This accomplished thriller based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature. Aged 27, he had made only Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss (both family-financed and both commercial failures) but Time magazine proclaimed him as “the new boy wonder in a business which soon separates the men from the boys”.
Here, backed by prosperous TV distributor James Harris and by United Artists, Kubrick, for the first time, got his hands on enough money to make a real movie.
Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr are among the doomed criminals taking part in a racetrack robbery.
But rather than tell the story straight, Kubrick scrambles the time sequence and follows separate strands of the plot towards their conclusion, detailing the planning, the robbery itself and the disastrous aftermath.
The film begins at a Los Angeles race track as “the hundred-thousand-dollar Lansdowne Stakes” is about to be run with the hotly fancied favourite Red Lightning almost a dead cert.
Around the track, several people are strangely disinterested in the big race: strong-arm man Johnny Clay (Hayden), tipsy customer Marvin Unger (Jay C Flippen), meek cashier George Peatty (Cook Jr), Officer Dibble soundalike cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) and bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer).
With two outside men – sniper Nikki Arane (Timothy Carey) and intellectual wrestler Maurice (Kola Kwariani) – to stage diversions by shooting Red Lightning in the home stretch and occupying all the security guards in a barroom brawl, the mob have plotted how to slip past the guards, grab two million in untraceable cash and (vitally) get the loot off the site.
The heist is a perfectly judged suspense sequence, but the flashbacks and forwards let us in on the sad realities of the crooks’ lives and hint at their dooms.
Meek runt George has a vampy wife, Sherry (Windsor), who cajoles her way into the scam but sets Clay’s crew up to be robbed of their takings by her thug boyfriend Val (Vince Edwards) and his partner (Joe Turkel).
Johnny is a pro with a devoted girl (Coleen Gray) and firm relationships with fellow pros Nikki and Maurice, but he finances this scheme by taking advantage of the discreetly homosexual Unger.
By delicately rebuffing Unger’s pre-robbery suggestion that the two of them go away together “and let the world take a couple of turns”, Johnny breaks his heart and turns him into a fatally loose cannon.
The fraying of the gang’s solidarity and Sherry’s power-play leaves most of them dead on dirty floors.
Johnny comes to grief at the airport where an official won’t let him take an oversized suitcase full of cash on board as hand baggage, and a yapping dog causes a spill resulting in a comic-tragic scene as two million dollars in loose bills is whipped into a whirlwind by aeroplane engines.
Although influenced by John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), as well as the French classic Rififi (1955), directed by Jules Dassin, Kubrick turns a familiar story into a masterly display of technique and a moving study of desperate characters who are in thrall to fate.
Kirk Douglas was so impressed by the film that he agreed to star in Kubrick’s next project, Paths of Glory (1957), the success of which set the seal on Kubrick’s reputation. The rest – from Spartacus to 2001 to Clockwork Orange – is history.
Elisha Cook Jr
Jay C Flippen
Ted De Corsia