The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956). As a non-believer in the greatness of Kubrick, and as someone who I’m sure is tiresome when I engage in the topic, I always enjoy looking at the early period of Kubrick, for it is my opinion that he made some terrific films in the period that begins with The Killing and ends with Dr. Strangelove. Paths of Glory is my favorite, with Dr. Strangelove and even Spartacus close seconds, but this cheapie noir is pretty damn close, as well. Kubrick’s desire to pre-plan everything works well here, as he seamlessly blends the documentary realist style with the noir atmosphere and the fragmented chronology. (I love what Marie Windsor said about film noir: “I didn’t know I was doing film noir; I thought they were detective stories with low lighting.”) It’s fun for Bay Area viewers to see an incognito Bay Meadows used as a racetrack where 100,000 people attend a big race. The film’s construction is so tight that we want the crooks to pull off their heist … it seems like a proper reward somehow. But it’s Kubrick who is the winner: his film works like clockwork, which is more than can be said for the crooks’ plan. Sterling Hayden thought he had planned everything, but that role was reserved for the director.
Two things stand out, in comparison to Kubrick’s overrated post-Strangelove phase. One is that tightness … The Killing takes care of business in 85 minutes. The other is the quality of the acting, with a fine cast of B-level actors like the reliable Elisha Cook, the aforementioned Windsor, the ever-oddball Timothy Carey, and Vince “Ben Casey” Edwards. Not to mention Sterling Hayden in the lead. At some point (around the time Hal became the most interesting character in 2001), Kubrick seemed to lose interest in actors. Malcolm McDowell was good in Clockwork Orange because he was right for the part, but Jack Nicholson in The Shining was not his finest hour (and Kubrick had no idea what to do with Shelley Duvall), and the stars in Kubrick’s movies varied between extreme overacting and sleepy underacting, with no one resembling an actual human being. None of this was true in Kubrick’s early movies. Awhile back, I wrote, “Can the man who created such perfection as Paths of Glory really be the same person who gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut?” Substitute “The Killing” for “Paths of Glory” and I could ask the same question. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.
House on Haunted Hill (William Castle, 1959). This week’s Creature Feature also has Elisha Cook, and with that, we can dispense with any similarities between this one and The Killing. William Castle already had a fairly long career doing B-movies, detective stories, Westerns and the like. But then he mortgaged his house and made a thriller, Macabre, for $90,000. He gave each person who saw the film a $1,000 insurance policy, to be paid if they died of fright during the movie. The film made back more than 50 times its cost. Castle learned his lesson. His next film was House on Haunted Hill, in “Emergo!” He hired Vincent Price to play the lead, added budding almost-stars like Richard Long and veteran character actors like Cook, and filled the cast with oddities like Robert Mitchum’s older sister. The entire thing cost around $200,000. And Emergo? In theaters, during one scene when a skeleton was being pulled from a vat of acid, a similar skeleton was flown over the audience using pulleys. (The skeleton got its name in the credits … I assume the one in the movie, not the one in the theaters.) Yes, I hear you ask, but is the movie any good? Well, it’s as good or better than the standard fare you’d find on Creature Feature shows in the old days. Even without Emergo, the film works … the plot twists are not too complicated, but enough so that you might not figure them out before they happen. It’s a 75-minute “people meet in a creepy house” movie, OK for what it is. Forty years later it was remade. The budget was $19 million, and starred Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, second-level stars like Famke Janssen and Taye Diggs, and cult figures like Lisa Loeb and Spike from Buffy. Just when you thought the entire thing had played out, a straight-to-video sequel to the remake came out in 2007. The Blu-ray version had interactive features which allowed the viewer to choose between competing plot lines. I mention this so I can quote this piece of trivia: “The mercenary character of Harue … is revealed, only in the special features of the blu-ray, to be a lesbian member of a cult that worships Baphomet and is in search of the idol for her own means.” Meanwhile, the original film gets 6/10. Next week’s Creature Feature: an actual cult classic, the original Carnival of Souls.