Stanley Kubrick’s strong persona and confident directing style was so impressive and functional he carefully managed to transcend the limitations of the studio system and delivered most of his cinematic propositions just the way he meant do to them.
Throughout his filmography, he had a few setbacks, the most famous being the unrealized biopic of Napoleon, but consistently succeeded in leaving his mark in every single film he made with generous amounts of artistic freedom.
Perhaps what’s most interesting in Kubrick’s career is that he was always able to balance everlasting themes and filmmaking methods with an unparalleled quest for originality: no two Kubrick films are remotely similar on their first layers, and yet the consistence of his whole filmography is indisputably, essentially Kubrickian.
It’s not such a surprise that a director that paid so much attention to details was a director of recurring themes, stylistic signatures and filming techniques. Leaving his first two feature films aside, we start with The Killing, his first mature film, and finish with Eyes Wide Shut, his final mark in history, to unwrap some of Kubrick’s recurrences and repetitions that made him such an important figure of the 20th century.
1. The Killing (1956): The Malfunctioning Brain
The impulsive, flawed, instinctive nature of humanity, often depicted through a series of events which dramatically rebuild the main character’s life and sense of integrity, and its failure to recognize such things in itself. This was the prevailing theme in all of Kubrick’s films, which always reflected the contrast between reason and chaos as everything crumbled down.
In three of his films (Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket), the malfunctioning structure is superficially the same: a battalion is ordered to attack when the odds and the setup of the operation is against it; as everything goes wrong, the military is forced to rethink its own strategies and ideals, to no success. They crave for success and stability without taking their imperfections and vulnerabilities into account.
It’s in The Killing that his purpose is best served, as Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) thinks of the perfect plan to hijack a race track and flawlessly get away with absurd amounts of money. Such plan can only work if everyone does everything according to protocol and on time. Clay himself is caught in his own web for not considering alternate outcomes and the possibility that he may compromise the plan himself; the result is disastrous.
The great thing about The Killing is the fact that the inevitable ending of the story is not that important when put next to the film’s immense ability to coordinate its various characters and draw the development of each one’s personal mistakes.
It’s a fresh, innovative and thrilling blend of noir-like sequences and heist film conventions that remains one of the best in both genres, inspiring countless other directors with its time shifting and smart dialogue, notoriously the master symbol of nonlinear filmmaking, Quentin Tarantino.
2. Paths of Glory (1960): The Criticism of Military Values
From the very beginning, Kubrick was always eager to reveal his aggressive, rebellious sentiments against the glorification of war, and 6 of his films work on the subject, either as mere depiction or as downright critique. In Dr. Strangelove, a downright serious book became a comedy; in Full Metal Jacket, the boots walk all over both sides of the battlefields; in Fear and Desire, the wandering soldiers suffer a great deal while hardly achieving anything for its country.
Above all, Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s starkest and most controversial hate letter against military values, pointing directly at the commanding officers, who lead the story throughout its haunting 88 minutes. The film’s passionate adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s novel is seen by many critics as one of the greatest anti-war films of all time, effectively attacking the military mind by putting masterpieces of contradiction as self-centered generals.
When these generals order Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to lead an attack towards the impregnable Anthill and France is inevitably defeated, the fault falls under the shoulders of their men, and three soldiers are randomly chosen to be executed on the grounds of cowardice.
Kubrick’s everlasting point of view towards the use of bellicose violence is drastically heightened in Paths of Glory, with far more emotional appeal than in all his other films, to the point that nothing can be done against such unjust accusations towards the soldiers.
The trials are crooked; the generals talks statistically when referring to their victories, but refuse to play with “mathematic babble” when accounting for losses; Colonel Dax, perhaps one of the only few men who realize the terrible situation he’s in, is unable to do anything for his army even in his very position.
The final scene, a polarizing yet deeply moving twist on the idea of patriotism, at first looks like an attempt to deliver an uplifting message, but everything that preceded it tells us otherwise. Paths of Glory would be banned in several countries soon after its initial release.
3. Spartacus (1960): The Bathroom as a Symbol of Man’s Vulnerability and Ignobleness
A careful spectator might notice that every Kubrick movie following Paths of Glory features some of its key moments inside the comfort (or discomfort) of bathrooms, to varying degrees of game-changing conflict set-up: there’s murder, suicide, assault, blackmailing, mind control, infidelity and much more, and every scene is of its own importance and conveys its own piece of the whole message Kubrick is bringing: this essential room is the place of privacy, personal seclusion and dirtiness where a person is at his or her most vulnerable and less noble. It was his permanent symbol of animalistic ignobleness.
In his first serious attempt to depict the exclusive traits of man’s behavior inside the bathroom, two major scenes reveal decisive information that would’ve never been exposed had the character been short of privacy and personal primal satisfaction. The major bathhouse scene in Spartacus shows us two intertwined pieces of dialogue, leaded by Roman leaders Crassus (an unsurprisingly impeccable Laurence Olivier) and Gracchus (an equally unsurprisingly impeccable Charles Laughton).
As they both talk privately to Caesar (John Gavin), they quietly shout out their own interests in achieving even more power for themselves over the seemingly less important Spartacus uprising, in ways that are only clear later in the film because we know the full stories behind the men’s lines of argument.
The most curious scene in the movie, however, is another key bathroom scene, initially cut from the film but later included for the 1991 restoration. Antoninus (Tony Curtis) is giving Crassus a bath, when the master spontaneously starts asking his slave over whether he likes snails and oysters.
It’s interesting to notice that, in the same year that saw some new rules of the depiction of private lives in Hitchcock’s Psycho, the sexual undertones of such conversation, which imply that liking “snails” or “oysters” is more a matter of taste than a moral issue in Spartacus, was otherwise left behind by the studio, which permanently gave Kubrick a hard time while shooting the film.
4. Lolita (1962): Chess
While chess wasn’t such a visible token in Kubrick’s films (his direct references to the game were limited to three films), it’s a well-known fact that he was one of its great enthusiasts, often playing to get acquainted with people and spending his shooting breaks with the game. In my vision as a man who’s barely played it and even more rarely won against others, it was perhaps a supporting device for Kubrick both in and out of the stories he created.
Few other games (possibly none other) is as brain-friendly as chess, and it not only helped Kubrick exert complete control on his cinematic purposes, but also deeply relates to his work, as chess is primarily a game in which the act of impulsive (or, in Kubrick’s favorite word, ignoble) decision making has little place.
The murder of the wrong man in Killer’s Kiss is one of the most interesting indirect examples of the game’s influence over Kubrick’s films, as Jamie Smith runs after two drunken pedestrians when he should’ve stayed in front of her girlfriend’s working place to pick her up.
In the fast-paced introduction to the relationship between Lolita (Dolores Haze) and Humbert Humbert (James Mason), Humbert and Charlotte (Shelley Winters) are playing what’s apparently an innocent game of chess, although the playful soundtrack on the background gives away pretty easily that there’s much implied in the couple’s pretentious pastime.
As Lolita is about to arrive, the professor silently drives his game to the higher ground, and his opponent lightheartedly asks whether he intends to take her queen. As Lolita gives both of them goodnight kisses, he finally takes the chess queen. At least that’s what he says to Charlotte.
5. Dr. Strangelove (1964): Satire
From his musical choices to his blatant use of irony to his use of contrast among characters to his often ambiguous depiction of dramatic storytelling, Kubrick always went for the absurd, the strange, the disturbingly. Throughout the years, he remained a director of subliminal comedy and subtle criticism. Even in some of his most moving scenes, such as the Blue Danube scene in 2001 and the seduction scenes in Barry Lyndon, it’s somewhat hard to draw the line between ironic and epic filmmaking.
In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s glorious Cold War comedy and an uncontested masterpiece, such suspicions are brushed aside, mostly because everything is so funny and sarcastic the spectator is quickly forced to rethink the possibilities of war films, especially when considering all the dumbly serious films which also dealt with the ultimate political clash of the century.
Dr. Strangelove plays with Cold War paranoia to unspeakable levels, as General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders a dangerous final solution against the Russians after a false missile alarm is taken seriously. The Russians, later aware of this threat, alert to the fact that any attack to Russia will inadvertently trigger the all-new Doomsday Machine, which will blow them all to pieces.
While the novel from which the film got the plot motif is deadly serious, Kubrick decided to make it a comedy and hired co-screenwriter Terry Southern to create of the angriest and funniest comedies ever made, taking advantage once again the use of Peter Sellers as an actor with multiple screen personalities, one better than the other and vice-versa.