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Posts Tagged ‘Sterling Hayden’

Hindsight is a curious and not always reliable beast. I was at the Stanley Kubrick exhibition in London the other weekend and it only confirms, as though that were needed, his status as one of the most revered film directors in history – one of those handful of people who have been able to combine enormous commercial success with the most exacting artistic standards. After watching a film like 2001 or Barry Lyndon, it’s impossible to conceive of a Kubrick who wasn’t quite certain of his art, or just finding his way behind the camera. You just expect piece after piece of majestic, formal brilliance.

And then Former Next Desk Colleague offered to lend me The Killing, Kubrick’s 1956 movie and the one widely considered to be his mainstream debut. Would you recognise it as a Kubrick movie were his name not in the credits? Probably not, but if you put any two or three of his later movies together and show them to someone not familiar with films, they would be unlikely to instantly recognise them as the work of the same artist.

The film opens with black-and-white, documentary-style footage of a racetrack, over which the credits roll, accompanied by some strident music. It soon becomes clear that we are in a film noir, and one which is being executed with a high degree of formal and technical confidence: the story is told out of chronological order, with some scenes overlapping and being shown from different perspectives. The actual story is simple enough: veteran criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is planning one last big job before he retires (it’s a bit of an old chestnut, but never mind), and to this end he is putting together a team of people to help him rob the racetrack of $2 million (back in 1956, $2 million was probably a lot more than $2 million, too). Amongst those in on the scheme are a corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia), one of the track bartenders (Joe Sawyer), and an unhappily married teller (Elisha Cook Jr).

Naturally, things are never going to go completely to plan in this sort of film and the first problem is that George, the teller, just has to go and tell his wife (Marie Windsor) that he is onto a good thing and will soon have a lot more money. Clay attempts to warn her off, but she persists in telling her lover (Vince Edward), in the hopes that they can somehow help themselves to more than just George’s share of the money. Unaware of all this, Clay continues his preparation for the heist, which include hiring a couple of other men to create diversions for him – a wrestler (Kola Kwariani) and a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey). The plan has multiple stages and relies heavily on precise timing. Given the rather variable quality of the men on his team, can Johnny Clay get away with it?

Well, obviously this is a genre movie – or several different flavours of genre movie, to be precise. Most obviously it’s a heist movie, and sticks relatively close to the formula of introducing the different members of the gang and establishing their special contributions to the undertaking – although Kubrick avoids the scene where the planner runs through exactly what’s supposed to happen in the course of the robbery, preferring to let the viewer find out as it’s going on. It is also unmistakably a kind of film noir – while much of the film takes place in broad daylight, and there isn’t much in the way of visual stylisation, there is certainly a deeply amoral, cynical tone to the story, even perhaps shading over into existential angst as the film nears its conclusion.

Acting honours go Hayden, who is commandingly cool as Johnny Clay, but also to Cook and Windsor as the deeply unhappy couple whose failing relationship turns out to be central to the unravelling plot. I understand that Marie Windsor’s career was apparently impacted by her sheer height, meaning that most Hollywood leads were reluctant to appear with her; well, she is well-cast here with the diminutive Elisha Cook, although you do wonder just how these two got together in the first place.

However, it is the taut and efficient way the story is told which really makes the film distinctive. This is a very good genre movie, but even so you would struggle to recognise that the director would go to be quite as feted as Kubrick eventually was, and there are certainly points which you suspect a more experienced Stanley Kubrick might have handled a little more deftly – the terse voice-over establishing the chronology of the film is a little bit on the nose, and there’s also arguably an issue with Kwariani’s thickly-accented delivery making his lines unintelligible (shades of Tor Johnson in Plan Nine from Outer Space). Still, he makes for an effective heavy (this was Kwariani’s only film – apparently he died, some years later, after single-handedly taking on five much younger men in a street fight).

The film has a slightly slow start, but once the characters are established and the preparations for the heist are under way, it becomes a completely involving thriller, and a deservedly influential one. You can detect elements of The Killing in films as apparently different as Logan Lucky (another tale of a complicated heist at a racetrack), while I’m pretty sure the rubber mask Heath Ledger wears during the opening robbery in The Dark Knight is a homage to the one worn by Sterling Hayden in this film. The most obvious beneficiary, however, is Reservoir Dogs, another cut-up tale of a robbery which goes badly awry amidst mistrust between the thieves, concluding with a significant body-count.

Some would hail Tarantino as a director in Kubrick’s league, although I am not one of them. Once again I find myself obliged to say that while this may be one of Kubrick’s minor works, it is still a film most directors would be extremely proud of. The structure of the script we can certainly credit Kubrick for, even though the dialogue was apparently the work of one Jim Thompson, a crime novelist, and the deftness of the camerawork and cinematography is also clearly down to him. Hindsight is a untrustworthy and deceptive thing, but you would be forgiven for concluding that Kubrick began in the same way he continued: this is a superior, classy movie.

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There are some films which are timely, other films which are timeless; very few are consistently both. Like any other sane person, I was quite content for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to remain the latter, but – the world being what it is – some great cycle seems to be on the verge of completion and one watches it now with a queasy sense of recognition; the realisation that some things, perhaps, never really go away.

The movie starts innocuously enough, with RAF officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), on secondment to Burpelson Air Force base, receiving some slightly eccentric orders from his commanding officer General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden). It seems that Ripper has taken the concept of personal initiative a little too far and ordered the B-52s of the 843rd Bomb Wing to launch an unprovoked and unauthorised nuclear attack on the USSR.

Flying one of the planes is Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens), who is slightly surprised to be sent into action but determined to do his duty. (For latter-day audiences the scenes on the bomber are further distinguished by the fact that Kong’s crew includes the future voices of Scott Tracy of International Rescue and a Dark Lord of the Sith.) The bomber sets course for its target, with all appropriate counter-measures activated.

Needless to say, this is all the cause of some consternation in the Pentagon’s war room, where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) struggles to make sense of what is going on, trying to keep the Soviets from doing something intemperate in response, and attempting to keep his more excitably belligerent generals under control. As Ripper has predicted, the hawkish faction led by General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) has worked out that the only way to avoid the devastation of America by a Soviet counter-attack is to support Ripper’s planes with a full-scale offensive.

Muffley isn’t having any of that, and attempts to keep things reasonable, while sending troops into Burpelson to capture Ripper and extract the code signal required to recall the B-52s. But matters are complicated by the revelation by the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull) that the Russians have recently completed a ‘doomsday machine’ intended to obliterate all life on the surface of Earth should their country come under nuclear attack. Looking on the bright side throughout all of this is the President’s science advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers yet again), who has his own ideas about how people might spend their time in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust…

We throw the word genius around with great abandon these days, but there is certainly a case to be made that Dr Strangelove is a demonstration of what can happen when two mighty talents collaborate in near-perfect harmony. Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies, obviously, but as such it is fuelled by the contrast between the absurdity of its characters and the deadpan, near-documentary naturalism of the situations which it depicts. Much is always written about truly great movies such as this; it is quite well-known that Kubrick set out to make a ‘straight’ drama based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, but found the scenario lent itself all too easily to dark comedy. (A sense of what the ‘straight’ version of Strangelove might have been like can be gained from the movie Fail-Safe, which tells a very similar story without humour, and came out a few months after Kubrick’s film – partly because Kubrick hit the rival production with an injunction in order to ensure his movie came out first.) I suppose we must be grateful to Columbia Pictures for taking a risk on what must have seemed like a very questionable proposition – the American President, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and the presence in the US administration of former Nazis were not commonly the stuff of satire in the early 1960s.

Then again, it was apparently Columbia who specified that Kubrick cast Sellers in the movie, and in multiple roles, too. Reports suggest that Sellers was originally intended to play Kong as well, and possibly Turgidson too: whatever you think of this idea (and personally I find it hard to imagine anyone other than Pickens and Scott in those roles), we are certainly left with three brilliant comic creations – Mandrake, the out-of-his-depth RAF officer still talking about ‘prangs’ and fondly recalling his Spitfire; Muffley, the beautifully underplayed politician; and Strangelove himself – initially very much a background figure, until he develops into an extraordinary grotesque in the final moments of the film – other cast members can be seen visibly trying to suppress their own laughter as the doctor contends with his own body’s rebellious, fascist inclinations.

Sellers is assisted by a superb, brilliantly quotable script, stuffed with great lines – ‘You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’, ‘You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company’, ‘A feller could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,’ ‘One of our base commanders… he went and did a silly thing,’ and so on. Then there are the visual gags – American soldiers slaughtering each other in front of a sign saying PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION, and the surreal image of Kong, whooping and hollering as tumbles to his fate, nuclear warhead gripped between his thighs.

It’s one more piece of phallic symbolism in a film which functions, in a rather odd way, if not quite as a sex comedy then certainly a film about libidos running amok. It opens, after all, with a rather suggestive scene of planes refuelling in flight, set to the strains of ‘Try a little tenderness,’ General Ripper is obsessed with the purity of his bodily fluids (it is fairly clear which in particular concerns him), and even the Russians are impressed by Strangelove’s plan to survive the aftermath of armageddon through the creation of, basically, subterranean sex farms (‘You have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor’). There is, of course, only one woman in the cast, Turgidson’s secretary and mistress, played by Tracy Reed. Most of the rest of it is populated by unhinged alpha males.

‘I couldn’t help thinking about Donald Trump,’ said the woman next to me as Dr Strangelove concluded its latest revival screening (part of a run of most of Kubrick’s work from the 60s and 70s). I could really see her point. We are, as I type, hours away from a summit about the control of nuclear weapons, taking place between two men who at times seem more grotesque than any of the comic monsters in Kubrick’s film. And yet here we are again, over fifty years later, still miraculously un-nuked but with that possibility still very much on the table.¬†almost feels like a timely movie again; I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that it is also such a timeless classic.

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