Dir. Stanley Kubrick
Watching early Kubrick is a bit like sampling from a slightly too-young wine: Some of the notes are there, but the complexity has yet to fully mature. This film-noir from 1956, co-penned by Kubrick and pulp master Jim Thompson, certainly isn't at the level the great auteur would come to find just one year later with Paths of Glory, not to mention his later masterpieces, but as a crime caper film, it has much to recommend it.
For one thing, you have certain vintage Kubrickisms: fastidious attention to detail, long tracking shots, experimental POV camera work, complex chronologies; for another, you have the hard-boiled dialogue of Thompson, who infuses his molls and perps with some winning pulp repartee ("That meatball?" a cuckolding pretty boy asks incredulously of the simpering husband of the femme fatale he has in his arms, when she tells him of her husband's scheme to help rob a racetrack. "He's a meatball with gravy," she retorts).
The story concerns the byzantine robbery scheme perpetrated by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), a recent parolee who wants to make a massive score so he can take off with his fiance in style. He puts together a complicated network of inside players, including a cop (Ted de Corsia) with a gambling problem, the aforementioned 'meatball' (Elisha Cook) who works the gate of the track, a stiff-jawed war vet (Joe Sawyer) with excellent sniping skills, and a good deal more fellas, each with a very specific and precise job to do. The film then follows the plan, jumping back and forth in chronology, so you get a kind of Rashomon-style patchwork of narrative.
Knowing what we know of the man, we can infer it was this convoluted chronology coupled with the complexity of the scheme itself that most interested Kubrick, the intricacies of timing and meticulousness of the plan. A VO narrator (voiced by Art Gilmore) constantly updates the various players' whereabouts, pitching the film ever backwards and forwards, such that the climax, which comes during the seventh race, is set up and re-started several times before the action is finally allowed to carry through. Kubrick also takes definite pleasure in throwing small, well-placed monkey wrenches in his anti-hero's meticulous plan, identifying the exact ways even the most well-crafted system can be broken down by unforeseen x-factors, and, naturally, human weakness.
It's the kind of film that makes the most of its material and financial limitations, enough for the young director (then 28) to get his next opportunity behind the camera, when Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas saw the picture and brought him on board for Glory, an event for which the cinematic world remains forever grateful.
This gorgeous BD edition from Criterion also includes Kubrick's first feature, Killer's Kiss from 1955; an interview with producer James B. Harris; interview excerpts with Hayden from a French TV series; and an appreciation of Thompson's role in the film by film scholar Robert Polito.