- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

If you were receptive to the idea that new blood might benefit the American movie industry about 50 years ago, it would have made sense to welcome the emergence of Stanley Kubrick from relative obscurity. With back-to-back features — the crime melodrama “The Killing” in 1956 and the polemical World War I saga “Paths of Glory” a year later — he demonstrated a flair for pictorially incisive and resourceful filmmaking that surpassed all other newcomers on the horizon.

The director’s age, 27 when “The Killing” was in production, qualified him as one of the most precocious in the aftermath of Orson Welles, who was 25 while simultaneously directing and starring in “Citizen Kane” in 1940. Unlike this celebrated but also ill-omened example, Mr. Kubrick was not recruited after making an irresistible splash in other entertainment media. Nor had he spent a typical apprenticeship in the theater or movies or the still-budding television industry.

The Kubrick professional entree was still photography. He began working part time for Look magazine while still a Bronx high school student in World War II.He joined the publication full time after graduation. While on staff, he raised enough money to begin making live-action shorts intended for theatrical exhibition. His father was a successful doctor who evidently encouraged and helped subsidize these projects.

By the middle 1950s, Mr. Kubrick had contrived to start and finish a pair of short low-budget features, “Fear and Desire,” a war allegory, and “Killer’s Kiss,” a crime yarn with a prizefight backdrop. Neither was a keeper, but both were picked up for distribution and demonstrated evidence of both talent and perseverance. Especially “Killer’s Kiss,” which required a lot of arduous post-synchronization to have a playable soundtrack.

The American Film Institute Silver Theatre is devoting several February dates to a Stanley Kubrick retrospective. The chronology jumps around a lot. This weekend it lands at the genuinely professional start, with “The Killing” and “Paths of Glory.” This authentic juxtaposition allows nostalgic patrons to recall, and imaginative ones to simulate, the impression of a first acquaintance with a director destined to be distinctive, famous and problematical.

At the outset, he was also a very swift and proficient storyteller. Neither movie ran more than 90 minutes. Each seemed to get off the mark and set a very confident expository pace. Snags were in store, but the immediate sensation was exhilarating and promising.

“The Killing” rates five performances during the AFI series and “Paths of Glory” three. I think that ratio has the films’ enduring appeal correctly gauged. In the late 1950s, it was probably easier to overrate “Paths of Glory” as the prestige item because it had a serious historical subject and transparent antiwar credentials.

Their verbal expression was often vociferous but somewhat weakened by the fact that war spectacle accounted for the most impressive pictorial set pieces. Mr. Kubrick (1928-99) seemed to anticipate later virtuoso strolls by Steadicam during a sustained tracking shot along a French army trench system, circa 1916.

Then, with his own zoom lens trained on commanding officer Kirk Douglas, he observed a thwarted advance across mangled terrain that proves a deathtrap for overmatched soldiers attacking a German strong point.

The director had left a clever set of calling cards behind the main title credits of “The Killing.” A sequence of about seven shots, documentary footage from the Golden Gate Racetrack in the San Francisco Bay Area, escort us from barn to starting gate, accompanied by composer Gerald Fried’s urgent drum and brass fanfares.

Mr. Kubrick’s directing credit cues the ring of the starting bell and the announcer’s exclamation, “They’re off.” With admirable and amusing skill, both the field and the movie, which will revolve around a peculiarly coldblooded and calamitous racetrack robbery, are off and running.

The manipulative finesse keeps accumulating as Mr. Kubrick introduces his principal characters, the motley members of the gang, seen with either confederates or loved ones. These introductions provided enough motive and fallibility to rationalize the whole plot, which later needs all the psychological credibility and good will it can get because some of the physical circumstances on crime day are anything but foolproof. Even when you’re fond of the movie, the unraveling has its inadvertently funny side.

Each of the scene-setting vignettes falls into place smartly. The smartness even acquires a kind of screwball brilliance when depicting the ominous marital mismatch that chains timorous gang member Elisha Cook Jr. to sarcastic, disloyal spouse Marie Windsor.

Although they specialize in anti-courtship repartee, their exchanges rival the snappiest stuff composed for “Double Indemnity” by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder.

In this case, credit goes to pulp specialists Lionel White and Jim Thompson; the former wrote the movie’s source, a novel titled “Clean Break,” and the latter was hired to polish the dialogue. It’s polished to some kind of perfection when Mr. Cook, hoping to confide his woes, complains, “You wanna hear this?” and Miss Windsor acidly replies, “I can’t wait, go ahead and thrill me.”

There may never have been a more unloving wife in the annals of pulp betrayal than Miss Windsor’s Sherry Peatty. She gets a superlative hard-boiled line when a fatal bullet finally terminates her treachery: “A bad joke, without a punch line.”

SERIES:”Stanley Kubrick: Selected Works”

WHERE and WHEN: This month at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8630Colesville Road in Silver SpringFriday, Saturday[ Monday, Tuesday and Thursdaytomorrow at 9:10 p.m., Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 7 at 9:10 p.m. and Feb. 8 at 9:10; “Paths of Glory” screens Saturday, Wednesday andtomorrow at 7:15 p.m., Feb. 3 at 5:30 p.m. and Feb. 8 at 7:15. For screening times of other titles in the series, consult AFI Silver Web site or phone box office.

ADMISSION: $9.25 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over)

PHONE: 301/495-6700

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

TITLE: “The Killing”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1956, years before the advent of the rating system; sustained ominous elements and occasional graphic violence; a fleeting racial epithet)

CREDITS: Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Mr. Kubrick and additional dialogue by Jim Thompson, based on the novel “Clean Break” by Lionel White. Cinematography by Lucien Ballard.

RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes

DVD EDITION: MGM Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.mgm.com/dvd

TITLE:”Paths of Glory”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1957; some graphic depiction of World War I combat)

CREDITS:Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Mr. Kubrick, Calder Williingham and Jim Thompson, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb. Cinematography by George Krause.

RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes

DVD EDITION: MGM Home Entertainment

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