The Underrated Stanley Kubrick Series at the Trylon
One of the “elders” at a local coffee shop I frequent has an anecdote about Stanley Kubrick. In 1955, he met the budding filmmaker at a Manhattan bar where Kubrick, a spritely and amiable personality (he was a chess hustler, after all), was handing out passes to his new movie, a palooka noir entitled Killer’s Kiss. My elder acquaintance had a drink with Kubrick, comfortably enjoyed small talk, and saw the film the next day. Though he warmly remembers the impression Kubrick made as an individual, he recalls of the film, “It wasn’t very good.”
He never saw Kubrick again in-person, but spotted the name a year later on a poster for another noir film, this about a race track heist, The Killing, starring Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook. He immediately recognized its greatness and the talent behind it, as Kubrick conducted a miraculous structural high-wire act about contingency, the mastery of his directorial control doubling for heist ringleader Johnny Clay’s (Hayden) fail-safe plot, the riches from which would fund his escape from urban toil. Whereas Clay’s plan proves vulnerable to myriad variables, The Killing is–so it seems–perfectly executed. This director, who would soon begin production with a major Hollywood star (Kirk Douglas) on an explosive World War I drama, Paths of Glory, succeeded in calling the world to attention. His aesthetic, nurtured through years of still photography before moving on to documentary shorts, matured. And whereas he was eagerly giving away passes so that anyone would just see his film, even if it wasn’t very good, this new presence, described by Orson Welles as “a giant,” eventually went out of his way to make sure those “rough draft” pictures of his youth weren’t available. He succeeded where Johnny Clay failed, getting his big score (in the contract job of Spartacus) before hermetically setting up production offices outside of London, far from imposing Hollywood control, and dictating his artistic identity (he believed in Nabokov’s advice of receiving an interviewer’s questions in writing first, and then eventually sending the responses by post). Kubrick was a conglomerate, and probably the first studio filmmaker since Chaplin to have unlimited freedom in time and resources on multiple projects.