An obsessive perfectionist who methodically worked in virtual reclusion, director Stanley Kubrick was at once widely praised for his technical brilliance and scorned for his film’s lack of emotional depth. Even his most seminal work was met with criticism, though the stature of his place in cinema history has steadily grown with time.
Kubrick’s vision was unorthodox, particularly in regard to narrative structure, but he somehow managed to make highly artistic and sometimes surreal films entirely within the studio system. Often the demands he placed on his own artistry clashed mightily with the realities of commercial filmmaking.
Regardless, Kubrick was one of the most influential directors in postwar Hollywood. He has been hailed as the source of inspiration for many of Hollywood’s top directors past and present, including Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan.
Though he made a pair of low-budget film noirs, Kubrick made his first professional studio movie with The Killing
, a tautly-paced heist thriller
centered on Johnny Clay, a veteran criminal (Sterling Hayden) planning one last heist before settling down to marriage. The heist involves taking down a racetrack with a crew of small-timers in way over their heads. They initially get away with the money, but soon find their meticulous plan going completely awry. With only his third film, Kubrick displayed an adroit ability to handle non-linear narratives, though the film ultimately failed at the box office and was blasted by critics. Over time The Killing
became one of the classics of film noir.
With Paths of Glory
, Kubrick made his first truly great film and emerged as a major director worthy of attention. Based on Humphrey Cobb’s antiwar novel, this classic war movie
starred Kirk Douglas
as a French colonel in World War I who defends three doomed soldiers about to be executed for their alleged cowardice in a battle lost by an incompetent and morally bankrupt general (Adolphe Menjou). Though remarkable and surprisingly prescient in its sentiment, particularly with Vietnam looming on the horizon, Paths of Glory
failed at the box office and was banned in France and Germany. But the critics liked it and the film grew in stature over time to become another genre classic.
Kubrick’s next picture was the first and last time he ever allowed himself to work at the studio’s behest. In fact, he came in at the last minute to take over for original director, Anthony Mann, who was fired by star and producer, Kirk Douglas, a week into production. Still, Kubrick managed to put his stamp on an otherwise straightforward historical epic
, which was a loose interpretation of the doomed uprising of Spartan slaves against the Roman Empire in 73-2 BCE. Critics raved and the film was a hit, but Kubrick was frustrated by his lack of artistic control – he had no say in the script or final cut – and largely disowned the work. Making matters worse, his friendship with Douglas was permanently damaged due to numerous behind-the-scenes battles and the two never worked together again.
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Prior to making Lolita
, Kubrick left the United States for England, where he would live and work in relative seclusion for the rest of his life. Adapted from Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel, the film starred James Mason as the middle-aged Humbert Humbert, who becomes infatuated with a promiscuous 14-year-old girl (Sue Lyon). Due the taboo subject matter and the level of Hollywood censorship still in place, Kubrick was forced to greatly limit the amount of sexuality between Humbert and Lolita, and later regretted his decision in making the film at all. Not one of his greatest films, Lolita
was remembered for the outrageous performance of Peter Sellers, who donned several disguises in the greatly expanded role of Clare Quilty.
For his next film, Kubrick made what many considered to be the greatest political satire of the 20th century. Starting off as a straightforward thriller about nuclear annihilation, Dr Strangelove
was changed to reflect the latent absurdity in the idea of mutually assured destruction. The results were nothing short of genius. Dr Strangelove
starred Peter Sellers in three roles: the mild-mannered President of the United States, a British attaché to a psychotic American general (Sterling Hayden) who launches a fleet of nuclear bombers on the Soviet Union while expressing his love of bodily fluids, and Dr. Strangelove himself, a wheelchair-bound former Nazi scientist unable to stop himself from calling the president Mein Führer. The movie contains too many iconic moments to count and was a stunning achievement for Kubrick, who was just entering the most creatively fruitful phase of his career.
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Kubrick’s success with his previous two films allowed him more creative control, which led to spending almost five years making what many consider to be the finest science fiction movie of all time. With a script written at the same time that Arthur C. Clarke wrote the book, 2001: A Space Odyssey
was a hypnotic, but emotionally distant look at human evolution and technology, which the film seems to say was aided by an omnipresent alien life form that may or may not be a substitute for God. The film had little dialogue – there was none in the first and last 20 minutes of the movie – but it contained groundbreaking special effects that were industry standard for years after. Critics were naturally divided by Kubrick’s metaphorical and often impenetrable movie.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Kubrick garnered a great deal of it with A Clockwork Orange
, an Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian future novel that followed a miscreant youth (Malcolm McDowell) fond of Beethoven and committing violent assault on innocent victims with his merry band of droogs. The violence in the movie was harsh and off-putting, but none so shocking as the brutal rape of a woman in front of her husband while McDowell gleefully intones Singin’ in the Rain
. Yes, the whole movie is disturbing – the site of McDowell being forcefully reconditioned is another upsetting moment – but Kubrick’s visceral style and audacious approach make it a worthy addition to his canon.
Certainly not a favorite among Kubrick fans, Barry Lyndon
has been regarded by critics as his finest work. Set in 18th century Europe, this adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel follows a gentlemanly rogue (Ryan O’Neal) in his quest for the life of a nobleman through seduction, gambling and dueling his way up the social ladder. The film was a stunning visual achievement, with Kubrick famously employing a camera lens originally designed for NASA that allowed him to shoot many scenes using nothing but candlelight, keeping with the realism of the times. Despite its technical merits, Barry Lyndon
lacked emotional depth and in some places feels slow as molasses. It was a commercial disappointment in the United States, of course, but found a wide audience in Europe, particularly France.
Kubrick downplayed the supernatural elements while adapting Stephen King’s novel into this horror classic
that was universally panned by critics upon release. In fact, King himself was quoted as hating The Shining
, though his attitude mellowed over the years. Nonetheless, it is a highly artistic horror film full of scary moments and lots of on-camera mugging from star Jack Nicholson
. Nicholson played frustrated writer Jack Torrance, who takes a job as a winter caretaker at the remote Overlook Hotel, where he lives in isolation with his nervous Nellie wife (Shelley Duvall) and telepathic son (Danny Lloyd), only to descend into madness and take out unsuspecting bathroom doors with an axe. A box office hit upon release, The Shining
took some time to win over critics; decades later it was widely considered to be a classic in the horror genre.