Starring: Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Critics sometimes use the lean, mean, efficient films of Stanley Kubrick’s early career as a stick to beat the later, ultra perfectionist Kubrick with. But truth be told, this 1956 caper movie – very much in the mould of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and with the same star, the tree trunk-like Sterling Hayden – isn’t quite as satisfyingly weighty as his mature works. This is largely because Jim Thompson’s hardboiled dialogue is none too subtle, and the characterisation relies too heavily on noir clichés – the henpecked husband, the guy trying to take care of his sick wife, the old pro gambling everything on one last throw of the dice.
Nonetheless, Kubrick’s cold, beady eye for the failings of humanity is already firmly in place, as is his almost surgical skill with cross-cutting – note the ease with which he shuffles his story back and forth in time as he follows the build-up to the racetrack robbery which is the centrepiece of the movie. It’s all shot in angular, high-key b/w by Lucien Ballard, and it comes with a delectably doomy voiceover (“Nikki was dead at 4:24”). And on top of that, there’s Hayden, who brings a wounded gravitas to his role as the gang’s ringleader, like a giant redwood rotting from the inside.
The transfer is slightly soft and quite grainy throughout, but apart from one moment of print damage is very clean, without dirt or scratches.
This release from Arrow also comes with Killer’s Kiss. Clearly inspired by his earlier documentary short Day of the Fight, it’s a piece about the travails of a boxer and a dance hall girl set against a seedy New York milieu. Shot just a year before The Killing, it’s far rougher around the edges, but it boasts some striking nighttime location camerawork, and Kubrick’s dim view of human nature is already much in evidence.
Again, the transfer has a fair bit of grain, but there’s plenty of contrast and some lovely detail in Kubrick’s sometimes very ambitious deep focus compositions.
Extras include an intro by Ben Wheatley and a nice 25 min talking head piece by critic Michel Ciment about Kubrick’s progress in the ’50s from photographer to documentary maker to tyro feature film director. Best of all, though, is an extremely eccentric 15 min interview with Sterling Hayden, recorded for French TV in 1970. This finds the actor on a barge on the Seine, bare chested and shaggy-bearded like an old sea dog out of a Joseph Conrad novel. Polishing his sea brasses, he growls out answers about his time in Hollywood in a mix of English and French. “If you do not try, you cannot fail. So I didn’t try.” It’s 15 minutes of heaven for Hayden fans.