Most casual moviegoers know the late Stanley Kubrick as the exacting auteur behind ambitious widescreen masterpieces such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. They may also have a vague apprehension that he was British (he lived in the United Kingdom—and rarely set foot outside it—for most of his adult life). But Kubrick was, in fact, an American, born in New York City in 1928, and his career as a director has its roots in that most grittily American genre of all: film noir. The Criterion Collection recently re-released The Killing, Kubrick's 1956 calling card, in typically pristine DVD and Blu-ray editions. It is a must-see, most especially if you only know Kubrick from his sprawling, glacial later work.
Indeed, you wouldn't necessarily recognize Kubrick's hand in the early reels as he introduces Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden, later of Dr. Strangelove), a veteran thief planning a racetrack robbery big enough to retire on, and the various hangers-on and lowlifes he recruits for his audacious plan (a vintage character actors' hall of fame, including Elisha Cook and Timothy Carey). Behind the cameras, Kubrick enlisted pulp-fiction legend Jim Thompson to help him with the script, and as the details of Clay's planning are doled out (and the weaknesses of his crew and the potential complications to his scheme hinted at), it begins to dawn on you that The Killing's storytelling is as clear-eyed and ruthless as Clay's retirement plan. By the time you start noticing all the slick tracking shots, which would become a Kubrick trademark, the director's fully formed mastery has you in its grip.
By then, he's into the robbery itself, and the fractured narrative with its voiceover time codes—he follows each strand of the complex plan individually, backing up and going forward as parallel actions intersect—must have been a mind-blower in 1956. It was still a bit of a mind-blower for many when Quentin Tarantino cadged the concept for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction more than 35 years later. Nonetheless, each turn of the plot, each gambit, score or fail, is as clear as Lucien Ballard's steely black-and-white cinematography. But The Killing isn't just a clockwork masterpiece. Even though Clay never really tips his emotional cards, you're so wired into his high-stakes gamble that by the time the Treasure of the Sierra Madre climax rolls around, your heart is pounding right along with his. Essential.
Two wounded gangsters fleeing a botched job seek refuge in the home of a not-quite-happily married couple—it's the sort of rote setup that has fueled any number of noirs and neo-noirs over the years. Polish director Roman Polanski was anything but rote in 1966. Working in English, he took that premise and made Cul-de-sac (in new Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray editions), a slightly absurd black comedy/deadpan farce that winds up less interesting than it should be.
The English title suggests a tale of the suburbs; the German title, which translates as When Katelbach Comes, fits better. Polanski's third feature is set not on a leafy dead end, but on the tiny island of Lindisfarne, off the British coast, a treeless mound topped by an old monastery and periodically joined to and cut off from the mainland by the tide—a Beckettian setting if there ever was one. And the two gangsters are a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of functionaries—hulking American Richard (Lionel Stander, working his honking Bronx accent) and weedy, bespectacled Brit Albie (Jack MacGowarn)—hiding out until the boss can come get them. The married couple complicates the tidy symmetry, in any number of ways. George (a young Donald Pleasence) is a former British Army officer and industrialist who is, it is made painfully clear, an utter milquetoast. Younger French trophy wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac, a ringer for her younger sister Catherine Deneuve) is introduced lolling topless in the dunes with another, younger man. The stage is thus set for psychosexual good times.
Polanski had already shown himself a keen observer of male/female tensions with Knife in the Water (1962) and adroit with building up implacable moods in Repulsion (1965). Cul-de-sac, by contrast, is all over the place. Polanski seems most interested/invested in Richard. While the director introduces him as a bloodied, shirtless, almost Caliban-like beast man, slurping raw eggs and moving with animal grace (Polanski often cuts to Stander already in motion, as if he's too quick to see clearly), he becomes more "civilized" as the film goes on, even pretending to be George and Teresa's butler during a surprise visit from old friends (including a baby Jacqueline Bisset). But the role reversals and plot turns never quite add up to anything. George never really shows the steel you hope and expect he must have in him somewhere, and Teresa is, in her own way, as passive as George. Whatever metaphor resolution or dramatic payoff you're waiting for never really arrives. Gilbert Taylor's black-and-white photography looks gorgeous in this new Criterion Collection transfer, and Krzysztof Komeda's mod soundtrack is a delight, but Cul-de-sac feels like a period curio in ways that Knife in the Water and Repulsion never do.