Stanley Kubrick Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stanley Kubrick 1928–

American director and screenwriter.

Kubrick's are among the most ambitious and original films of the past three decades. A controversial director of outlandish subjects and eccentric cinematic styles, Kubrick derives an artistic identity from his natural bent for novelty and inventiveness. As a youth he took a keen interest in photography. While in high school he sold some of his photographs to Look; and after graduation became a staff photographer for that magazine. His first film short, Day of the Fight, was originally a picture story in Look, and his increasing preoccupation with cinema led to a second short documentary entitled Flying Padre. Kubrick sold these films to RKO at a slight profit and, after borrowing additional funds, made his first feature, Fear and Desire.

Stylishly imaginative camerawork and a somewhat erratic structure are the identifying traits of Fear and Desire. It received critical approval but not commercial success. Killer's Kiss is also characterized by an interesting visual style and structure supporting a conventional storyline. Less conventional is The Killing, a crime caper distinctive for relating its story with impersonal and efficient objectivity. Of the early films the most highly regarded is Paths of Glory, its favorable critical reception promoting Kubrick to the stature of an important American director. After directing Spartacus, a project on which he considered himself only hired talent, Kubrick chose to make a film from Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel Lolita. Though criticized for its various divergences from the novel, Kubrick's film nonetheless proves artistically adventuresome in its own right, containing at times a surreal quality foretold by certain scenes in his early films and pursued further in his later ones.

The sometimes grotesque farce in Lolita is amplified in Kubrick's next film, Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This work, like all its successors in the Kubrick filmography, received dramatically varied critical estimates and interpretations. 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably the most outstanding example of this mixed reception, being alternately viewed as a work of cosmic prophecy and an attempt at gratuitous mystification.

A Clockwork Orange, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, is the third Kubrick film concerned with a hypothetical reality. Some critics see this story of ultra-violence in a decaying society as further evidence of the pessimistic undercurrents present in all of this director's films. After his three scenarios of the future, Kubrick recreated William Thackeray's novel of romance and adventure in the eighteenth century, Barry Lyndon. Despite the apparent departure from the previous themes and subjects of Kubrick's work, critics have observed in this film the same emphasis on stylization and strictly formal elements, along with a skeptical perspective on societal pretenses.

Kubrick is an idiosyncratic artist whose work nevertheless has wide appeal. Perhaps his greatest strength as a filmmaker lies in his ability to make films that are readily accessible to the viewer while providing abundant matter for critical speculation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Gavin Lambert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The difference between [Fear and Desire] and [Killer's Kiss] is striking; although Killer's Kiss is a melodrama too full of familiar and not always skilful contrivances, it has a simplicity of outline, an atmospheric power, a directness in its characterisation, that suggests a maturing and distinctive personality…. [The] melodrama is the least successful, most derivative aspect of the film; its real originality lies in its approach to characterisation and atmosphere….

By contrast the action sequences seem not only derivative but dramatically less strong. The attack on Davy's manager in the deserted yard at night reminds one too directly of The Set-Up, and the rooftop...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Arlene Croce

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stanley Kubrick's [The Killing] is an estimable entry into that small field of well-made crime films that expose the modus operandi of the colossal caper. Like Rififi and The Asphalt Jungle (after which it is principally patterned) its action is thickly and informatively plotted, possessed of that classic fatality that insures retribution, and dependent for its thrills upon a network of smooth calculation severed by fey circumstance and mislaid trusts….

His film lacks the pervasive knowledge and control of John Huston's masterwork, and although his material has absorbed him utterly, he has been wise to remain detached from it. His camera is relentlessly objective, cool,...

(The entire section is 326 words.)

Gavin Lambert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is much in [Paths of Glory] that powerfully illustrates the physical horrors of war, but even more impressive and frightening is the study of its social structure. The world seems cruelly divided into the leaders and the led. The officers conduct their foxy intrigues in the elegant rooms of a great chateau, and the setting somehow emphasizes their indifference to human life. The men go to the trenches and into battle as in peace-time they went to offices or factories. The sequence of the attack itself, done mainly in a series of vivid, inexorable, lateral tracking shots, is a fearful reminder that war, simply, kills a lot of people; and the film finds an eloquent visual contrast between the grim carnage...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

Jonathan Baumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In an age characterized on the one hand by a cult of happy mediocrity and on the other by the growing power, prestige, and necessity of the military, Paths of Glory is a specter from our unsophisticated past….

Directed with obvious sincerity and restraint, Paths of Glory is an explosion upon our consciousness. The locale is France and the time is 1916 but the film has an insistent immediacy that is at once stunning and upsetting. Though unfashionable it is timely and also timeless, the especial qualities of art. The military, committed to the game of wholesale destruction for personal glory, is, by definition, petty and corrupt. But that is an irreverent thing to say about our fatted...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Norman N. Holland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It used to be idle—or scholarly—to compare films to the novels from which they were taken; now, one can scarcely avoid it. The index to the change is the difference between Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) or Paths of Glory (1957) and his Lolita (1962). The earlier films were real films; Lolita is in the current style of the un-film.

The only truly cinematic effect I noticed was a cut from somebody's face to a face in a horror movie at a drive-in, a cut so drastic I cannot even remember what face Kubrick cut from. In the absence of cinema, such details as Charlie at the girls' camp or Dolly's husband's hearing-aid are dutifully lugged over from the novel; they make...

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Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The surprise of Lolita is how enjoyable it is: it's the first new American comedy since those great days in the forties when Preston Sturges recreated comedy with verbal slapstick. Lolita is black slapstick and at times it's so far out that you gasp as you laugh. (p. 205)

Perhaps the reviewers have been finding so many faults with Lolita because this is such an easy way to show off some fake kind of erudition: even newspaper reviewers can demonstrate that they're read a book by complaining about how different the movie is from the novel. The movie is different but not that different, and if you can get over the reviewers' preoccupation with the sacredness of...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dr. Strangelove possesses a great many distinctions as a work of the imagination, but I should like to cite it, first and foremost, for valor: I think it may well be the most courageous movie ever made. It is certainly one of the funniest…. [There] is something extraordinarily liberating in the nature of the movie itself. It is the kind of total theater that Antonin Artaud would have admired, with its dark humor, its physical and anarchic dissociation. Dr. Strangelove is a plague experienced in the nerves and the funny bone—a delirium, a conflagration, a social disaster.

What Stanley Kubrick has done is to break completely with all existing traditions of moviemaking, both foreign and...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

Tom Milne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Some directors possess an instantly recognisable signature; others, merely a consistency of style and treatment; but the worrying thing about Stanley Kubrick was the way he once made excellent films which seemed to reveal so little of their director's personality that they might almost have come out of a vacuum. While admiring The Killing and, even more, Paths of Glory, one couldn't help wondering whether Kubrick might not turn out after all as simply a brilliant packager of artistically viable merchandise, giving the turn of the screw of his clever talent to the production of something several shades more incisive, but no more personal, than the gangster films or anti-war films which were in the...

(The entire section is 1404 words.)

Jackson Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kubrick films are very bloody and cruel. For savage assault upon the viewer's nerves and hopes, there is little in modern film to match the protracted death-march in Paths of Glory, and the Kubrick canon includes also Lolita, with its murder shown lovingly and lengthily not once but twice; the explosive massacre in The Killing; the Spartacus bloodbath; and the unforgettable "thump" of the dying general's nose hitting the floor in Fear and Desire. This virtually sadistic treatment of the audience must be accounted for, along with the numerous ambiguities of Strangelove, if Kubrick's particular brand of anti-militarism, and its effect on his work, is to be understood. One must...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The great merit of Dr. Strangelove is its bad taste. It is silly to argue that we have the right to say anything we want but that to exercise this right is the height of irresponsibility. Responsible art is dead art, and a sane (no pun intended) film on the bomb would have been a deadly bore.

Given the basic premise of nuclear annihilation, the zany conception of Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George has much to commend it. Where my critical fallout with most of my colleagues occurs is in the realm of execution. Aided by the tightest scenario since Rashomon, and the most deceptive as far as directorial exercises go, Kubrick has been hailed in many quarters as the greatest...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

F. Anthony Macklin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In all of the varied critical opinion, much has been said about the purposes of Dr. Strangelove, but a dominant theme that pervades the film from beginning to end has been ignored…. Dr. Strangelove is a sex allegory: from foreplay to explosion in the mechanized world….

Like Jonathan Swift, who employed Master Bates in Gulliver's Travels, the creators of Dr. Strangelove … gave special significance to names that represent various aspects of sex. General Jack D. Ripper …, commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, initiates the attack on the Soviet Union. General Ripper, a sex fiend in his own way, is obsessed by the idea of "bodily fluids" and what is happening to them;...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey took five years and $10 million to make, and it's easy to see where the time and the money have gone. It's less easy to understand how, for five years, Kubrick managed to concentrate on his ingenuity and ignore his talent. In the first 30 seconds, this film gets off on the wrong foot and, although there are plenty of clever effects and some amusing spots, it never recovers. Because this is a major effort by an important director, it is a major disappointment….

2001 tells us, perhaps, what space travel will be like, but it does so with almost none of the wit of Dr. Strangelove or Lolita and with little of the visual acuity of...

(The entire section is 395 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a film about progress—physical, social, and technological—Stanley Kubrick's huge and provocative 2001: A Space Odyssey remains essentially linear until its extraordinary ending. In the final transfiguration, director Kubrick and co-author Arthur Clarke … suggest that evolutionary progress may in fact be cyclical, perhaps in the shape of a helix formation. Man progresses to a certain point in evolution, then begins again from scratch on a higher level. Much of 2001's conceptual originality derives from its being both anti-Christian and anti-evolutionary in its theme of man's progress controlled by an ambiguous extra-terrestrial force, possibly both capricious and destructive….


(The entire section is 278 words.)

Elie Flatto

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Essentially, the space-odyssey described in 2001 represents, I believe, Man's eternal quest for spiritual meaning and self-renewal. Man, as such, seems to have come to the end of a long journey begun with his inception as a species on earth. Having maximized his control over nature, he has reached a deadend in the evolutionary process, and in a circuitous manner, he has returned to his primordial conditions. Man may continue to invent, create, discover—yet he is no longer capable of fulfilling and renewing himself. In short, Man is ready for a new step in the evolutionary process in order to re-experience the excitement and adventure of a meaningful life.

Going back in time, the film...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In one way Stanley Kubrick's [A Clockwork Orange] is cheering. This time, as in all his work before 2001, he sticks to a narrative, depicts character, opts for "literary humanism"—does all the things that some critics claimed he had deliberately abandoned, in the space picture, for a new esthetics. Perhaps the new esthetics was only a wobble? Revised editions of various pronunciamentos may now be in order.

But there isn't a great deal more to celebrate in A Clockwork Orange. Certainly there are some striking images; certainly there is some impudent wit, some adroitness. But the worst flaw in the film is its air of cool intelligence and ruthless moral inquiry, because...

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Paul D. Zimmerman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[At] its most profound level, "A Clockwork Orange" is an odyssey of the human personality, a statement on what it is to be fully human. Alex's adventures are, in one sense, the adventures of the id itself. Alex embodies all of man's anarchic impulses. Shorn of his individuality in the penitentiary and of his fantasy life in the conditioning program, he ceases to be a human being in any real sense. His resurrection at the end, as he regains his ability to act out his lusts and aggressions, represents an ironic triumph of the human psyche over the forces that seek to control or diminish it.

Control has been a continuing theme in Kubrick's movies: control of time and the environment by the gangsters who...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Charles Thomas Samuels

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From the beginning, most American filmmakers have been idiot-savants: technically brilliant but unintelligent about life. (p. 439)

Although Stanley Kubrick began his career within [this] artistic tradition …, he soon displayed signs of rejection. After two obviously apprentice films …, Kubrick made a tightly plotted action movie that nevertheless subverts some of the genre's basic assumptions. So far from showing a meticulously planned heist as the expression of human adroitness, The Killing reveals how poignant an error it is to neglect needs and feelings in one's dependence on technique. Without departing from the crime-does-not-pay formula, The Killing humanizes its...

(The entire section is 1033 words.)

Norman Kagan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fear and Desire is a fascinating effort containing a host of ideas, images, and themes which continue to appear in Kubrick's later films. (p. 18)

The first theme in Fear and Desire, stated in the poem at the opening, is that the story is made up of "imaginary worlds": each man's "war," "enemies," and "conflict" are his mind's way of dealing with the enigmatic events and inconsistent behavior that surround him. This is objectified throughout the film: in the powerful shocking images of animal-like passion, in the dreamlike retreats, chaotic killings, idle and absurd "philosophical" conversations. The images of the dead men are grotesque, eerily backlighted—they are no longer real men,...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One might often disagree with Kubrick's ideas, at times even find them a bit silly, but none of that detracts from the fact that Kubrick puts together picture shows which are entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, and provoking, all at the same time.

Kubrick is, among other things, a true screen poet. He knows how to use visual images to communicate. Movies should probably never communicate anything with words that could be communicated with a picture, and Kubrick's rarely do. Kubrick characterizes a gangster by the way he handles a gun in The Killing, a strange family triangle with a peck on the cheek in Lolita, a mad general by the way he chomps his cigar in Dr. Strangelove....

(The entire section is 522 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stanley Kubrick's major films reveal his search for an unrestricted form through which he can communicate with his audience without coercing them into mistaking his particular structures for reality. Increasingly, he has come to use the popular arts as his central means for expressing that search. He does this by showing us the contradictory meanings and implications of the popular arts, their escapist as well as their life-asserting implications, the ways in which they reveal the contemporary tendencies to run away from the complex, concrete uniqueness of life, and the ways in which they reveal the desperation of our search for the complex, concrete, uniqueness of life, our search for being itself. Kubrick recognizes...

(The entire section is 1510 words.)

John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kubrick's is a unified, coherent oeuvre, in the best auteur tradition. And yet, for myself I find there is always something in Kubrick's films, brilliant though most of them are, that seems to stop short of the total creative involvement of the true auteur. Is it perhaps that he is keeping back something vital of himself, that the films seem in a way like so many masks assumed by their maker rather than various aspects of his own face?…

Technically [Fear and Desire] leaves little to be desired: Kubrick's own camera work has considerable polish and a good professional finish spiced here and there with touches which suggest that his hours at the Museum of Modern Art were...

(The entire section is 1583 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barry Lyndon is a curious choice for Kubrick, who has become more and more estranged from the taste and smell of human experience….

[Watching] the movie is like looking at illustrations for a work that—partly through Thackeray's, but more through Kubrick's, negligence—has not been supplied. Striking as some of these illustrations, often in long or extreme long shot, are, they do not encourage our getting involved with the characters in the story. This has something to do with the episodic nature of the film, but mostly with the fact that the director seems more concerned with landscapes, architecture, period interiors, costumes, etc., than with what happens to the people in them. (p....

(The entire section is 183 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barry Lyndon very nearly accommodates Zeno's paradox of motion: it seems to remain—at least for long periods—in one place while actually it is moving ahead. Kubrick has produced three hours and four minutes of pictures….

Why was Kubrick interested in [Thackeray's] book? I infer, not by remote psychoanalysis but from what we are shown on screen, that the warping of innocence by experience was not the concern of his screenplay. We are told by the narrator …, whose voice is important in the proceedings, that Barry became skillful in chicanery and guile. We see nothing of this process, any more than we see him become skillful in the swordsmanship he later displays. All through the...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Harold Rosenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The movies could make their maximum contribution to culture by following the lead of Stanley Kubrick's unread literature. (p. 1)

But Kubrick's "Barry" is a lot more than a substitute for an all-but-forgotten tale. The movie also translates the printed page into art for the eye and the ear by coordinatings, music and landscaping of the period. The adventures of Barry, by this time commonplace and threadbare, are delivered in a faultless esthetic package…. The laggard unfolding of the plot permits one to lose oneself in countrysides that imitate paintings, in classically composed and toned interiors, in the placement and lighting of the figures. Kubrick's salvage job turns out to be a vessel filled...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Hans Feldmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick is making a significant statement about his age. In fact, along with 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon completes a trilogy on the moral and psychological nature of Western man and on the destiny of his civilization. 2001 itself is perhaps an emotionally and psychologically necessary response on Kubrick's part to the nihilism of Dr. Strangelove. The basic argument of the "Space Odyssey" is that mankind will survive the impending collapse of Western civilization. The film ends with an affirmation of life, an affirmation of the adventurous human spirit. Kubrick's affirmation, it is true, takes place outside of his cultural tradition, and the basic...

(The entire section is 986 words.)

Gene Youngblood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I think Barry Lyndon is the most intelligent, most amazing, most radical movie Stanley Kubrick has made—which is to say it's among the great achievements of contemporary cinema. I think the "failure" of this film is a failure of the collective imagination and I'm ashamed at the incomprehension and hostility with which our illustrious critics and noble citizens have dismissed it. Ashamed but not surprised. For at the heart of Barry Lyndon there's a silence that challenges the strength of the imagination, and imaginative courage is these days in exile….

I can think of few films of such intrinsic existential power, sans ideology and melodrama. This is pure cinema at full force,...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Alan Spiegel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The events in Barry Lyndon, while dramatic in themselves, are not presented in the form of a drama, but rather in the form of a spectacle for the senses. A beguilement of eye and ear precedes the customary seizure of the emotions. As in so much of Kubrick's best work—indeed, it is perhaps his defining quality—the images that you see exist not simply as vehicles for a story, but as vibrant indicators of a film-maker's commitment to his medium….

While all of this is true to some degree of each one of this director's films, it is true to the greatest degree of his present film: Barry Lyndon is Kubrick's most extravagantly beautiful creation. Opulent and solemn, jewel-like and lucid,...

(The entire section is 1069 words.)

Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Kubrick's "The Shining," though] we may admire the effects, we're never drawn in by them, mesmerized. When we see a flash of bloody cadavers or observe a torrent of blood pouring from an elevator, we're not frightened, because Kubrick's absorption in film technology distances us. Each shot seems rigorously calculated, meticulous, and he keeps the scenes going for so long that any suspense dissipates. Kubrick's involvement in film technology led to the awesomely impressive effects of "2001," and to the tableau style of "Barry Lyndon," which some people found hypnotic, but it works against him here. (p. 130)

It took nerve, or maybe something more like hubris, for Kubrick to go against all...

(The entire section is 710 words.)