyndon in mighty lensing and all the pomp and circumstance of Lean-like mega-films is like trolling of a higher order, but we love the light tricks and musket accuracy all the same. And Lyndon marries for money. He switches armies. He even helps men cheat at cards!
History’s big men? Maybe they do not boldly trek, Lyndon seems to argue. Maybe they act solely in self-interest to save their own hides. They get revenge and act on jealousy. And Kubrick found this compelling, ratty saint in Barry Lyndon. Throw in the marvelously self-aware narration, the good looks but shallow interior of Ryan O’Neal’s performance, and a patient gaze that’s both hypnotic and at times hilarious, and well, you’ve got a low-key classic. An epic about the greatest two-timing sonuvabitch you ever did saw. — B.G.
06. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Runtime: 2 hr. 39 min.
Press Release: When Alice (Nicole Kidman) voices her deepest sexual fantasies to her husband, Dr. Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise), Bill is sent away from their privileged lives and onto a surreal odyssey into a dark, twisted night of the soul. Along the way, he attempts to broaden his own horizons, challenge his own barriers, and possibly find his salvation. Or destruction. It might all depend on whether or not he knows the second password.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Rade Serbedzija, Leelee Sobieski, Vinessa Shaw, Todd Field, and all those people at the party
Score: The signature classical compositions are on hand as always, with Kubrick using Shostakovich’s “Waltz No. 2” over the opening, as well as compositions from Franz Liszt and György Ligeti throughout. One of composer Jocelyn Pook’s more interesting arrangements comes with “Masked Ball,” in which she plays a Romanian Orthodox chorus in reverse.
But perhaps the film’s most memorable sound came about organically; left anxious by the prospect of the film’s many nude scenes, Kidman allegedly requested to have her own music on set to get into the right mood. One of those songs was Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing,” which ended up being a crucial musical cue in both the film and in its trailer.
On Censorship in the Late ‘90s: As those who were around at the time might recall, Eyes Wide Shut was met with quite a bit of controversy in the run-up to its release. Warner Bros. had enthusiastically supported the film, as it had previously notched hits with so many of Kubrick’s other works, but in a summer overwhelmed with moral panic over everything from Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam to South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the mid-blockbuster season release of Kubrick’s cerebral, button-pushing film drew no shortage of its own heat.
The director had considered having some of the more debated sequences covered digitally before his passing, and the film’s famous orgy scene accordingly had some of the most explicit material obscured, either by additional actors or via computer-animated G-strings. (A later DVD/Blu-ray release saw the film restored to its original, unrated cut.)
A Husband and Wife Affair: Any understanding of Eyes Wide Shut is incomplete without some background on the bold pop-cultural maneuver Kubrick was making at the time; Cruise and Kidman were each A-list movie stars, and famously married, and surrendered their relationship to the demands of a filmmaker notorious for breaking his actors down to the point of reaching something truly organic. (Whether this was a good thing is a topic of much debate to this day.) According to a must-read Vanity Fair article about the production:
“Kubrick decided to find his story through psychoanalyzing his stars, prodding Cruise and Kidman to confess their fears about marriage and commitment to their director in conversations that the three vowed to keep secret. ‘Tom would hear things that he didn’t want to hear,’ admitted Kidman. ‘It wasn’t like therapy, because you didn’t have anyone to say, “And how do you feel about that?” It was honest, and brutally honest at times.’ The line between reality and fiction was deliberately blurred. The couple slept in their characters’ bedroom, chose the colors of the curtains, strewed their clothes on the floor, and even left pocket change on the bedside table just as Cruise did at home.”
Thee Moment: While there are a number of phenomenal set pieces to be found throughout the film, the most memorable (and Kubrickian) is certainly the famous orgy sequence. As Cruise’s foal is led astray into a place of unimaginable hedonism, the director ratchets up the unnerving hum of tension by the second, near-silently following Hartford through a den of absolute, unchecked indulgence.
By the time he realizes that he’s found himself in the last place he should ever be, it’s far too late to go back. Like vengeful gods punishing him for his wandering eye, he’s dragged into a place of absolute vulnerability, in front of more of his peers than he could ever possibly know. The stillness and silence of the terror inherent in this scene makes for one of the filmmaker’s best-ever stagings.
The Master at Work: Let’s start with the part where Eyes Wide Shut was shot for 400 days and took what was, as of 1999, a Guinness World Record for lengthy film shoots. The director’s clinically precise approach to a couple’s relationship in turmoil included taking Cruise and Kidman’s real-life relationship to its limits, directing them individually while refusing to let either performer discuss notes with the other. Cruise’s pivotal conversation with Pollack in the pool room included about 200 takes by itself. In every way, this was a Kubrick production, with a distinct aura of mystery surrounding it; even the promotional materials suggested a film full of sexual intrigue featuring two of the moment’s biggest movie stars and little more.
(Also, that mask Cruise is wearing in the final confrontation with the lords of the orgy? It’s modeled after Ryan O’Neal, from Barry Lyndon. The film is full of other such allusions to Kubrick’s work as well.)
Kubrickian Scale: A strong 8. One of Kubrick’s most intimate, character-driven films is also one of his most immediately identifiable, from the anachronistic feel of New York City (by way of London) throughout Hartford’s quest to the haunting sense of dread and terror lurking around every dark corner.
For what’s easily one of the most unabashedly erotic films of the ‘90s, the director paints even the film’s dirtiest episodes with a detachment that’s at first curiously artful and eerie long after that. It’s a long gaze at what makes people tick when they’re at their most stripped-down, vulnerable, and insecure, and virtually every one of the filmmaker’s works have touched on this concept to one degree or another. As final films go, it’s something of a master’s thesis, in which even after the central conflict is “resolved,” the film’s leads will be no more assured or safe than when they started. They’ll just go on to another day and then another prolonged night following it, telling their secrets to themselves and to one another.
Analysis: Eyes Wide Shut is nearly 20 years old as of this writing, and yet spirited arguments continue endlessly about what the film could mean, what it says of its director and its stars, and whether Kubrick’s final opus is a model of artistic over-indulgence or the sort of grandiose work that no lesser a visionary could make.
It’s a deceptively simple film, using the melancholic aesthetics of the Christmas season to comment on a couple in turmoil as they face middle age and their own unrealized dreams and desires. Yet, it’s a film that can be read in virtually any way you like: as a parable for the terrors of sexual discovery, as an allegory for man’s basest instinct to prostrate and degrade himself, as a cautionary tale, or as an investigation of who people really are when the room is empty and nobody else is looking.
If anything, it’s a triumphant last gasp for the kind of bold, European-influenced filmmaking that studios had almost entirely abandoned by 1999 in favor of the guaranteed, name-brand properties that fill multiplexes today. A movie like Eyes Wide Shut would be almost unfathomable at the top-shelf studio level today, let alone as a major summer release with a substantial amount of buzz behind it. But such is the power of Kubrick: people didn’t know what the hell they were going to watch when they showed up, and many of them walked out even more confused than they were when they arrived. And they couldn’t stop talking about it … and still can’t. — D.S.M.
05. Paths of Glory (1957)
Runtime: 1 hr. 28 min.
Press Release: It’s the first World War. A French colonel must defend three soldiers after charges of “cowardice in the face of the enemy” are brought against them. Col. Dax (Douglas) must contend with unfeeling, conniving, and oblivious superior officers in a race against time. Can he convince his generals to see the actions of the three men from his point of view? Will the three men fall by firing squad?
Cast: Kirk Douglas, George Macready, Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, and Joe Turkel
Score: Whether it be through reimagined, famous compositions or original pieces of work, Kubrick’s most famous films are instantly recognizable by their score … save Paths of Glory. Gerald Fried’s military score briefly appears during the film’s opening and closing credits, as well as a sequence early on that finds Gen. Paul Mireau (Macready) making his way through downtrodden trenches.
This would mark the final collaboration between Fried and Kubrick. Fried’s scores appeared in every work Kubrick directed in the ‘50’s, dating all the way back to the short documentary Day of the Flight. Not to slight Fried, but musical accompaniment is not missed while watching Paths. Its stripped-down story didn’t need a score to guide us along the way or nudge us towards a specific emotion. Instead we’re given a definitive case of “less-is-more”. As for Kubrick’s crucial inclusion of a proper song, well, that’s for another category…
Carey’s “Ferol” Performance: As for other Paths players who couldn’t stand him, where do we begin? Carey himself recounts them in one of his final interviews, this one with Film Comment: producer James Harris (“He made sure I’d done all my scenes, then fired me the next day”), actor Emile Meyer (“He wanted to punch me because in my death scene I was biting his arm”), and actor Adolphe Menjou (“…he thought I’d disgraced the company with my behavior. I had a toy monkey with me, and I was walking around with holes in my shoes.”)
But here’s the thing: over 60 years later, the behavior was worth it. Look at Carey’s face during the trial sequence. Kubrick’s intense close-up won’t let you miss it, but he’s captivating all the same: eyes rolling around in his head, trying to keep it together in the face of death. That aforementioned sequence with Meyer? Kubrick actually encouraged Carey to keep with it, and it led to the improvised repetition of his emotionally scarring “I don’t want to die.” There are countless stories about Carey from throughout his career in Hollywood. Truly a fascinating performer.
A Twist on the Enemy Shoulder: Paths of Glory is considered to be one of the greatest war films of all time, but not for obvious reasons. While the charging of Ant Hill is an incredible spectacle that was the ‘50s equivalent of Spielberg’s D-Day in Saving Private Ryan, it isn’t Kubrick’s action that drives his path to glory (I will not apologize for that). It’s in the film’s many closed-door meetings where we discover the film’s message: Our enemies aren’t always at our back door. Sometimes they’re already in our house.
Paths’ generals Broulard (Menjou) and Mireau (Macready) are villains almost to the point of stereotype. The former always has a smile to hide his fangs, the latter a mustache just short of twirl-worthy as he gives his outrageous orders. Mireau even goes as far as to order his troops to fire into their own trenches. These characters are more concerned with rank and achievement than they are behind Queen and Country. And then there are those quotes!:
“There’s no such thing as shellshock.”
“There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.”
“The men died wonderfully.”
The French were taken aback by the film’s plot that focused on its military and banned it for decades, even though the film took place over 40 years before its release year. The furor over Paths’ anti-war sentiment spread across the world and it would receive banishment in several other countries for years. To quote Col. Dax (who quotes Samuel Johnson): “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Accept the past. Do good in the present. Embrace the future.
Thee Moment: The men are dead, but Col. Dax can take some comfort knowing that Mireau will go to trial for his actions. He stops just outside a bar where a large number of French troops await a performance. A young German woman in tears (Christiane Kubrick née Harlan) is pulled to the stage. She is frightened and does not want to be there. The troops hoot and holler, and after an insulting introduction by the bar’s owner, the young woman begins to sing.
The rowdy crowd starts to quiet down almost immediately as she sings a folk song: “Der treue Husar” (“The Faithful Hussar”). It’s likely the men don’t know the lyrics, as they indicate by simply humming along, but it isn’t about that. They hear the beauty. They remember home. Love. All of the above. Kubrick cuts to close-ups of dozens of the men, all in various states of grief and self-recognition. Dax is called away. The film ends.
Kubrick is rightfully lauded as a technical genius, but it’s in the final minutes of Paths of Glory that his ability to capture humanity is film at its finest. Kubrick’s marriage to Harlan would last until his death in 1999.
The Master at Work: Kubrick’s most memorable moment as a director in this film follows Dax’s walk through the trenches. While the stark lighting in the prison cells as the men await their fate is a masterstroke, much of that credit goes to cinematographer George Krause (his first and only time working with the director). However, it is in the trenches that we get a tease of POV shots that would define so much of Kubrick’s days in color cinema.
Kubrick alternates back-and-forth between Dax’s POV with shots focused on the colonel himself as he makes his way through the trenches. Men look upon him in silent fear — not of the man himself, but with dark knowledge of their near-certain doom. Bombs go off just feet away, but Dax is focused on staying strong for his troops. It’s the least he can do. Beautifully shot, beautifully cut.
Kubrickian Scale: 6 out of 10. If you go into Paths of Glory not knowing it was a Kubrick film, you may be surprised to learn that fact later on. However, going in knowing who directed the film changes a lot. The pitch-black military humor is less broad as it is in Strangelove, but it’s there for the taking, nonetheless.
Analysis: Paths of Glory is not nearly as well-known as some of his other masterpieces, as well as Kubrick films that just plain aren’t as good. It lacks the flash and pop of future works but never suffers because of it. Paths is an exercise in subtlety for the most part, and you can look no further than the film’s “climax” (if you can call it that): Three men are unfairly killed. There is a meal with military leaders. A woman sings.
Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Paths doesn’t need to be a second longer and Kubrick recognizes this. He would direct other military-focused films later on, expanding upon Paths’ “lunatics running the asylum” approach to a much more humorous effect in Strangelove. But the reason Paths reigns supreme over his other war film, Full Metal Jacket, is because it goes beyond the simple “War is Hell” motif. It exposes war games, back-patting, blackmail, betrayal, and the unjustness of it all. We do not see one enemy soldier throughout the entire movie, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest.
In many ways the film is of its time. Would Broulard and Mireau be played quite as sniveling and e-vile today as they are in this film? Would Douglas and his tough American accent have been cast in the role as a French colonel? Who’s to say? There is too much spectacle to be found in Paths of Glory that compels us to look away from these dated decisions. The Ant Hill charge is a spectacle in and of itself, but the manipulative, tactical nature by those we should trust is the film’s calling card. — J.G.