Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook, Jr., Marie Windsor, Vince Edwards
Tough bastards and double-dealin' dames execute a racetrack robbery.
As part of my continuing fascination with the writing of Jim Thompson, and movies made from his novels or, like this one, written by him, this film was obviously headed straight for the top of my list. And it satisfied! Now here's the deal. Kubrick liked the writings of Thompson and commissioned him to write the screenplay. Now, I can't find a very complete accounting of what really happened, but the general consensus is that Kubrick shafted Thompson by taking credit for the screenplay, and tossing Thompson a paltry "dialogue by" credit. What really happened, I don't know, but there are numerous other stories out there of Kubrick being an out-of-control destructive narcissist, so this one doesn't seem too off. And while this has the feel of one of the earlier Thompson novels, it is an adaptation of the novel Clean Break by Lionel White.
Okay, so we begin at a dog racetrack. A newsreel-style voice-over tells us that this guy Marvin Unger got an address from the bartender at the track, and we see him take it over and pass it on to the cashier—wait a minute, is that Wilmer from The Maltese Falcon? Sure is, it's Elisha Cook, Jr., who, it turns out, was in pretty much everything. An hour earlier [the voice-over lets us know] this cop Randy met this guy he owes $3,000 to, then at 7pm that evening, Johnny Clay, "perhaps the most important thread in this unfinished fabric," is talking to his girlfriend, Fay, who was driven crazy during the five years Johnny just served in prison, and just wants to retire and spend some quiet time with him, which he wants too… after this one last job. A half hour earlier, George Peatty came home to find his hateful wife Sherry slinging sarcastic small talk. She's infuriated and loses no chance to let George know that he is a tiny, tiny man, because she married him under the pretense that he would soon be rich, and he turned out to be just a schlub.
By now you've noticed the large amount of shifting back and forth in time. Yep, it sure is, and it does a good job of introducing the characters, but you don't have to worry about sorting out all the timing, as ultimately it doesn't amount to much. You will no doubt notice, however, that the whole thing is riveting, the characters seem gritty and real, and the photography is amazing. There are also nice technical touches like a long pan through four rooms of a cutaway apartment during Johnny's first scene. It took me 20 minutes to get through the first 10 minutes of the film because there was so much for me to stop and write down.
Anyway, so George hints to his unhappy wife that they will have a ton of money quite soon, but can't tell her anything about his plans. But why, she simply doesn't know if she COULD love him if he won't trust her enough to tell her his plans—Sherry is one non-stop emotionally-manipulative plea after another—and finally he tells her. Next thing we know, Sherry is, of course, spilling the beans to her pretty boy boyfriend Val, who she plans to run away with as soon as he steals the money from George. Now here's one of my favorite example of the clever little turns of phrase we know from our buddy Thompson. If you had to write an exchange wherein Val said "George? He's a jerk," and Sherry responded "He's a jerk, but he's rich," yet you had to make it clever and hard-boiled, how would you say it? Why, of course, like: "George? He's a meatball," to which Sherry would respond: "He's a meatball with gravy." Anyway, Val doesn't just want George's slice; he wants the whole pie, and he means to get it.
So then we have a gorgeous series of high-contrast shots in which Johnny lays out the plan to all the players. They hear something outside and—why it's Shery, snooping around! And then it seems that Johnny and Sherry have had some sort of relationship in the past! This web is getting more and more tangled.
That's why I'm going to leave the plot, and let you discover all of the rest for yourself. I'll just hit a few key points. In terms of the latent homoeroticism that can't help but creep into movies and books with hyper-macho dudes and codes of honor, etc., we have an interesting scene here in which older gangster Marvin proposes that after the job, that he and Johnny essentially run away together. This is because with a marriage to a woman, "it can be pretty serious and troublesome if it's not the right person." But with a guy you know well —smooth sailing, right? That's what I've always thought. There's another moment that makes this "My Kinda Movie!" and that's when the wrestler who has been hired to create a diversion is grabbed by the cops, who promptly "accidentally" rip his shirt off, exposing his huge hairy chest—and back—as they continue to fight. Hey, it happens enough with girls in horror movies, I figure you can throw me a bone. Or make me... throw the... but whatever.
The movie also finds a number of clever ways for their "best laid plans" to go slightly awry due to some random occurrence, which somehow never really gets old. My favorite was when the cop HAS to drive off at a certain moment and remain precisely on schedule, but just as he's about to pull away, a woman runs up to him, yelling "Oh, police! Thank God—they're tearing each other apart!" One of the more interesting one of these little distractions occurs when a white guy, who is supposed to shoot a horse in the race from a long distance, is friendly to a black parking lot attendant. The attendant, appreciative, wants to repay the friendship—but of course the assassin needs him to stay away. I won't tell what happens, but the entire thing makes a little short story within itself.
The movie continues cutting back and forth in time on the day of the big heist, setting up each element in place, and letting us know how each separate strand winds together. It soon becomes clear where Tarantino and the subsequent rash of movies that jump back and forward in time were generated from. There are some good twists and sudden need for the thieves to improvise, some expected, some unexpected, and it all comes to a ending that surely was much more powerful before it had been imitated a thousand times. This is a movie that reinforces the importance of buying quality, durable luggage, and also for checking into airlines' baggage policies prior to boarding. This movie also finds the courage to make the definitive statement that crazy little old ladies who baby talk to their poodles that they carry with them everywhere they go ARE what's wrong with the world. Something I've always suspected.
So it's difficult to tell what's from the novel and what's from Thompson [and what's from Kubrick], but the movie comes off like a lost Thompson short story, just a hair short of the psychological depth and moral complication Thompson is usually filled with. The resolution, especially the last line; "What's the difference?" is very in keeping with Thompson's work and the exhausted defeat many of his characters are finally reduced to. That said, something happens between the beginning and the end in which this film goes from truly great to merely very good. Maybe it's because the ending has been imitated numerous times and no longer comes off as it should, but I think there are other factors. For one, the whole thing grows a smidge overcomplicated and around the time one realizes you don't have to pay attention to the many differing time periods, you also start to realize that maybe it isn't QUITE as clever as it thinks it is. At first it seems like an incredibly precise machine, but over the course of the film it just becomes slightly too loose in some way, and by the end somehow it lands just short of greatness. It's still a wonderful hard-boiled noir heist film with incredible photography, a clever plot, colorful well-written characters cast with people who look like they might actually fit the part, and a suitably cold-blooded vibe, it just may not quite rock your socks the way it sadly comes close to doing.
Apparently the studio made Kubrick go back and arrange the film in chronological order after some poor test screenings, but the linear version was even MORE confusing. It is kind of admirable how the jumbled-up time here actually makes the plot more comprehensible—i.e. it WORKS, as opposed to in Tarantino and other recent non-linear films, which seem to use the technique merely to save the good stuff for the end. This film was a flop, but was the most successful of Kubrick's career thus far, and got the attention of Kirk Douglas and Marlon Brando, who then hired him to do some subsequent work.
Anyway, if you're a Thompson or Kubrick fan you kind of have to watch it, or if you're just a lover of good, hard-boiled noir heist films. Goodness—but not greatness—awaits you.
Yes, especially if you're into Jim Thompson or a big Kubrick fan.