Stanley Kubrick, born July 26, 1928 in the Lying-In Hospital at 307 Second Avenue in Manhattan, directed 13 films over his career. He also began preproduction, to one extent or another, on a number of additional films, such as A.I. (passed on to Steven Spielberg) and the meticulously researched, but never produced, Napoleon, a.k.a. The Greatest Movie Never Made—one of the most heartbreaking what-ifs in cinephile history 1.
It’s hard to believe it has already been 20 years since Kubrick died of a heart attack on March 7, 1999, at the age of 70, just days after screening a final cut of Eyes Wide Shut for his family and the stars and a few months before the film’s US theatrical release on July 16, 1999. Looking back from 2019, it seems like a very long time ago indeed—I couldn’t even legally drink—that I watched the only film of his I would see originally released in the theater (and unfortunately his last).
Fortunately, his films live on and since I just picked up The Killing/Killer’s Kiss on Criterion Collection, as well as the recent 2001 release restored in collaboration with Leon Vitali, and since it’s Halloween season and I’m sure The Shining will be doing its yearly rounds on the theatrical circuit, it seems like an ideal time to revisit the maestro’s catalogue and jot down some notes while doing a chronological recap.
“I dunno. I’m not sure yet whether even we’ve come back. I think we’ve all traveled too far from our own private boundaries to be certain about these other things anymore.”
—Fear and Desire, 1953
Fear and Desire (1953, 68 mins)
“We spend our lives running our fingers down the lists in directories, looking for our real names, our permanent addresses. No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago, before the ice age. The glaciers have melted away and now we’re all islands, parts of a world made of islands only.”
Once almost impossible to find, called “a bumbling amateur film exercise” by Kubrick (who allegedly destroyed the film’s original negative and sought to do the same to any leftover prints), the film can now be seen since the copyright lapsed and the property entered the public domain. I caught it on Amazon Prime, but Kino Video also released a DVD and Blu-ray in 2012. It does seem worthwhile mostly for a look behind the curtain to see how the sausage—or auteur—is made and in that sense it’s an interesting enough watch.
Killer’s Kiss (1955, 67 mins)
“Well anyway, I guess the whole thing was pretty silly…know a girl for two days and fall in love.”
Predating Raging Bull by 25 years, and I believe the sole film in his oeuvre from an original story by Kubrick, Killer’s Kiss features not only some solid boxing scenes, but also great shots to geek out on if you want to see NYC in the fifties on film, including some nice night shots which predate Belmondo’s night-time travails on boulevard du Montparnasse in Godard’s Breathless by five years.
This late-era film noir, released the same year as similarly independently produced and ending-conflicted Kiss Me Deadly, features the traits of the genre: questionable characters, voice-over narration, long shadows, and doomed protagonists—or are they? 2—and holds its own in the noir canon, but additionally opens up the generally set-filmed genre to the streets with great shots of Times Square, Penn Station (demolished in 1963), and the Brooklyn waterfront. Not only can you see Kubrick’s eye for detail and experience as a photographer for Look in the details of 50s NYC visible in these quick shots—the subway, flashing neon signs, stroefronts, a hot dog vendor—but you can also catch a glimmer of later Kubrick works in the film; for example, the negatively exposed ride through NYC streets foreshadows 2001’s plunge through the stargate and the final showdown mirrors gladiators battling in Spartacus.
Released to mixed reviews, Kubrick did show the film to James B. Harris, who, impressed, if with nothing else, that Kubrick had actually completed the film 3, formed Harris-Kubrick Pictures in partnership and produced Kubrick’s next film, The Killing.
The Killing (1956, 84 mins)https://youtu.be/gAe1CJWH_B8 (trailer)
“I know you like a book. You’re a no-good nosey little tramp. You’d sell out your mother for a piece of fudge, but you’re smart. You know when to sell, when to sit tight. You know to sit tight now.”
“You heard me. You like money. You got a big dollar sign where most women have a heart.”
Following Killer’s Kiss, in The Killing we go from boxing to horse racing and from film noir to more of a heist/caper film with noir tropes, like the femme fatale played teriffically by Marie Windsor 4. The story unfolds nonsequentially, flashing back to Sterling Hayden’s character Johnny Clay catching up to the action, which is somewhat unusual for Kubrick whose films tend to unfold chronologically. The Sterling Hayden voiceover reminds me of another caper noir film starring the actor, John Huston’s The Alphalt Jungle, released six years prior in 1950 5.
The last feature film completely shot by Kubrick in the United States, it was filmed for approx. $320,000 in 24 days. The film performed poorly at the box office, but did garner critical acclaim and led to Dore Schary of MGM offering Harris and Kubrick $75,000 to write, direct and produce another film, which became Paths of Glory.
Paths of Glory (1957, 88 mins)https://youtu.be/nmDA60X-f_A (trailer)
“The men died wonderfully. There’s always that chance that one of them will do something that’ll leave everyone with a bad taste. This time you couldn’t ask for better.”
Harris-Kubrick Pictures moved up in Hollywood with Paths of Glory—based on a real World War I incident, the “Maupas Affair”—after interesting Kirk Douglas in the script, who in turn convinced United Artists to advance $1 million for the budget (a third of which was allocated for Douglas’ salary).
— Kirk Douglas 12.
Maybe it’s because of this larger budget, United Artists involvement, and Hollywood star that the film seems somewhat more conventional and dialogue-driven than Kubrick’s earlier and later films. However, it’s well crafted, resonates with a strong anti-war message—George Macready as the sociopathically ambitious General Mireau is quite good—and received positive reviews upon release. Kubrick also met his third wife, German actress Christiane Harlan, during filming.
There’s a temptation for me to compare it to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), which doesn’t seem entirely appropriate since Kubrick was still developing his craft on Paths of Glory and Malick was at the height of his game with the elegiac The Thin Red Line. Nonetheless, the attack on the Ant Hill in Kubrick’s film calls to mind C Company trying to take Hill 210 in The Thin Red Line, not only plotwise—troops advancing into shelling from an entrenched enemy position, a commanding officer eager for promotion—but also in the visceral, almost photojournalistic, cimematography, the focus on individuals’ emotions and reactions, and the reprecussions for these individuals from their institutionalized dehumanization by those in charge.
The second half of the film involves the French Army’s version of the Roman practice of decimation—a form of Roman military discipline in which every tenth man in a group was executed by his cohorts 6—which, together with Kirk Douglas, make for as good a segue as any to Kubrick and Harris’ next film, Spartacus, also starring Douglas.
Spartacus (1960, 184 mins)https://youtu.be/HcIMY1Ah3aw (trailer)
“Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?”
“Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?”
“And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.”
“It could be argued so, master.”
“My robe, Antoninus. My taste includes both snails and oysters.”
This movie is long. Very long. And though I tend to enjoy it when I give it a spin, the 184 minutes don’t exactly fly by.
“Ladies, since when are they a vice?”
Produced by Kirk Douglas’ Bryna Productions it was, as you may or may not know, the only film Kubrick directed over which he did not have complete artistic control and a film he did not consider to be a part of his canon.
Nevertheless, with a budget of $12 million (equivalent to approximately $103 million today) and a cast of 10,500, tapping the thirty year old Kubrick to helm the production, presumably based on Douglas’ experience working with the director on Paths of Glory, seems like a pretty ballsy move. Adding controversy, the screenwriter was the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo and the original director, Anthony Mann, whom Kubrick replaced, was fired after the first week of shooting.
Lolita (1962, 152 mins)
“Are you Quilty?”
“No, I’m Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or somethin’?”
According to Wikipedia, although passed without cuts, Lolita was rated X by the British Board of Film Censors when released in 1962 and Kubrick said that he “probably wouldn’t have made the film” had he realized in advance how difficult the censorship problems would be.
Produced for $2 million, Lolita was commercially successful, but opened to mixed reviews. The film and the surrounding controversey did however provide Kubrick with exposure.
“Most critics today agree: Lolita is Kubrick’s most misunderstood and underrated film. Stylistically it’s a transitional work, marking the turning point from a naturalistic cinema (Paths of Glory, Spartacus) to the surrealism of the later films. Reality and fantasy coexist for the first time in a Kubrick film in the bizarre figure of Quilty’s ‘Dr. Zaempf.’ Sitting in a darkened room in a pose that prefigures the sinister, chair-bound Dr. Strangelove, this scene anticipates the atmosphere of Kubrick’s next film.” 7
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, 94 mins)
“Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth, both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, post-war environments: one where you got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got 150 million people killed!”
“You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.”
“Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks.”
“I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler.”
“Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American people, than with your image in the history books.”
Returning to a war theme two films after Paths of Glory, this time about atomic war, Dr. Strangelove feels like we’re finally watching Kubrick hit his stride. James B. Harris had left to direct his own movies and Kubrick took over as producer, as well as remaining co-writer and director. The first Kubrick film that can undeniably be considered a classic, it contains many iconic scenes still recognizeable today: Slim Pickens in a cowboy hat riding the bomb, the War Room—set design was done by Ken Adam, whose work on Dr. No had impressed Kubrick—Peter Sellers in his many roles, etc., as well as many quotable lines—”Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”
While a lot of the humor in Lolita falls flat for me, Dr. Stangelove is tragically laugh out loud funny. George C. Scott, Peter Seller, Sterling Hayden, et al. give hilariously fantastic performances, the script and deadpan delivery is incredible, and, conceptually, utilizing black humor and satire to deal with the staggering absurdity of the threat of nuclear annihiliation is an inspired move.
With Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick began a thirty-five year, seven film streak of groundbreaking cinematic masterpieces virtually unparalleled in the history of cinema.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, 142 mins)
“It’s puzzling. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this before.”
A genre-defying masterpiece, containing not only what is likely the most famous match/jump cut in all of cinema, but also one of the medium’s most infamous villains, the HAL 9000, there’s not much I’m going to add here that hasn’t already been covered thoroughly14 in the multitude of articles, books, and documentaries, as well as utilized extensively in subsequent films, so I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the gorgeous new 4K version, remastered in collaboration with Leon Vitali.
A Clockwork Orange (1971, 136 mins)
“It’s a stinking world because there’s no law and order any more. It’s a stinking world because it lets the young get on to the old like you’ve done. Oh, it’s no world for an old man any longer. What sort of a world is it at all? Men on the moon and men spinning around the earth and there’s not no attention paid to earthly law and order no more.”
Filmed relatively quickly on a modest budget, A Clockwork Orange became one of the most controversial films of its time; it received an X rating in both the US and UK, was alleged to be responsible for a series of copycat crimes, and was finally pulled from release by Kubrick in the UK and unavailable there until 2000, following death threats made on his life.
Malcolm McDowell has said he’d asked Burgess where the title came from and Burgess had replied that he was in an East London pub when he overheard someone say “He’s as queer as a clockwork orange.”
Barry Lyndon (1975, 187 mins)
“Barry was born clever enough at gaining a fortune, but incapable of keeping one. For the qualities and energies which lead a man to triumph in the former case are often the very cause of his undoing in the latter.”
I’ve been asked what my favorite Kubrick film is recently and while I can’t answer that question—I like them all—Barry Lyndon and The Shining are the two Kubrick films I’ve rewatched the most. What I find striking about Barry Lyndon is that it feels as if it were a documentary about 18th century Europe filmed by someone in 18th century Europe; the way the camera movements are so reserved and the shots composed to resemble paintings contemporary to the era, how the pacing is slowed down to reinforce the existing pomp and ritual, how Kubrick acquired and adapted NASA lenses to shoot by candlelight (as interiors would’ve been lit); the locations, music 8, costume detail, etc. all create the impression that the film is not a period piece, but a contemporary film from the 18th century set in the era—an incredible achievement, aided by the production design of Ken Adam 9.
On a sidenote, there are few films which feel like such a vastly different experience between the cinema and even a high-def TV at home with the Criterion disc; the beautiful compositions, slow pacing, and impression of natural light in the film are utterly engrossing on the big screen, as though animating the paintings seen on country house and castle walls in the film. I highly recommend checking out a screening if you get the chance.
The Shining (1980, 144 mins US / 119 mins Europe)
“I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years. And not all of them was good.”
“Things could be better, Lloyd. Things could be a whole lot better.”
Caught this one again during its yearly Halloween screening 10 and it’s still a great film to watch on the big screen. The tension becomes palpable as it builds throughout the course of the film, mirroring Jack’s unraveling psyche. Apparently Stephen King really didn’t like it; there’s a theory that when Hallorann drives up to the hotel and sees a red VW Beetle crushed by a truck it’s Kubrick throwing shade at King—sending a message that the film is not going to be constrained by the novel—since the Torrances drive a red Beetle in the book (just like King in real life when he wrote it), but the car is yellow in the film.
Room 237 is a fun watch if you want to geek out on such theories. And if you really want to go down the rabbit hole, there’s a fan edit floating around the Web which has the film playing both forward (with sound) and backwards (overlayed without sound)—definitely not for everyone, but a lot of the compositions this creates are pretty incredible, both visually and thematically.
Full Metal Jacket (1987, 116 mins)
“Is That You John Wayne? Is This Me?”
Full Metal Jacket, based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford 11, has a somewhat unusual two act structure. A lot of people seem to hold the opinion that the second half is uneven and less compelling than the first half—the first being anchored by an especially memorable performance from Lee Ermey as the brutal, but also hilariously foul-mouthed, drill instructor.
There are a lot of solid films in the Vietnam war movie subgenre—Platoon, Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, etc.—and Full Metal Jacket is a strong entry, but in a debate over which is the benchmark it would be unusual if Apocalypse Now (1979) didn’t get mentioned. Now, granted, the two films don’t seem to beg comparison; Full Metal Jacket attempts to realistically present the process of young men becoming marines and shipping out to war, whereas Apocalypse Now is quite the opposite in its disquieting, almost lyrical, presentation. I’ll refrain from making an argument for any one film, especially since this Kubrickathon is approaching its conclusion with the maestro’s final film.
Kubrick’s cinematic output had slowed drastically by this point and it would be over ten years before his final film with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would be completed. Sadly, he would not live to see its release.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999, 159 mins)
“Ladies, where, exactly, are we going? Exactly?”
“Where the rainbow ends.”
Based on Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler (first published in book form in 1926) the film is censored to this day in the US, which can serve as an unfortunate reminder of the prudishness still prevalent in American cinema, harkening back to the director’s difficulty with the film Lolita. Watch the uncensored European version of Eyes Wide Shut instead.
— Jack Nicholson on Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures
The Seafarers (1953, 30 mins)
For-hire directing job on behalf of the Seafarers International Union to raise funds for his next feature, Killer’s Kiss.
Room 237 (2012, 103 mins)
A documentary delving into various interpretations deconstructing The Shining. You’ll either love it or hate it.
Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (2008, 48 mins)
Jon Ronson’s documentary about Kubrick, centered around the hundreds of boxes of research, notes, fan letters, etc. the director had filed in boxes over the years. Features clips of Vivian Kubrick’s unfinished behind the scenes documentary about the making of Full Metal Jacket as well as interviews with Anya and Christiane Kubrick, Leon Vitali, and others who were close and/or had worked with the director.
Filmworker (2017, 94 mins)
A documentary about Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon) who gave up his acting career to work for decades as Kubrick’s assistant.
S is for Stanley (2015, 78 mins)
A documentary about Kurbrick’s long-term chauffeur and assistant, Emilio D’Alessandro.
Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001, 142 mins)
A documentary about the life and work of Stanley Kubrick, narrated by Tom Cruise.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, 146 mins)
Kubrick began development on the project in the late 1970s, asked Steven Spielberg to direct the film, with Kubrick producing, in 1985, but filming, with Spielberg directing, did not being until 2000, after Kubrick had already shuffled off this mortal coil, to borrow Hamlet’s phrase. I just rewatched it for the sake of completion, but it seems like what it is: a Spielberg version of a Kubrick film.
Colour Me Kubrick (2005, 86 mins)
A mediocre film relating the incredible story of con man Alan Conway who for years convinced people he was Stanley Kubrick, despite looking nothing like the director and having little familiarity with his films.
The Stanley Kubrick Interviews
The Stanley Kubrick Archives
Stanley Kubrick’s Unrealized Projects
Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition (unfortunately closed on 17 September 2019)
(click footnote number to go back)
- (1) I recommend checking out the massive/comprehensive Taschen book on Napoleon containing a facsimile of Kubrick’s complete screenplay, notes, costumes, location scounting, pictures, etc. Unfortunately it’s as close as we can get to the movie. https://www.taschen.com/pages/en/catalogue/film/all/44830/facts.stanley_kubricks_napoleon_the_greatest_movie_never_made.htm
- (2) SPOILER: Against Kubrick’s wishes, United Artists required the film be recut with a happy ending.
- (3) In the Trenches with Stanley Kubrick. https://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1302-Spring-2013/James-Harris-on-Stanley-Kubrick.aspx
- (4) She received Look magazine’s Best Supporting Actress award for the role.
- (5) Speaking of Sterling Hayden, if you watch his 1984 interview on the Criterion Blue-ray of The Killing he’s almost a splitting image of his portrayal of Roger Wade in Altman’s The Long Goodbye—an excellent film, incidentally—from twenty years prior, in 1973. It’s completely bizzare.
- (6) “Decimation (Roman army).” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decimation_(Roman_army)
- (7) Youngblood, Gene. “Lolita.” The Criterion Collection. Sep 25, 1992. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/836-lolita
- (8) With some slight artistic liberties, e.g. Schubert’s Piano Trio in E was composed after the events in the film took place.
- (9) Interesting sidenote, according to the Sir Christopher Frayling in the “Drama in Detail” featurette on the Barry Lyndon Criterion Collection bonus disc, Kubrick secretly helped Ken Adam to light the interior of the supertanker on The Spy Who Loved Me.
- (10) On a sidenote, I also caught Doctor Sleep a couple days after seeing a screening of The Shining; it seems foolish, if not megalomanaical, to invite comparison of your film to Kubrick’s, but, hey, at the very least they’ll still get those Shining fans in. Mostly it seems like a mediocre present, wrapped with a pretty bow of curiosity and nostalgia for one of the greatest horror movies out there.
- (11) Apparently quite a character, Gustav, described to Kubrick as a “scary man” when Kubrick wanted to meet with him, later served three months when campus police found nearly 10,000 library books stolen from libraries around the world in his rented storage locker.
- (12) Interviewed on the Paths of Glory Criterion disc.
- (13) Flying Padre, The (1951). TCM. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/641187/Flying-Padre-The/articles.html
- (14) How Kubrick Made 2001: A Space Odyssey. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLGciYgiR4atGcBOIuOmLQBXUj692TV6R0