Stanley Kubrick: Early Photos and New York Noir

24 Jul

Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) would have turned 90 this coming Thursday, July 26, 2018. Known for such works as PATHS OF GLORY, DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE SHINING, FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT, he began directing features in 1953, but started working as a photographer doing human interest stories for Look Magazine eight years earlier while still a student at Taft High School in the Bronx. He eventually directed three documentary shorts, the first of them, “Day of the Fight” (1951), based on a photo story about a boxer he’d done a couple of years earlier.

The Museum of the City of New York is currently offering an exhibit of Kubrick’s early photographs under the title, “Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs,” which runs until October 28, 2018. The exhibit gives us a chance to see what interested Kubrick in his formative creative years and how he chose to frame it. It also looks forward to his first “real” movie, KILLER’S KISS (1955), which he made on a shoestring on New York locations, drawing on his experience as a street photographer. He then went to California to make THE KILLING, a full-fledged Hollywood crime thriller with a cast of name actors (topped by Sterling Hayden) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Kubrick was a big fan of movies and went to see everything. He admired the work of legendary photojournalist Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, whose New York street photos were compiled in a 1945 volume entitled Weegee’s Naked City, and whom Kubrick befriended.

When Jules Dassin filmed his groundbreaking movie, THE NAKED CITY (1948),  entirely on location in New York, Kubrick visited the shoot and took pictures:

Weegee himself covered the shoot…

…and is seen here with a poster of the movie, for which he served as a consultant:

Kubrick covered a wide range of subjects for his Look spreads, ranging from everyday interactions on the street and subways to neighborhood characters, such as boxers and shoeshine boys, to celebrities, movie stars and showgirls. Even when the shots were staged, they generally looked spontaneous. The exhibit displays not only his photos, but actual copies of the Look Magazine photo spreads.

The shoeshine boy featured in the shots above actually resembles me when I was that age. Compare these two shots:

The second one looks like it could have been taken by Kubrick, but was actually taken by Walter Chin on Washington Avenue ca. 1965 and the boy with me on the left of the shot was a friend named James Walton, who moved away not long after this.

Some random shots taken by Weegee in the 1940s:

THE NAKED CITY (1948) was essentially what we now call a “police procedural” that follows a squad of homicide detectives (led by Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor) around as they investigate the brutal murder of a beautiful young model who had a wild streak. We don’t know the reason for the murder at first and it’s only gradually revealed to us, but the killer is known to us and there are occasional cuts to him watching and waiting before the police eventually close in on him after lots of painstaking work which takes them all over (mostly) Manhattan. The story is kind of thin and the police protagonists somewhat bland, but this structure provides the framework for the film’s raison d’etre, the use of a wide variety of New York City locations in three different boroughs and neighborhoods in Manhattan ranging from the posh upper east side and midtown to Times Square and the waterfront district to the lower east side, which in 1948 was still a thriving neighborhood of first- and second-generation immigrants, culminating in a climax on the Williamsburg Bridge.

This wasn’t the first Hollywood film to be shot entirely on location in New York—a distinction shared by two films directed by Henry Hathaway in 1945 and 1947 respectively, THE HOUSE ON 92nd STREET and KISS OF DEATH—but it was the first to use the city so extensively and make the city a major character in the story, thanks largely to producer Mark Hellinger’s colorful narration and frequent montages of the pulse and rush of the city’s everyday life as we see crowds rushing off to and from work and newspapers being delivered by bundle or swept up as trash at the end of the day and kids at play in playgrounds and on streets with hydrants spraying water on them.

The criminals in the piece are the most interesting characters in the film and a movie about them would have provided a far more entertaining and titillating plot. There’s Frank Niles (Howard Duff), a rich boy fallen on hard times who gets embroiled in a burglary scheme; Willy Garzah (Ted de Corsia), a once-famous wrestler who now does the burglaries; and the murder victim, Jean Dexter, seen only as a corpse in the film, but a character made to order for a classic film noir femme fatale and a great part for either Gloria Grahame, Lizabeth Scott or Audrey Totter, especially when there’s a high society doctor (House Jameson) on hand who get seduced by Ms. Dexter into providing targets for the burglaries. However, such a film would have had to stick to more tried-and-true noir territory and not have made room for the love letter to New York that the finished film achieves.

There are scenes in the film that echo the photojournalism practiced by Weegee and young Mr. Kubrick, not to mention such other famous street photographers of the time as Helen Levitt who co-directed (with James Agee) an excellent 16-minute silent short the same year as THE NAKED CITY, entitled, “In the Street,” which follows a group of kids playing in the street in Spanish Harlem.

And here’s a link to “In the Street”:

Kubrick made his first film in 1951, a 16-minute short called “Day of the Fight,” which follows New York boxer Walter Cartier as he prepares for a crucial bout that night. It then shows the fight itself.

KILLER’S KISS (1955), Kubrick’s second feature film, draws on the experience of his photojournalism as well as his immersion in the film noir releases of the era and New York-filmed crime thrillers like THE NAKED CITY. (Although the term film noir had been coined in France in 1946, it was not actually in use at all in English-language film criticism in 1955 and wouldn’t be for at least another decade.)

Story-wise, the best parts of KILLER’S KISS involve the way the two young lovers, who live on opposite sides of an apartment building airshaft in the Bronx, gradually meet and form a relationship, drawn together by violent circumstances after the man, Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), a boxer on a downward spiral, rushes to the rescue of the woman, Gloria Price (Irene Kane), a Times Square dancer, after he sees her struggling with an intruder in her apartment. After a very brief courtship, consisting of sitting at her breakfast table and walking around the city, the two make plans to leave New York for Seattle, where Davey’s uncle owns a horse farm where they can live and work. But first they have to get rid of the obstacle of the intruder, who happens to be Vinnie Rapallo (Frank Silvera), the owner of the dance hall where Gloria works. An attempt to get her back pay from him leads to tragedy, culminating in Davey’s armed attack on Rapallo and his henchmen in an attempt to free Gloria from captivity and leading to a chase through back alleys, over rooftops, up and down fire escapes and in and out of lofts on Manhattan’s lower west side. It becomes standard gangster melodrama in its final third, with lots of the usual clichés, but Kubrick proves he can make an energetic thriller hewing to mainstream genre formula on a shoestring budget.

There’s a great Times Square sequence where Gloria goes to collect her back pay while Davey waits outside while also waiting for his manager to show up with his pay for the fight. A mistake by Rapallo’s hoods while Davey is distracted by two drunken conventioneers leads to the beating death of Davey’s manager and, later that night, the abduction of Gloria and the arrival of police looking for Davey.

The film also gives us glimpses of long-gone parts of New York, notably Penn Station (torn down in 1963), where Davey waits for Gloria at the end.

Not to mention the old 42nd Street and Times Square movie theaters:

Kubrick’s next film, THE KILLING (1956), a superbly executed caper thriller, used Hollywood stars and character actors (including Ted de Corsia from NAKED CITY) and was shot in Los Angeles, proving Kubrick’s mastery of the medium, as dictated by the Hollywood standards of the time, allowing him to branch out into the more complex personal films he’s best known for.

Here’s what I wrote about THE KILLING in 2016 in my Best Films of 1956 piece:

THE KILLING was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature and the first to be made in Hollywood. He was clearly attempting to make a commercial genre feature and used a solid cast of dependable character actors and relied on pulp fiction master Jim Thompson to help him adapt a run-of-the-mill paperback crime novel. The result is one of the best caper movies ever made, with a stunning command of structure, action, and the infusion of character into standard genre conventions. After the bare minimum of time needed to set up the caper and chart the planning of it, the film jumps right to the racetrack and the execution of the robbery of the day’s receipts with the help of two inside men, plus a Los Angeles patrolman and two specialists employed to carry out important supporting actions. The film follows several characters and their concurrent timelines, sometimes doubling back to end at a moment that we’ve already seen. Everything runs smoothly until the boyfriend of the cheating spouse of one of the team shows up to hijack the proceeds to tragic effect.

What makes the film more than just a clever genre exercise is the inclusion of two characters, the cuckolded spouse and his faithless wife, who provide the bulk of the film’s emotional core. George Peatty (Elisha Cook), a clerk at the betting window, is genuinely in love with his wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor), and agrees to participate in the caper in order to satisfy her monetary demands despite her constant belittling of him and complaints about her lot in life. With her honeyed voice and manipulative taunts, she plays him for a fool and he knows it, but he accepts it because he wants to believe she will love him if he finally delivers on his empty promises. The actors play Thompson’s tart dialogue so convincingly that one is thoroughly drawn into their marital charade, knowing it will end badly.  These scenes contain the most heartfelt and honest expressions of human emotion in, perhaps, all of Kubrick’s work. They make a routine caper film a work of art.

THE NAKED CITY, KILLER’S KISS and THE KILLING are all available in Criterion editions. (KILLER’S KISS is included as an extra with THE KILLING.)

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