Stanley Kubrick, one of the best-known filmmakers in the history of the medium, was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1928, and began his career as a still photographer for Look magazine, the now-defunct American weekly picture journal. In 1950, he made a short film entitled The Day of the Fight, based on a pictorial he had done for Look and sold it to RKO (released in 1951); in 1953 he directed his first feature, Fear and Desire, followed by Killer’s Kiss in 1955. For reasons of economy and control, Kubrick’s involvement in both these productions was total: he served as screenwriter, cameraman, director, editor, sound dubber, and mixer in each case, making the films for only $20,000 and $75,000 each.
After modest success, he directed the racetrack robbery drama The Killing (1956), the antiwar film Paths of Glory (1957), and the Roman drama Spartacus (1960, begun by Anthony Mann, who quit over creative differences).
In 1961, Kubrick moved permanently to England; he would never return to America, gradually becoming more reclusive as his career progressed. His adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1962) was well received, but his 1964 nightmare comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, earned him a permanent place in the cinematic pantheon. This brilliant black comedy of all-out nuclear warfare features Peter Sellers in no fewer than three roles—Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the sinister Dr. Strangelove himself—and manages to highlight both the horror and the inherent absurdity of the prospect of thermonuclear war. From Sterling Hay-den’s performance as the utterly mad General Jack D. Ripper to Keenan Wynn’s turn as Colonel “Bat” Guano and Slim Pickens’s once-in-a-lifetime role as Major T. J. “King” Kong (he rides a nuclear warhead like a bucking bronco to its final target, thus triggering the Doomsday Machine that will destroy all life on earth in a wave of multi-megaton nuclear blasts), Dr. Strangelove is a catalogue of apocalyptic absurdities, a no-holds-barred satire that is both brutal and topical. Kubrick’s poker-face visual style works perfectly with such supercharged material, and Ken Adam’s grandiose sets (he also designed the James Bond movies in the 1960s) create a sense of realism in situations that are simultaneously grotesque and surreal.
Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s nightmare comedy Dr. Strangelove or: HowI Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
After the international success of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick could write his own ticket, which is exactly what he did for the rest of his career. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was the result of four years of intense labor and research and marked a new maturity for the science fiction film, as well as a new benchmark for special effects. A Clockwork Orange (1971) vividly adapted Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel about teenage hoodlums on the rampage, while Barry Lyndon (1975) redefined the historical epic with Kubrick’s insistence on period illumination only—candles, lamps, and the like—for all interior scenes. In Full Metal Jacket (1987), he showed the dehumanizing horror of basic training and hand-to-hand combat in the Vietnam War. If his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), was problematic for many viewers, Kubrick had long since discharged his debt to the cinema.
Perhaps the film that put an end to the 1960s in Britain with the utmost finality is Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammel’s justly notorious Performance (1970), in which ex-pop star Turner (Mick Jagger) lives in a dilapidated house in a rundown area of London, presiding over a peculiar ménage, including Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton). When Stanley Kubrick (with beard, standing directly to the right of the camera) on the set of his film hoodlum-on-the-run Chas (James Fox) comes into A Clockwork Orange (1971).
Turner’s life unexpectedly, Turner drugs the gangster
with hallucinogenic mushrooms and momentarily delights in dressing him up in a variety of disguises, ostensibly to obtain a camouflaged passport photo, so that Chas can leave the country. It is at this point that Chas’s old associates finally discover his hiding place. Making no attempt to escape, Chas asks his captors for one last favor—a final chat with Turner. In Turner’s bedroom, Chas responds to Turner’s unspoken wish to be murdered and shoots a bullet into the dissipated pop star’s brain, killing him instantly. Brilliantly photographed, with dazzling optical effects at every turn, the film indelibly chronicles the end of an era in London, when English pop music and film electrified a generation. Performance is a one-of-a-kind production, which signaled that the 1960s era of excess and experimentation had come to a screeching halt.