An Analysis of the Evolution of Kubrick's Technique in His Early Films
In contrast to his later films (A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut), the films of Stanley Kubrick's early career may be seen as far more conventional in terms of plot, camera work, and realism. While such pictures as "Day of the Fight" and Fear and Desire are by no means reflections of the director's early innocence or naivety, they did appeal to contemporary conservatism, whether as informational pieces or as a melodramatic war stories. Nonetheless, Kubrick's early work reveals the director's creativity, originality, and willingness to explore complex and controversial themes. From "Flying Padre" to Paths of Glory and Lolita, the first part of Kubrick's oeuvre captures a time and place in American history that is at once as stylish and straightforward as it is melodramatic and contentious. This paper will show how Kubrick's early films follow a path of realistic representation through the various popular Hollywood genres of the time towards a more inspired, surreal, shocking and critical examination of the darker side of human nature.
One of Kubrick's films' most famous techniques involves his use of the Steadicam shot, which allows for smooth photography no matter how one moves the camera. Although not invented until midway through Kubrick's career, the Steadicam and its effects are in a way foreshadowed in scenes such as the pull-away shot at the end of "Flying Padre" and the dolly shots in the trenches in Paths of Glory (Ferrara 26). Even at the beginning of his career, Kubrick was fascinated by fluidity in cinematic photography and some of his most memorable scenes are those in which the shot is perfectly framed, centered, and smoothly gliding either away from or towards its object. Kubrick's use of "one-point perspective" may be found in many of his early works and helped the director to create a hypnotic effect on the viewer. This is one aspect of Kubrick's talent as a photographer that allowed him to develop a unique aesthetic approach to filmmaking early in his career (Ciment 36).
This unique approach is discernible in his documentary shorts "Day of the Fight" and "Flying Padre." The former utilizes Kubrick's flare for lighting to great effect, balancing light and shadow for scenes that are semi-noir in their composition. As the title suggests, "the film is more about the waiting and the preparation for the fight than the fight itself" (Phillips, Hill 74). The exploration of "waiting" for an event can be found in nearly all of Kubrick's works -- and that it should be found in his very earliest work is telling of the director's trajectory. Later films, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket and The Shining, all would deal with expectancy and the trial of waiting. Here, in "Day of the Fight," Kubrick already shows a keen awareness of how to build suspense.
This short film for RKO shot in 1950 would serve as a stylistic prelude (and introduction for Kubrick himself) to his later noir productions like Killer's Kiss and The Killing. Yet the use of contrast between shadow and light in "Day of the Fight" is poignant also for stylistically representing in black and white the contrast between the boxer's life as a peaceful, religious man and his occupation as a fighter. Kubrick does not dwell on the irony of the boxer's life but he does not shy away from it either. Rather, he presents it realistically and without flinching. He shows the boxer in his actual home, where crucifixes and religious portraits (accompanied with blessed palms from church) hang on the walls. He shows the boxer going to Mass and receiving communion -- important parts of his preparation for fighting. These scenes in the documentary also foreshadow Kubrick's willingness to explore complex themes: the boxer's reception of the Eucharist as preparation for his day illustrates his belief in the union between spiritual combat and physical combat in the ring. The link between religion and death is explored again in Kubrick's full-length feature film Paths of Glory.
It is also documented in his short "Flying Padre." This short tells the story of a priest who ministers to his faithful in the Southwest via personal airplane. The "flying padre" is able to cover long distances in short amounts of time. This fact allows him to save the life of a child who belongs to one of his faithful. He flies to the mother's home, flies them both to an airport, and sees the baby off in an ambulance. The priest's life in detail is illustrated against an expansive and endless backdrop of Southwestern landscape. His character as a servant of the people (through the sacraments he brings them) is contrasted with his heroic ability to save the very people he serves. This same sort of character is revisited by Kubrick at the end of his early stage of filmmaking in Paths of Glory.
Prior to Paths of Glory, however, Kubrick would test his skills with longer features in Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss, and The Killing. As Thomas Allen Nelson asserts, the first two films "lack the narrative intricacy that distinguishes most of Kubrick's work" (21). Indeed, both tend towards the melodramatic rather than the realistic, which Kubrick demonstrated in his early shorts. However, they are integral in his movement from realism to surrealism. In Fear and Desire Kubrick attempts to capture the mood of a handful of soldiers stuck behind enemy lines. Each must face not only the reality of the situation but also his own personal demons as they are manifested throughout the film. Contending with their own personal fears and desires, the characters are placed in eerie situations that Kubrick then exploits for his own cinematic purposes -- such as how to portray madness on screen. The film certainly contains all the themes that Kubrick would later explore more fully. As Gerald Mast states, "the essential Kubrick theme is man's love affair with death" (542), and this theme is apparent, however obliquely, in both Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss. It is addressed more startlingly and much more harrowingly in Paths of Glory, another war film -- but one in which the battle is waged not only on the battlefield but also between commanders whose hypocrisy and egos reduce them to villains, elevating those who resist them to heroes (in so far as they are able).
If Paths of Glory (1957) follows and builds on Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss (1955) follows and builds on "Day of the Fight." Killer's Kiss, like its forerunner, is saturated with brooding shadows, emphasizing the morality code of the noir genre and the themes of good vs. evil in a corrupt society, where the two are often indistinguishable from one another. However, while "Day of the Fight" is a documentary about a real boxer, Killer's Kiss is an imaginary tale about a fictional boxer, his gangster rival, and the girl between them. It is standard film noir fare and conventional in terms of genre -- and yet it also reveals Kubrick's penchant for blending the realistic with the surrealistic, especially in the final showdown which takes place "in a storeroom filled with mannequins" (Nelson 29). But mostly what the film allowed Kubrick to do was learn and master the techniques involved in the filmmaking process. Having worked his way through documentary shorts, the war film genre and now the film noir genre, Kubrick was ready to helm something truly special. His next feature would stay within the film noir genre, but it would prove to be landmark in terms of its non-linear narration. Conventional in nearly every other aspect, the film allowed Kubrick to be taken seriously by the studios. Now that he had proven his talent, Kubrick would show that he was not interested in churning out conventional fare. He would follow The Killing with Paths of Glory -- a highly controversial war film, brutally realistic in terms of emotion and characterization.
In Paths of Glory, the brutal is represented by General Mireau and his superior General Broulard, two men of the French military hierarchy who place their own egos above the lives of the men they lead; while the honorable is represented by Colonel Dax (played by Kirk Douglass in the film), a man who strives his utmost to defend the lives of the men picked to be executed as an official reminder to the French military that cowardice is not an option -- while in reality the execution of the three representatives is nothing more than an attempt to mollify Generals Mireau and Broulard's vanity, wounded in the failed attempt to take the meaningfully-named "Ant-Hill."
The religious themes of his early shorts, "Flying Padre" and "Day of the Fight," now find an even fuller expression in Paths of Glory. In the scene in which the men awaiting execution are visited by the priest, there to hear their last confessions and give them final absolution,…