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Paths of Glory (Blu-ray Review)

1 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Meeker, George Macready.

It would be fascinating to see a list of Hollywood’s hundred top 100 box office performers of 1957 — given that this was the year that at least three all-timers (Sweet Smell of Success, A Face in the Crowd and Paths of Glory) opened to scant or worse business until their TV sales and then a spike in repertory theaters salvaged their now high permanent standings. But the latter, which adapted Humphrey Cobb’s even more unforgiving World War I novel, apparently did manage to turn a profit at the time — due, almost certainly, to the resourcefulness of a young cinematic comer named Stanley Kubrick and a frugal budget (a third of which went to star Kirk Douglas).

What amazes about the limited production funds is the perfect casting of the actors — often imaginatively in an ensemble work where its flamboyant star is allowed only a handful of “Kirk” moments. And cinematically, the film still dazzles as much as it ever has. Its occasional whiplash editing maintains its punch, and the exteriors (whether in French trenches or in a famed battle scene that was shot on someone’s farm) are no more arresting than the interiors, which are architecturally staged almost like a chess game with the actors as players.

The story’s key early turning point is an ordered French attack that fails from the get-go when the trench-bound soldiers can barely raise their heads without getting them shot off by German artillery. As a result, the all-but-psychotic general who ordered the attack after a cynical superior’s cajoling (George Macready) orders that three randomly picked soldiers undergo a phony court martial with their virtually instant execution to follow. This was all quite an eye-opener for me as a 10-year-old who saw Paths in its premiere engagement during a visit to New York City. The Bridge on the River Kwai had just opened there just one week earlier, and clearly, the tone of big-star war movies was changing. Even a kid had to be impressed when the picture was subsequently banned in France for about 20 years.

Looking at Criterion’s new Blu-ray, I don’t think I’ve ever been so taken with Kubrick’s fourth feature — both from the quality of the print and from the potency of several performances whose brilliance had inexplicably dimmed in my mind. Some of this enthrallment was picked up on my own, but a lot of my response was sparked by this release’s great Gary Giddins’ commentary (atop a good printed essay by Kubrick scholar James Naremore), which is a model of what this kind of voiceover should be. Some commentators sound as if they’re seeing the movie for the first time, while others sound so practiced that a lot of excitement is lost. Giddins’ sounds very spontaneous, though his insights are so illuminating that I doubt as if this could possibly be.

Giddins is very instructive explaining which parts of the movie are close to Cobb’s novel and which differ substantially (Kubrick’s version is more sentimental — a word that wouldn’t be associated with the director too much longer). But here is what else I learned — or emotionally hit me, with Giddins’ help – this time around:

• That co-credited screenwriter Calder Willingham (who later shared co-credit with Buck Henry for The Graduate’s screenplay) claimed that he wrote almost all of the film, undermining the contribution of both Kubrick and the now legendary pulp crime novelist Jim Thompson, who’d previously worked with the director on 1956’s The Killing. In fact, Thompson’s script contribution may have been as high as 50 per cent (though it utilized a lot of Cobb’s original prose).

• HOWEVER, Willingham apparently came up with the genius stroke to have the young German woman sing to weeping French soldiers in the famed concluding tavern scene — she played by Susanne Christian, who became Christiane Kubrick and eventually the director’s widow.

• At one point, career-conscious Kubrick actually entertained slapping a happy ending on the story until Douglas (whose production company spearheaded the venture) balked.

• Adolphe Menjou, expertly playing the slick conniver who appeals to the basest instincts of Macready’s fellow general, ranked with Ward Bond in real life as Hollywood’s most rabid right-winger. Seeing the actor in one of screen history’s most famous anti-war films is a bit of a startle, but maybe Menjou figured, “Well, these are just a bunch of Frogs we’re talking about here.”

• Macready’s real-life facial scar was evident to varying degree in other movies, but the makeup folk must have accentuated it here. It really adds to the ambiguity of a back-story we are left to imagine. Was Macready’s character a hero from some long ago combat or did he get the scar beating up a prostitute or something? (There’s absolutely no evidence regarding the latter, though one can easily intuits that it might not have gone against his grain that much.)

• Wayne Morris, as the boozy/cowardly lieutenant who settles an old score when he selects one of the three candidates for court-martial, ironically had a most impressive World War II record in real life (his career never recovered from the time spent off screen in the duration). He’s seen here about a year-and-a-half before he died of a heart attack at 45. 

• I think Menjou, Macready and Morris give the best performances of their careers here. Same goes for Richard Anderson, who plays the court-martial prosecutor and resident kisser of generals’ behinds. Anderson was often bland on screen — or, more fairly, relegated to bland parts. But the subtlety he brings to his character’s malevolence is impressive and benefits from the element of surprise. Paths would also have the best performance of Ralph Meeker’s career had he not previously played the greatest Mike Hammer imaginable in director Robert Aldrich’s masterpiece of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly. Note Meeker’s multi-leveled reaction in his last encounter with Morris, which rightfully dazzles Giddins.

• Timothy Carey memorably mixed it up on screen with James Dean (East of Eden) and Marlon Brando (One-Eyed-Jacks); in Kubrick’s immediately preceding The Killing, he shot a racehorse. Unbridled as ever, the actor is just as memorable here playing one of the accused because you just never know what he’s going to do. Giddins talks of how Carey was fired for off-screen behavior, necessitating some stunt double usage in uncompleted scenes. But some of this loose cannon’s on-screen hi-jinks displeased not only Douglas but featured actor Emile Meyer, who had no clue that Carey was going to improvise some very strange behavior on his character’s way to be executed. Like Menjou, Morris, Anderson, Bert Freed and other cast members, gruff Shane villain Meyer is cast very much against type – and most effectively — as one of those tough-guy priests like the one Karl Malden played in On the Waterfront.

The bonus extras here are first-rate: reminiscing by Christiane Kubrick and producer James B. Harris (also of The Killing and Kubrick’s version of Lolita); a short archival audio interview with Kubrick himself (whatever I thought I expected his voice to sound like, this wasn’t it); and a French TV piece about the real-life incident that inspired Cobb. The most beguiling supplement is a half-hour British TV interview from 1979 with Douglas, where the actor sings, displays great humor and clearly likes his host interviewer. I think that after this release begins to circulate, a lot of Kubrick fans will want to see Criterion tackle The Killing and maybe even its preceding Killer’s Kiss, given they are also (like Paths) from the ‘50s United Artists library, which Criterion has recently begun to sample. Come to think, UA’s Kiss Me Deadly wouldn’t be a bad choice, either.

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