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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Killer's + Killing + Kubrick --- Part Two

Fortune smiled on Stanley Kubrick in 1955 by way of a producing partner who knew enough industry ropes to help SK get a real movie off the ground. James B. Harris was a distributing entrepreneur still in his twenties with five years experience hustling vid series and fossil features via Flamingo Films, a concern which, according to Variety, began with capitalization of $6,000 and was now grossing three million a year off the likes of Superman, Wild Bill Hickok, The Life Of Riley, and recently acquired jewel, Stars Of The Grand Old Opry. Harris had instinct for biz talent, having nurtured producers-to-be David Wolper (of later documentary fame) and Sy Weintraub (who'd shortly revive a moribund Tarzan series). There was no one better equipped than Harris to make good things happen for Stanley Kubrick.

Sleazy Cover Art and a Jack Webb Endorsement Make For '56 Must-Reading

Having Harris in the mix was probably what got United Artists off the dime for The Killing's front money. UA is backing them (Harris and Kubrick) up with 100% financing, which amounts to about $600,000, for their first film, "Day Of Violence," based on the Lionel White novel, "The Clean Break," said Variety. James Harris' 2011 interview for Criterion's Blu-Ray release gave the lie to said reportage ... the distrib, he said, ponied $200G's and not a penny more. Harris, who believed in The Killing and Kubrick, sank personal savings of $180,000 plus another $50,000 borrowed from his father to invest $130,000 in The Killing's negative. The neophyte producer knew it would take meaningful $ to elevate he and Kubrick's project beyond shambles of exploitation then flooding markets.

Over twenty years since Scarface and Little Caesar Were Made, But Bear In Mind Both Had Been Recently Back In Theatres When The Killing Opened.

 Kubrick's Killing cast looked like a precinct line-up, the director having pillaged players off every crime pic he'd sat through since starting to shave. All these, even putative star Sterling Hayden, were second-tier names, though I'd suspect Kubrick preferred them over a Gielgud ... well, when it's likes of Elisha Cook, Marie Windsor, and Joe Sawyer, wouldn't we all? As to selling a finished product, UA was for more sin-smearing. Like No Other Picture Since "Scarface" and "Little Caesar," promised ads, and this time, buildups weren't far off the beam. Wrinkle was, The Killing came decidedly not off convention's blotter, despite thrill and mayhem Kubrick dutifully supplied. Thanks to a squirrelly structure with labyrinth flashbacks, the director had given his distributor what looked like a bullet-riddled art movie.

A Better Question in 1956 Might Have Been --- Can You Follow The Killing's Mixed-Up Narrative?

 James Harris realized The Killing would need plenty of TLC, that being industry-speak for a tough sell. Trade reviews acknowledged it was good, but many were confused by Kubrick's puzzle. Where was precedent for story-telling this loopy? United Artists had little choice but to book and promote The Killing in old-fashioned ways ... maybe crowds would get it once they plunked admission and sat down. Harris interview-recalled disappointment at the film's NY run --- some big barn, a theatre on Broadway ... They had to put speed bumps in the aisles to keep people from walking out too fast. The engagement opened and closed so abruptly, it formed a suction. I like Mr. Harris' wit, but fifty-five years is a long time, and 1956 trade reportage reveals The Killing, on Broadway and elsewhere, to have been not quite the disaster he recalls, but far be it for me to rain on such a colorful and certainly accurate to the spirit account of how Harris and Kubrick's innovative film was received.

That Broadway "barn" where The Killing opened in May 1956 was the Mayfair, previous home for Johnny Guitar and future host to Horror Of Dracula. Harris says the theatre booked it as hasty substitution for a flop, which trades reveal to have been Columbia's Glenn Ford western, Jubal. The latter had underperformed, as would The Killing, the Harris/Kubrick film's (just short of) four week stay at the Mayfair called disappointing by Variety; even a bonus preview feature added for the final frame saw ticket sales dragging bottom. To play a Broadway house as a single (for a first three weeks of its engagement anyway) didn't reflect The Killing being dumped by distribution, but James Harris maintained UA's push was nevertheless a bungle: The picture needed special handling, he'd say: It should play a small theatre. It should build.

A Hopeful Summer '56 Trade Ad Emphasizes Critic Kudos For Kubrick
 The breakout, too isolated to help much, was several months off. A meantime June-July saw The Killing as second feature support to UA's Bandido in Los Angeles saturation, while Chicago's Esquire actually sweetened ads and marquees to read The $2,000,000 Killing, which awarded the theatre with a "plump" two weeks of revenue. Local selling could make a difference in those days before nationwide rollouts and do-or-die first weekends. Initiative on a local showman's part often turned tides and made a local hit of an overall marketplace's flop. Clearest 8/56 instance of this came via gamble by a Minneapolis art houser who put chips on The Killing and won.

Kubrick's film had played a downtown Minneapolis theatre early in August and died, stuck at a double-feature's bottom for a split-week filmgoers were barely aware of. The Killing thus went unnoticed and didn't even merit a review in Minneapolis newspapers. Morrie Kotz guessed his Campus Theatre patronage from nearby University Of Minnesota might go for something off beaten paths of foreign and art pics he'd been presenting, so terms (favorable to Morrie) were met with United Artists bookers for The Killing to play the Campus (a save for UA, as local hardtops and even drive-ins had passed up the pic since its flop downtown). Kotz was even able to pass off The Killing as an "exclusive engagement" to his venue.

The Campus offered a double money-back guarantee as insurance that patrons would find The Killing "one of the most suspenseful and exciting pictures you have ever seen." No refunds were claimed during the theatre's first of many holdover weeks. Kotz proved you could wake up a sleeper with deft marketing, his example one to follow by what Variety called Smartie Arties that fed off terrific word-of-mouth generated by The Killing. Pittsburgh's 500-seat Guild Theatre grabbed the show after first-run houses passed altogether, then enjoyed biz way over and above average takes. This went on for five weeks and could have remained on, said Variety, but for fact that the Guild had a locked-in booking date on Lust For Life and had to let The Killing go to accomodate it. Pleasing as such isolated instances were, they'd not push The Killing to mainstream success. UA gave belated tribute with Oscar ads for November trade placement, but the film had by then played out in the keys. Final figures saw The Killing with domestic rentals of $373,272, with foreign better at $591,812. Against the negative's cost of $330,000, that would presumably amount to moderate cakes and ale for Harris/Kubrick (and we can hope Harris' dad at least got his investment back).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the scoop and those incredible ads and photos.

This remains one of my favorite films of the 50s — or ever, come to think of it.

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd guess the Jack Webb book blurb wasn't from the 'Dragnet" star but rather John Alfred "Jack" Webb, a writer who penned similar books in the 50's. He also sometimes used the name John Farr.

- KD

7:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer e-mails some thoughts about Stanley Kubrick:

I had thought that directors like William Friedkin, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, and the other “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” of the 1970s were among the first who came to the movies from the movies. It appears, however, that Stanley Kubrick was their prototype. Before that, film makers came from a variety of backgrounds, often from the stage or vaudeville, but some were also writers, engineers, or artists, some were adventurers and soldiers, and there were a few cowboys and probably a hobo or two. They were no less aware of the plastic quality of film images or sound than those who came afterwards, but they had an understanding that the reality reflected in those images had hard edges and suffering. The hacks of any generation are no more than that, but it is the gifted ones who lead the way. As film markers increasingly came out of the movie theaters, they seemed more and more distanced from the sense of reality that comes with living a life in this world, or the ways of telling a story that convey meaning and import. They may have known the movies, but they didn’t necessarily know life. Some of them are nonetheless acknowledged masters, like Martin Scorcese, but the moral imbecility one finds in the films of Quentin Tarrentino is more typical.

As for Kubrick, his work shows a vigorous though often austere style and a decided commitment to furthering the values he thought were important. I often find myself in disagreement with him, and certainly, when he sought to display a human touch, the scenes that resulted were more lugubrious than affecting, as in the “I’m Spartacus” variations from that movie or the conclusion of Paths of Glory. As with many contemporary film makers, he seemed most comfortable with an ironic perspective. Still, I’m always aware of a mind passionately engaged in its work and conscious of another, larger reality which film can only suggest. Surely he would have been a better model for those who followed him than many others.


6:33 AM  

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