Crime Does Not Pay: Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (United Artists 1956)

Before Stanley Kubrick became Stanley Kubrick, he made a pair of low-budget crime dramas in the mid-50’s that are standouts in the film noir canon. The second of these, THE KILLING, is a perfect movie in every way imaginable, showing flashes of the director’s genius behind the camera, featuring just about the toughest cast you’re likely to find in a film noir, and the toughest dialog as well, courtesy of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson.

THE KILLING is done semi-documentary style (with narration by Art Gilmore), and follows the planning, execution, and aftermath of a two million dollar racetrack heist. Sterling Hayden plays the mastermind behind the bold robbery, a career criminal looking for one last score. He’s aided and abetted by a moneyman (Jay C. Flippen ), a track bartender (Joe Sawyer ), a teller (Elisha Cook Jr. ), and a crooked cop (Ted de Corsia ). He also hires a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey ) and a chess playing wrestler (Kola Kwariani) to create diversions in order to insure the heist’s success.

And indeed the robbery does go off without a hitch… but there’s a proverbial fly in the ointment. Seems timid Cook has a bitchy wife (Marie Windsor ) who constantly berates him for being such a loser, so he spills the beans to her about his upcoming good fortune. She in turn gives the info to her young stud lover (Vince Edwards ), who gets ideas of his own. I won’t say anymore for those of you who haven’t seen this marvelously malevolent movie, among the finest films noir you’ll ever see, with an unforgettable final line delivered to perfection by Hayden.

Kubrick’s photographic eye captures every detail, from the mundane day-to-day lives of these people to the audacity of the crime itself. He sometimes repeats scenes to show them from different character perspectives, giving them added depth. Kubrick began as a photographer for LOOK Magazine, and then got into films directing several documentary shorts. He wanted to be his own cinematographer for this film, but the union wouldn’t have it, and the veteran Lucian Ballard was hired, but make no mistake, every shot in THE KILLING is pure, unadulterated Kubrick!

The cast is perfect, but Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor absolutely steal the show as the weak, mousey husband and his unfaithful wife. Cook, unquestionably the Crown Prince of Film Noir, adds to his Rogue’s Gallery of weaselly types as a schlemiel who only wants to please his rotten wife. And Windsor is rotten indeed, the ultimate Queen of Mean, a beautiful package on the outside that masks an ugly black soul. Their scenes together are sheer dynamite, and Kubrick allows both actors to shine.

The oddball Timothy Carey gives yet another oddball performance here, but it’s brief and it works. Kubrick’s chess playing friend from New York Kola Kwarianai, a real-life professional wrestler and promoter, plays the goon hired to create a distraction. Under Kubrick’s watchful eye, Kwarianai does well with his dialog, and excels in the wrestling-inspired scene at the track. There’s so much going on in THE KILLING at all times (something that definitely caught my eye: a poster for a Burlesque show MC’d by Lenny Bruce) it takes more than one viewing to take it all in. And I’m OK with that; THE KILLING is worth watching over and over again.

Dear Old Alma Mater: John Wayne in TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY (Warner Brothers 1953)

Tomorrow’s the big night, as my New England Patriots go up against the tough defense of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Tom Brady and company will be going for Ring #6, and everyone here in Southern New England is super excited, looking forward to another victory celebration! I’ll be attending a huge party with plenty of food, big screen TV’s, raffles, squares, and like-minded fans, but before the festivities begin, let’s take a look at TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY, a football-themed film starring none other than Big John Wayne !

St. Anthony’s College is a struggling Catholic university run by sweet old Father Burke, who’s getting to be as decrepit as the school itself. The powers-that-be want to close his beloved St. Anthony’s, seeing how the school’s $170,000 in debt, but old Father Burke comes up with an idea. Citing Deuteronomy 32:15 (“The beloved grew fat and kicked”), the padre decides what St. Anthony’s needs is a winning football program, and sets about to hire a new coach.

This leads him to a pool hall, where he finds Steve Williams, a hard-drinking ex-coach, part-time bookie and ladies man banned from the sport for recruitment violations. Steve’s down on his luck, and his cheating ex-wife Ann is trying to gain custody of their daughter Carole out of pure spite. Pretty but no-nonsense child welfare officer Alice Singleton is sent to Steve’s humble hovel to investigate, and the free-spirited Steve finds himself at odds with the all-business Miss Singleton.

So Steve, needing to show gainful employment, takes Father Burke up on his offer, and he and Carole move into a room under the school’s bell tower. The elderly Burke pulls some strings with his old student, now Cardinal O’Hara, and gets St. Anthony’s scheduled against powerhouses Santa Carla, Holy Cross, Villanova, and Notre Dame. Realizing what a sorry excuse for a team he’s inherited (“You couldn’t beat Vassar at tiddlywinks!”), Steve is up to his old tricks, bringing in a bunch of ringers and wheeling and dealing his way to free equipment and a spot playing at the Polo Grounds. But resentful Ann is determined to take Steve down at any cost…

TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY is a gentle, sentimental tale with Wayne likeable as the not-so-honest but well-meaning coach. Duke knew a thing or two about football, having played for USC, and makes Steve a totally believable character. He’s a loving father to Sherry Jackson’s Carole, and the two have an undeniable chemistry (Wayne always seems to work well with kids). Jackson went on to costar in the Danny Thomas sitcom MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, and a bunch of episodic TV and low-budget films (WILD ON THE BEACH, THE MIN-SKIRT MOB, THE MONITORS) followed.

Veteran Charles Coburn plays the warm Father Burke in his own inimitable style. Donna Reed is welfare officer Alice, and you know she’s gonna end up with Duke by film’s end. Noir dame Marie Windsor is the spiteful Ann, and the rest of the cast includes a young, crew-cutted Chuck Connors as one of Steve’s assistant coaches, Frank Ferguson, Dabbs Greer , Ned Glass, Lester Matthews , Olan Soule, and Tom Tully. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep a sharp eye out for James Dean as a spectator during the big game.

Michael Curtiz  directed from a script by Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose, with music by Max Steiner . The football scenes are well-staged, and everyone gives 110%, but despite the talents in front and behind the camera, TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY is a minor film that’s enjoyable but harmless. Those who like football and/or John Wayne will like this agreeable little entry. In fact, I know two critics who give the movie two big Thumbs Up, and they’re not Siskel & Ebert:

All together now: LET’S GO PATRIOTS!!

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 11: Five from the Fifties

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The 1950’s were a time of change in movies. Television was providing stiff competition, and studios were willing to do anything to fend it off. The bigger budgeted movies tried 3D, Cinerama, wide-screen, and other optical tricks, while smaller films chose to cover unusual subject matter. The following five films represent a cross-section of nifty 50’s cinema:

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BORDERLINE (Universal-International 1950; D: William A. Seiter)

BORDERLINE is a strange film, straddling the borderline (sorry) between romantic comedy and crime drama, resulting in a rather mediocre movie. Claire Trevor plays an LAPD cop assigned to Customs who’s sent to Mexico to get the goods on drug smuggler Pete Ritchey (Raymond Burr , being his usual malevolent self). She’s tripped up by Ritchey’s rival Johnny Macklin (Fred MacMurray , channeling his inner Walter Neff), and taken along as he tries to get the dope over the border. What she doesn’t know is he’s also an agent, and thinks she’s a smuggler! The movie usually gets shoehorned into the noir category, but besides the drug smuggling angle, it’s just an average ‘B’ flick. Fun Fact: Claire’s husband Milton Bren was the film’s producer.

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THE NARROW MARGIN (RKO 1952; D: Richard Fleischer)

Highly influential ‘B’ noir about a tough cop escorting a mobster’s widow from Chicago to Los Angeles via train to testify on corruption, with hired killers onboard out to stop her by any means possible. Gruff-voiced Charles McGraw and sexpot Marie Windsor deliver Earl Fenton’s hard-boiled dialog with gusto; the film was Oscar-nominated for Best Story, but lost to THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (they were robbed!). Director Richard Fleischer and DP George Diskant create a textbook example on how to make a tense, exciting movie for under $250,000, with a big plot twist I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t seen this gem. The ambient sounds of the train travelling take the place of the usual music score, making the violence even more ultra-realistic. A must-see! Fun Fact: Marie Windsor was once a gag writer for Jack Benny. When the comedian finally met her in the flesh, he was stunned by her good looks and helped her secure a Hollywood contract.

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THE BIGAMIST (The Filmakers 1953; D: Ida Lupino)

San Francisco couple Edmond O’Brien and Joan Fontaine want to adopt a child, but when the child welfare investigator (Edmund Gwenn) looks into the case, he discovers O’Brien has another wife (Ida Lupino) in LA. O’Brien gives a sympathetic performance as the man leading a double life, and Lupino handles the sensational material with depth and sincerity. Watch for the scene where O’Brien meets Lupino on a Hollywood tour bus for glimpses of the homes of stars Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Jack Benny, and Gwenn himself! A quiet but powerful film that’s worth your time. Fun Fact: Producer/screenwriter Collier Young was married to Fontaine at the time; before that, he had been the husband of director/star Lupino! Ah, Hollywood!

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THE WILD ONE (Columbia 1953; D: Laszlo Benedict)

The granddaddy of all biker flicks! Marlon Brando is leather clad Johnny, leader of the Black Rebels MC, who terrorize a small California town. Brando’s existential, iconic performance dominates the film, but Mary Murphy is equally good as Kathie, the girl who falls for him. Lee Marvin also deserves a shout-out as Chino, leader of rival gang The Beetles. The scene where Murphy is chased down by the bikers, saved by Johnny, still retains its power. Jerry Paris, Alvy Moore , and that great oddball actor Timothy Carey are among the cyclists; Jay C. Flippen, Ray Teal, and Will Wright represent some of the “straight’ citizens. A bona fide cinema classic, not to be missed! Fun Fact: Brando’s Johnny was the basis for Harvey Lembeck’s goofball Eric Von Zipper character in all those “Beach Party ” movies.

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ROCK ROCK ROCK (DCA 1956; D: Will Price)

13 year old Tuesday Weld makes her film debut as a teenybopper trying to raise money to buy a strapless evening dress for the prom, but you can forget about the dumb plot and enjoy a veritable Rock’n’Roll/Doo Wop Hall of Fame lineup: LaVerne Baker, Chuck Berry (“You Can’t Catch Me”), Johnny Burnett Trio, The Flamingos, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers (“I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”), The Moonglows, Big Al Sears, and others, hosted by pioneering rock DJ Alan Freed. Tuesday’s vocals are dubbed by Connie Francis, and co-star Teddy Randazzo was a minor singing star who later wrote the hits “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “Hurts So Bad”. Lots of energetic teenage dancing; just sit back and have a foot-wiggling good time! Fun Fact: This was the first film for the production team Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, better known for their Amicus horror anthologies.

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