Considered the first ‘true’ Kubrick film, this 1956 Stanley Kubrick (“Killer’s Kiss”, “Lolita”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “The Shining”) crime/noir is one of the best films of its type, and along with “The Asphalt Jungle”, one of the most influential. It’s a really taut (running at a lean and mean (80 or so minutes), exciting and well-acted film, even if Kubrick was forced to add a “Dragnet”-style voiceover at the studio’s request. Personally I don’t think it adds or subtracts much from the film, I was too busy enjoying everything else. The thunderous music score by Gerald Fried (Kubrick’s “Killer’s Kiss”, “The Killing of Sister George” and the legendary TV miniseries “Roots”) grabs you from moment one, and indeed the first half in particular has a surprising amount of energy and excitement.
The B&W cinematography by Lucien Ballard (“Ride the High Country”, “The Wild Bunch”, “True Grit”) is sensational, mixing noirish lighting and handheld camerawork. The depth of field in particular is wonderful, giving certain scenes a Deep Focus vibe. I also think the film has one of the more impressive sound designs of its era, and it still holds up today. Based on a paperback by Lionel White, the script by Kubrick and pulp novelist Jim Thompson (who mostly worked on the dialogue and co-wrote Kubrick’s subsequent “Paths of Glory”) is pretty damn interesting for its period given the rather obvious (and to me, surprising) gay subtext in a scene between Sterling Hayden and Jay C. Flippen.
The characters are also memorable, several of whom have pretty interesting side-stories of their own. The cast is rock-solid up and down, with the usually lunkheaded Sterling Hayden never better (I usually find him amateurish). He’s got a gravitas and assuredness here that I’ve not felt from him before, and had he played his dumb thug from “The Asphalt Jungle” here, it would’ve seemed totally out of place for a mastermind. In fact, had he played this character in “The Asphalt Jungle”, that terrific film would’ve been even better, as he was the weak-link. There’s also some scene-stealing support by Elisha Cook Jr. (one of the all-time great character actors), oddball hipster Timothy Carey (as a psycho beatnik of sorts), Jay C. Flippen (perhaps the most likeable presence in the film), and Marie Windsor (perhaps cinema’s most underrated portrayer of femme fatales) standing out in particular. Cook’s sad-sack George proves one of the more heart-breaking, pathetic, yet ultimately surprising characters in any noir. He’s too pathetic to be likeable (especially towards the end), but you do feel pity for him. He’s a good husband married to Satan in a blonde wig. Hulking, heavily-accented Maurice Oboukhoff is a little tough to understand at times, but that’s a minor issue.
Terrific ending, even if you can see it coming (it’s kinda depressing actually), and the non-linear structure will likely appeal to Tarantino buffs. QT is obviously a fan of the film, whether he admits it or not, as “Reservoir Dogs” has a similar narrative structure. Personally I prefer “The Asphalt Jungle”, but this is a solid genre entry from a bonafide filmmaker. Even non-Kubrick enthusiasts should enjoy this one. It’s a simple tale well-told. Or a B-movie with more class than many.