And 10 Things Learned From The Criterion Collection’s Release Of The Classic Film Noir
Last week, the Criterion Collection released, “The Killing,” Stanley Kubrick‘s ambitious 1956 classic film noir. While it was technically his third feature-length effort (“Fear and Desire” he disavowed as an amateur work and “Killer’s Kiss” was so low-budget it was shot without sound and the actors dubbed in their lines later), “The Killing” was arguably Kubrick’s first real picture with a budget and real cast. Produced by James B. Harris (he would also produce “Paths of Glory” and “Lolita“), “The Killing” was written by Kubrick and pulp crime author Jim Thompson (“The Killer Inside Me“) and based on the novel “Clean Break” by American crime novelist Lionel White (“Obsession” was also adapted by Jean-Luc Godard as the basis for 1965’s, “Pierrot le fou“).
Released by United Artists on May 20, 1956, the 83-minute picture stars Sterling Hayden (“Dr. Strangelove,” “Johnny Guitar,” “The Asphalt Jungle“), Coleen Gray (“Red River”), and a host of wonderful character actors like Elisha Cook Jr., Timothy Carey (“Paths of Glory,” Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie“), Jay Adler, Ted de Corsia, Marie Windsor, Jay C. Flippen, Joe Turkel (“The Shining,” “Blade Runner”) and Vince Edwards (with Rodney Dangerfield appearing for a split second as an extra). The story follows a veteran criminal and the crooks he recruits while planning one last heist, a daring racetrack robbery, before settling down and marrying his girl. The complex structure of “The Killing” — the robbery is dissected and we see bits of it unfold five different times — is said to be a big influence on Quentin Tarantino and the fragmented narratives of “Resevoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” While the picture did not do good business during its release, it did receive strong reviews and Time Magazine in particular said Kubrick, “has shown more audacity with dialogue and camera than Hollywood has seen since the obstreperous Orson Welles went riding out of town on an exhibitors’ poll.” Peter Bogdanovich, writing for The New York Times at the time said, while the movie didn’t make money, it “did make Kurbick’s reputation as a budding genius among critics and studio executives.”
As per usual, the Criterion disc is rich with extras including a video interview with producer James B. Harris, an excerpted (and extremely candid) interview with Sterling Hayden from the French television series “Cinéma cinémas,” and an interview with Robert Polito, author of “Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson.” Here’s ten things we learned about the making of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing,” plus a few other nuggets from the life and career of the completely blunt and self-aware Sterling Hayden.
1. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard did not get along with Kubrick during the making of “The Killing.”
A veteran of the industry, Ballard had already worked on over 50 pictures, including works by Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher, Otto Preminger, Josef von Sternberg, Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway before working with Kubrick, and didn’t appreciate the young director’s (he was 28-years-old at the time) strong and forceful opinions of how he wanted the picture shot.
“There was a lot of resentment, particularly with the camera men,” producer Jared B. Harris said on the DVD interview extras. “Stanley had great admiration for Lucien, but he was also very specific about what he wanted and Lucien wasn’t used to that. He was a well-established DP, he was married to a movie star [Merle Oberon], he dressed impeccably, came on the set as a typical Hollywood character.”
Their disparate personalities and personas never gelled. “Stanley on the other hand was from New York, more bohemian, from the village-like presentation and was…I wouldn’t say know-it-all, but he knew what he wanted,” Harris said. “He did not get along with Lucien because of that. I’ve never experienced a film again where the director of photography never came to watch the dailies. Lucien never came because he was disgusted with really having to follow orders from Stanley, he wanted this kind of lighting, [Kubrick would] be like, ‘Put the key light here and the camera here,’ so that was unusual.”
2. Jim Thompson felt cheated & was livid over the final screenplay credits he received.
Although Thompson allegedly wrote most of the script, Kubrick credited the screenplay to himself, while Thompson was given a vague, “additional dialogue” credit. According to Robert Polito, the aforementioned author of “Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson,” Thompson was furious when he saw the final credits in an early screening in New York. The way the Thompson family told it to Polito, the author, “virtually had to be restrained in his seat from exploding.” He and his family viewed the move as a “slap in the face” and at the very least a huge “misrepresentation of what Thompson had contributed to the film,” Polito said. He called it an “extraordinarily sly and devious” move on Kubrick’s part, “because most of the structure and plot comes from the novel. It has a passive aggressive precision about it that actually rivals a lot of parts in Kubrick’s films.”
This betrayal apparently consumed Thompson’s life, but the fascinating part is that the relationship survived as Thompson wrote the early draft of “Paths Of Glory” and drafted a novella screen treatment called “Lunatic at Large” for Kubrick (which may go into production soon). He was also called back years later to help out on an unrealized project called, “I Stole 16 Million Dollars.” The writer and director were bound at the hip for four years, but Polito believes part of the reason was financial for Thompson who was “at sea” when he and Kubrick met, as his publisher was going under.
3. Frank Sinatra originally wanted to make “Clean Break” into a film.
According to “The Killing” producer James B. Harris, Frank Sinatra was interested, but was dragging his heels. He spoke to the company who owned the rights and they said they had not heard from Sinatra’s people for some time. So Harris and Kubrick scooped the rights for $10,000 via telegraph. UA at the time was only half-heartedly interested. Harris originally brought the book to Kubrick, and it was Kubrick who suggested Jim Thompson to write the screenplay as he was a great admirer of “The Killer Inside Me.” Indeed, most copies of the book still feature this Kubrick quote, “Probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.”
4. United Artists had a lot of control over the picture, but were always only semi-interested.
The film’s original title was “Day Of Violence,” but UA changed it to “The Killing.” The studio originally wanted Victor Mature for the lead part that Sterling Hayden eventually took. They would only commit $200,000 and when the film was budgeted for $330,000, UA told Harris and Kubrick that they could invest their own money, but they shouldn’t bother because they would have to see all their financial returns first. The producer and director realized in order to make a successful film that won’t hurt their careers, they would have to make the film for the full $330,000, so Harris put in 80k of his own and borrowed another $50,000 from his father.
5. Kubrick and Harris lost their nerve momentarily when test screenings of the film were negative.
Audiences didn’t know what to make of the “Rashomon“-like structure where the narrative was fragmented and the robbery was told five different times from different perspectives. After the screening in California, Sterling Hayden’s agent went up to Harris and Kubrick and said, ‘Well you really ruined it for my client.” Dejected, the two of them returned to New York and tried to deconstruct the film into a more traditional and linear narrative. “We felt the the structure of ‘Clean Break’ that Lionel White had created was the key element of the story, it interested us the most,” Harris said of what drew them to the picture in the first place. “We were so disappointed [by the test screening reaction],” he said. When they tried to simplify the film in the editing room, “We got about halfway through and [Stanley and I] looked at each other and said, ‘Are we crazy?’,” he recalled. “The whole idea of why we bought the book, why we made the movie, what intrigued us about this crime story was the unique way of telling the story. And we put it back the way it was and said, ‘This is it, live or die, we love it, let’s deliver it like this to UA and see what happens.’ “
6. “The Killing” was thrown into theaters last minute and didn’t receive the slow, roll-out release it needed.
The film did poor at the box-office and was only released, after sitting on the shelf for months, when another UA film unexpectedly tanked. The rushed release didn’t work with audiences and it played for a few short weeks and then was pulled, even though it was well received by critics. “It opened and closed so fast it created a suction,” Harris lamented. “They had to put speed bumps in the aisles to prevent people from walking out too fast, but it got terrific reviews.”
The French television “Cinéma Cinémas” interview with Sterling Hayden is fascinating because the conversation ran on TV in 1986, the same year the 70-year-old actor died and the interview was presumably conducted not that long before his death. The actor is extremely self-effacing about his work, candid about his non-acting skills (he was hired as a pretty face by the studios when discovered working on a fishing boat), and contrite and morose about his cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy-era, confessing his brief Communist ties and the naming of names. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done in my life that I am genuinely ashamed of. It still haunts me because I was a rat,” he said in these French TV interviews. “I betrayed friends, I gave names to the committee in Washington. I was on the witness stand and then a friend who was making educational films in L.A. was fired the next morning. How do you live with that?”
7. Everything came to a halt when he first saw Marilyn Monroe on the set of John Huston’s “Asphalt Jungle.”
“I remember the day she first came on set,” he said of her appearance in the 1950 film, considered to be many one of her first major film appearances, even though her role is small. “She stopped business. Everything stopped.”
8. While the French adore Nicholas Ray and “Johnny Guitar,” Hayden didn’t care for it much because he was very much out of his element.
“I know that’s a popular picture in France, [but] I wasn’t too happy because I was in the daytime with Joan Crawford and at night time with my second wife,” he said. “And no, I did not like that picture. I didn’t know enough about the business to appreciate who Nic Ray was, you know? Half the time I did a picture I didn’t know what the story was. Look, I couldn’t play the guitar. They had strings like you tie up a grocery bag with, in case I hit the string by accident it wouldn’t make a noise. I couldn’t sing worth a goddamn, and I really can’t ride horses and I’m not a gun fighter, well you ask yourself, how do you feel?”
9. Hayden didn’t care for working with Joan Crawford on the set of Nicholas Ray’s technicolor Western
“She was just unhappy with everyone,” Hayden said candidly though occasionally biting his tongue when he wanted to say more. “She was unhappy with the…. well, she’s dead now so maybe I shouldn’t say anything, but since you asked me, she was difficult. When a woman has that reputation, she was temperamental.” Crawford’s little boy visited the set in Arizona coming from Beverly Hills in a limo, arriving in a little suit and necktie. “And here he is around 180 people making a bloody film and she’s correcting his manners as he sat there and I remember saying, ‘Leave him alone,'” he said. “Nick said once maybe she was a little unhappy because she… well, I won’t say that. I remember she tore a phone out one night talking to her agent, and she ripped it right out of the phone booth.” The actor then recounted a story about how he saw her change her clothes and pants in the middle of the set for efficiency sake. As she undressed, he looked away and then he looked up at the electricians, and they were looking away too, and he thought of the woman’s power, “Holy shit.”
10. Hayden had a horrible experience on the first day of filming ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ but he recovered thanks to Stanley Kubrick.
“I went through the worst day of my life on that picture,” he said, explaining how he began to blow his lines and that spiraled out of control into 48 blown takes. “Sure, I’ve had trouble [with lines] before, but now we’re getting up into 20 takes and we’re doing pick-ups and I can’t even do one damn line. I’m pouring sweat, and they’re mopping me up.” An unbowed Kubrick gave the actor some words of reassurance that he never forgot, something he called, a “beautiful” thing. “He said one of the loveliest things any man has said to me, ‘Sterling, I know you can’t help what’s going on and you know I can’t help you, but the terror in your eyes, on your face may just be the quality that we want in this jackass General Jack Ripper. If It’s not, come back in a couple of months and we’ll do it all over again’ .”
“I’ll never forget that,” Hayden said emphatically.
“The Killing is out on DVD and Blu-Ray now.