Long before Stanley Kubrick became STANLEY KUBRICK, the man behind such masterpieces as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining,” he was just another young director, trying to make his mark in Hollywood.
Long before Stanley Kubrick became STANLEY KUBRICK, the man behind such masterpieces as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining,” he was just another young director, trying to make his mark in Hollywood. And, like many young directors — then and now — he used a crime movie as his calling card.
Like Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (another crime movie from a beginning director), Kubrick’s 1956 film “The Killing” features an eclectic cast, crackling dialogue and a story that skips back and forth in time. But, as good as “Reservoir Dogs” is, it can’t compete with “The Killing.” The film has a rhythm and energy like few other movies of the 1950s — or any other decade, for that matter. It’s amazing that Kubrick was only 28 when he made it.
“The Killing” revolves around a very complicated plan that career criminal Johnny Clay (the late, great Sterling Hayden) concocts to rob a racetrack of $2 million. Much of the movie is devoted to showing just how intricate the plan is, flashing back repeatedly to show the various pieces being put carefully into place. There’s a jittery racetrack clerk (Elisha Cook Jr.) who needs to open a door.
There’s a burly ex-con (Kola Kwariani) who has to start a fight. There’s a crooked cop (Ted de Corsia) who has to be ready to catch a big bag of money. And there’s a slightly crazy marksman (Timothy Carey, slightly crazy himself) who has to shoot a horse. And they all have to perform their tasks at exactly the right time.
After cranking up the tension for most of the movie, Kubrick releases it once the robbery actually starts — and quickly goes horribly, horribly wrong. All Johnny’s carefully placed pieces are no match for the random elements that pile up along the way. You’d be surprised how much damage a horseshoe, a scheming wife and a secondhand suitcase can do. And it all comes together in one of the all-time great movie endings, with one last twist of fate putting the final screw to poor Johnny’s plan.
Long available in a bare-bones DVD version, “The Killing” has just been released (on DVD and Blu-ray) by the fine folks at Criterion in a deluxe edition. How deluxe? Besides the usual sort of extras — interviews, trailers, retrospectives — the disc also includes a whole other movie, Kubrick’s 1955 film “Killer’s Kiss.” It’s not as a good as “The Killing,” but it’s still pretty impressive — especially from a 27-year-old kid from the Bronx.
Gable triple feature
Back in the glory days of Hollywood, actors didn’t play characters so much as they played themselves. You went to the movies to see Cary Grant or Joan Crawford, not to see Cary Grant or Joan Crawford disappear into a role. It wasn’t called the “star system” for nothing.
Take Clark Gable. Aside from a few films at the beginning of his career (like “Night Nurse,” where he plays a gangster plotting the murder of two children) or his last film (“The Misfits,” where he’s shockingly beaten down), Gable played the same role in all his movies — he played “Clark Gable.” His screen persona was the smooth-talking he-man who could roughhouse with the best of them. He was a bit of a scoundrel, sure, but he was always on the right side of whatever conflict the movie revolved around.
That steadfast screen persona is showcased in three movies just released by Warner Archives (warnerarchive.com). “Sporting Blood” (1931) was the first time Gable topped a cast list, but he was already firmly in character, playing a gambler whose race-fixing plan hits a snag when he feels pity on an abused horse being groomed for the Kentucky Derby. It’s a little corny, sure, but the sort of corny that works.
After serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, Gable co-starred in 1945’s “Adventure” with Greer Garson, one of the era’s top actresses. In a role tailor-made for him, Gable plays a tough-as-nails sailor who romances a quiet librarian (Garson). Gable was always great as a rascal pitted against a “respectable” woman — think “Gone with the Wind” — and the formula works here, too. And speaking of “Gone with the Wind,” Thomas Mitchell, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s dad, has a plum supporting role here.
Two years later, Gable headlined “The Hucksters,” a semi-satire of the ad biz. The cast includes such big names as Deborah Kerr, Sydney Greenstreet, Ava Gardner, Adolph Menjou and Edward Arnold, but Gable is undeniably The Star. The romance with Kerr is strictly by the numbers, but the glimpse of a pre-“Mad Men” advertising world is fun.
Will Pfeifer writes about DVDs and movies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-987-1244. Read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/willpfeifer/