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.

Marlowe at the Movies Pt 3: THE LONG GOODBYE (United Artists 1973)

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Elliott Gould was a hot Hollywood commodity in the early 1970’s. The former Mr. Barbra Streisand broke through in the 1969 sex farce BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, earning an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. He was marketed as a counter-culture rebel, quickly appearing in MOVE, GETTING STRAIGHT, LITTLE MURDERS, and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. But his flame dimmed just as fast, and his erratic onset behavior and rumored drug abuse caused him to become unemployable. When Altman decided to make the neo-noir THE LONG GOODBYE, he insisted on casting Gould as Philip Marlowe. The film put Gould back on the map, and though critics of the era weren’t crazy about it, THE LONG GOODBYE stands up well as an artifact of its era and a loving homage to Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero.

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Philip Marlowe is clearly an anachronism is 70’s LA, with his ever-present cigarette, cheap suit, beat-up ’48 Lincoln, and love for old jazz tunes. He’s a loner with only a cantankerous cat for company. Friend Terry Lennox pays him a visit, asking Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana after a fight with his wife. Marlowe accommodates his buddy, and is greeted upon his return by the cops, who tell him Lennox brutally beat his wife to death. Marlowe’s arrested when he refuses to cooperate, and sits in jail for three days. The cops let him go when it’s discovered Lennox committed suicide in Mexico. Marlowe doesn’t believe the murder rap against his buddy, and smells a rat, but the cops close their case.

1973, THE LONG GOODBYE

The private eye is summoned to ritzy Malibu Colony, coincidently where Lennox lived, by beautiful Eileen Wade. She hires Marlowe to find her husband Roger, a successful author with a heavy drinking problem. He tracks Wade to a rehab facility run by Dr. Verringer, a quirky little quack who only accepts the very rich. Marlowe brings the errant husband home, and when he’s finished the job, he runs into trouble in the form of Marty Augustine, a psycho gangster who claims Lennox robbed him of $350k, and demands Marlowe get the money back.

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Chandler’s dense plot gets the Altman treatment, with the director’s trademark overlapping dialogue and long-range tracking shots mixing well with the story. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett was familiar with the turf, having wrote THE BIG SLEEP with Bogie and Bacall twenty-seven years earlier. Ms. Brackett was a prolific science fiction author, but comfortable in the crime genre, too. She also contributed to the screenplays for RIO BRAVO and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (or whatever they call it these days). The late Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography gives us a sunny, pastel-hued California in stark contrast to the shady goings-on.

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The cast is eclectic, to say the least. Roger Wade is played by Sterling Hayden, a long way from his days as a Hollywood leading man. He’s bearded and bat-shit crazy as the dissipated Wade. Maybe he wasn’t acting at all, as it’s been rumored Hayden was drinking and smoking weed throughout the film’s shoot. Nina Van Pallandt (Eileen) was better known as the mistress of Clifford Irving, who perpetrated a literary hoax when he published a book claiming to be the autobiography of billionaire (and former owner of noir factory RKO) Howard Hughes. Mark Rydell (Augustine) was the director of films like THE REIVERS, THE COWBOYS, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, and ON GOLDEN POND. Jim Bouton (Lennox) was a former pitcher for the New York Yankees who made a splash with a tell-all book of his own, BALL FOUR. Henry Gibson (Verringer) was a comedian from TV’s ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN, who became an Altman regular. Others include Warren Berlinger, Rutanya Alda, Jack Riley, David Carradine (in an amusing cameo), and future action star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (in a small role as a hood).

Hey, Arnold!
Hey, Arnold!

Gould worked again with Altman in CALIFORNIA SPLIT and NASHVILLE. Though he never reclaimed the lofty heights of his early 70’s success, he managed to reintroduce himself to audiences as Ross and Monica’s dad on the sitcom FRIENDS, and later in the OCEAN’S 11 remake and it’s sequels. His Marlowe’s a far cry from Humphrey Bogart, but THE LONG GOODBYE isn’t exactly your traditional film noir. Taking the character and updating him to self-centered 70’s LA may have seemed like blasphemy to Chandlerphiles at the time, but that’s precisely the point. The times they had a-changed, and it’s a much sadder place today without men like Philip Marlowe in it.

Reinventing Dickens: CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS (Telsun Foundation 1964)

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You’d think with a cast featuring Sterling Hayden, Ben Gazzara, Peter Sellers, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Shaw, and other notables, a script by Rod Serling, score by Henry Mancini, and direction from Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz that CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS was a long-lost big screen spectacular, right? Wrong. It’s actually a made-for-TV movie produced by the Telsun Foundation, Telsun being Television Series for the United Nations. That’s right, the UN (funded in part by the Xerox Corporation) once produced a series of television specials with big name artists in an attempt to promote brotherhood and world peace (or to create a New World Order, depending on which way you lean in the political spectrum).

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The first entry was a take on Charles Dickens’ classic A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Sterling Hayden starred as Daniel Grudge, filling in for Scrooge. Grudge is a wealthy industrialist whose son was killed in World War II , and who is now a staunch isolationist that believes might makes right, namely by having a strong national defense. His nephew Fred (Ben Gazzara) is on the opposite side of the issue, believing that open communication and negotiations will be of greater benefit. They argue their views on Christmas Eve before Grudge throws Fred out, at which point the image of Grudge’s son Marley appears, along with the playing of The Andrews Sisters’ “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”.

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It’s then that we hit the familiar Dickens territory with Grudge visited by the three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past (singer Steve Lawrence in a solid dramatic turn) welcomes Grudge aboard a cargo ship filled with coffins of war dead from throughout the 20th Century. He escorts Grudge through a doorway back to Hiroshima, where then-Colonel Grudge and his assistant (Eva Marie Saint) tour the aftermath of nuclear destruction, visiting a Red Cross unit full of horribly burned children. This sequence is the film’s best, and could easily have fit as an episode of Serling’s brilliant THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

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Next up is the Ghost of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle), who sits before an overflowing banquet table while thousands of starving displaced persons watch from behind a barbed wire fence. Grudge is forced to see the “needy and oppressed” he derided so much up close and personal, knowing he’s done nothing to help alleviate their struggles while he lives a life of luxury.

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Finally the Ghost of Christmas Future (Robert Shaw) takes Grudge to a post-nuclear apocalypse world where everyone is out for themselves. Peter Sellers (Hayden’s costar in DR. STRANGELOVE) pops up as Imperial Me, leading a band of anarchic survivors, whipping them into a frenzy with his rhetoric about killing those who’re not part of their group and the power of the individual. Sellers is good as always, giving the demagog a lunatic quality we find in many of today’s more odious politicians. Calling Donald Trump!

Grudge finally wakes up on Christmas Day, and reconciles with nephew Fred. He’s a bit more willing to admit now that maybe this international cooperation thing isn’t so bad after all. The tightly wound Hayden is perfect for the role of uptight Mr. Grudge, and the rest of the cast do yeoman’s work in support. Percy Rodriguez, James Shigeta, and Britt Eklund also appear, with Rodriguez as Grudge’s butler a particular standout. Rod Serling’s script is clever though somewhat preachy in parts but hey, it’s Rod Serling. He’s always been a “message” writer, and the teleplay has that TWILIGHT ZONE-ish quality we all know and love. Mankiewicz , one of Hollywood’s best, could direct an elementary school Christmas pageant and make it interesting. He’s aided by some fine cinematography from Arthur J. Ornitz, who’s also responsible for lensing another Serling drama, 1962’s REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT.

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Telsun produced three more of these TV movies, WHO HAS SEEN THE WIND?, ONCE UPON A TRACTOR, and THE POPPY IS ALSO A FLOWER, before folding up shop. POPPY is the only one to receive a theatrical release, and the only one available on DVD, while the other two have faded into obscurity. Telsun was an interesting and well-meaning if unsuccessful experiment at promoting the UN agenda, and we’ll never see anything quite like it again. CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS has popped up on TCM during the holiday season, and though it’s message is somewhat didactic, it deserves to have a wider audience if only because of the people in front of and behind the cameras. Maybe some enterprising releasing company will pick it up someday. After all, look what Grindhouse Releasing has done for MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE. Are you listening, all you entrepreneurs out there?

Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra: SUDDENLY (United Artists 1954)

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board certainly had a long and varied career, beginning as a bobby-sox teen idol in the Big Band Era, then a movie star at glamorous MGM.  Hitting a slump in the early 50s, Sinatra came back strong with his Academy Award winning role as Maggio in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. His follow up film was the unheralded but effective noir thriller SUDDENLY.

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The title refers to the sleepy little California town where the film takes place. Suddenly was once a wild and wooly Gold Rush settlement, now just a peaceful suburb. Sheriff Todd Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is a stand-up guy, in love with local girl Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), a war widow with a son, Pidge (Kim Charney). Ellen’s not ready to stop grieving her husband’s death, and to further matters she abhors guns. Her father-in-law Pop (James Gleason), a retired Secret Service agent, gets exasperated at the way Ellen overprotects Pidge and keeps turning Todd away.

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Todd receives some major news through the wires: The President of the United States will be arriving by train at 5:00pm for a stopover. The news is top secret, and Secret Service agents, led by Carney (Willis Bouchey), descend on Suddenly to secure the area. State police are summoned, streets blocked off, and shops are closed so the disembarkment will go off without a hitch. Three men arrive at the Benson home, which sits on a hill overlooking the train depot. John Baron (Sinatra) and two others (Paul Frees, Christopher Dark) claim to be FBI agents sent to protect the president. They set up shop at the Benson house, but Pop has some suspicions about the whole thing.

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Everything’s been secured except the house on the hill. When Carney finds out his old boss Pop Benson lives there, he goes up with Todd to say hello. They’re met at the door by Baron and his men, who gun down Carney and wound Todd. The truth is now revealed: Baron is a hit man assigned to assassinate the president! Todd and the Bensons are held captive while they wait for the train to arrive so ex-Army sniper and Silver Star winner Baron can do the dirty deed. Baron exerts his will over them all by threatening to kill Pidge first if anyone tries to stop him from his murderous task.

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The tension is unrelenting in SUDDENLY, and the ingenious ending will have you cheering the good guys on (I know I did). The role of John Baron is a total departure for Sinatra, and he pulls it off superbly. Baron is cool, calm, and collected one minute, a raging psycho the next. He’s completely lacking in empathy, his motto is “ace, deuce, craps, it don’t matter”. The only thing Baron’s ever been good at is killing, and he enjoys the power it gives him. A sociopath with no redeeming qualities, Baron brags about his kill rate in the war, and doesn’t hesitate to use violence to get his way. Sinatra nails the role of Baron like he did his many songs, and though he’s a real rat, it’s among his finest performances.

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Director Lewis Allen does a good job here. Allen made his feature debut with 1944’s ghostly THE UNINVITED, followed by a semi-sequel, THE UNSEEN. After making the 1951 bomb of a biopic VALENTINO, his career was up and down. SUDDENLY gives Allen a good showcase, but the rest of his filmography is uninspired. He ended in TV, including episodes of MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE and THE INVADERS. Screenwriter Richard Sale got his start in the pulps, and wrote such varied film fare as MR. BELVEDERE GOES TO COLLEGE, GENTLEMEN MARRY BRUNETTES (which he also directed), and the Charles Bronson starrer THE WHITE BUFFALO. His screenplay for SUDDENLY seems to have inspired another Sinatra film, 1962’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, with Frank as the hero and Lawrence Harvey the psycho-shooter. SUDDENLY was allegedly remade in 2013 by Uwe Boll. I’ve never seen any of Boll’s films and from what I understand, I’m not missing anything. I’ll stick to the original with this one.

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Frank Sinatra was always a saloon singer at heart, and my contribution to his 100th birthday bash wouldn’t be complete without a song. Here’s Ol’ Blue Eyes at his mid-60s peak doing one of my personal favorites. “That’s Life”. Cheers, Frankie!