On September 15, 1978, in the middle of filming The Shining, Jack Nicholson had a suggestion for his co-star Joe Turkel and their director Stanley Kubrick: “Let’s go to the fight tonight.”
Kubrick asked his actors who was fighting. Muhammad Ali, they explained, was facing heavyweight champion Leon Spinks for the title.
“Stanley was standing there, looking through a camera at an angle, and he said ‘Ali’s the champ, you’re wasting your time.’” Turkel, who played Lloyd, the mysterious bartender in the flick, told The Guardian in 2012.
“Jack replied: ‘No, Spinks is the champ.’ Stanley stood, summoned his secretary and said: ‘Call my bookie.’ Jack and I looked at each other. He put $5,000 on Ali and then he said: ‘Boxing is as crooked as the pictures business. There’s no way they’ll let Spinks win—the fight business won’t make a dime. It’s a fix.’”
Nicholson and Turkel went to the match and got to witness Ali dominate Spinks for 15 rounds before claiming the unanimous decision victory and regaining his title. Kubrick stayed home editing footage. While presumably counting his winnings.
“Stanley hustled as a kid,” Turkel, who first worked with Kubrick in the mid-‘50s, told Nicholson. “And he’s hustling us now.”
The director might not have thought much of the business side of boxing and pictures, but he clearly had a lot of respect for the artistry of both. It’s evident in all of his work. In fact, he might never have become one of the world’s most respected filmmakers if it hadn’t been for boxing.
Kubrick’s visual love affair with the sweet science began when he was working at Look magazine in the late-‘40s. The young staff photographer—hired straight out of high school—was sent to follow a Bronx-born boxing prospect named Walter Cartier around as he prepared for his next two fights. Cartier won one of those fights, but it was Kubrick who emerged from the experience as a top contender in his field.
The result of that assignment was published as Prizefighter, an eight-page photo essay in the January 1949 issue of Look. Vincent Lobrutto, author of Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, described the collection of photos as the moment when Kubrick came of age a photojournalist.
“Even allowing for the fact we know the photographer was going to be someone special, the Prizefighter pictures are stupendous: chiaroscuro studies of bruising ring combat, sculptural treatment of introspective stillness,” film critic Andrew Pulver wrote about the spread in a 2009 Guardian essay on the filmmaker and his pugilistic muse, “This is the point at which Caravaggio meets film noir.”
The subject matter of the shots is just as striking as their composition. While Kubrick was adept at capturing the action in the ring, he was equally interested in the training and preparation that leads up to those fleeting moments of combat, and Prizefighter is a thoughtful portrait of all of those elements shot with both a journalist’s probing eye and a fan’s boundless curiosity. The section dedicated to “The Day of a Fight” is of particular note, with its juxtaposition of family breakfast and weigh in, church attendance and eye examination. It’s a subtle celebration of pre-fight ritual and psychology, shot by someone who’s almost as intrigued by the hours that lead up to a bout as the match itself.
Kubrick capitalized on this fascination with his directorial debut, a short film called Day of the Fight. Released two years after his photo essay, the short was essential a live remake of Prizefighter, and once again followed Cartier in the hours leading up to his latest fight. There is one major difference between Prizefighter and Day of the Fight, though: the latter takes a far deeper look at its subject’s pre-fight headspace.
As Jon Dieringer puts it in a Time article on the film: “Day of the Fight is a distinctly cinematic work; particularly remarkable is Kubrick’s ability to control time and add an element of suspense in portraying Walter’s anticipation of the fight, a trait missing in Prizefighter.”
There are two versions of The Day of the Fight. The longer version begins with a general introduction to the sport, narrated over a collection of stock footage.
“This is a fight fan. ‘Fan’ short for fanatic,” the narrator begins. “There’s a legion just like him in the United States. Each year, he shoves his share of $90 million under the wicket for the privilege of attending places were matched pairs of men will get up on a canvas platform and commit legal assault and lawful battery. What is the fascination? What does the fan look for? Competitive sport? Scientific skill? Partly. But mostly he seeks action. Toe to toe body contact. Physical violence. The triumph of force over force. The primitive, vicarious, visceral thrill of seeing one animal overcome another.”
The shorter, stock footage-free version, the one that seems to be most commonly shared among Kubrick scholars and fans, skips the salacious primer and begins with shots of fight posters around the city.
“This is the story of a fight and of a fighter,” the narration promises. “Walter Cartier. Today is the fight. Tonight at 10 o’clock will be one of the moments that justify his difficult life.”
Kubrick filmed everything leading up to the fight itself on his own. For the match, though he enlisted two other cameramen—one ringside and one high up in the stands—to help capture the action.
Boxing is an inherently cinematic sport, but Kubrick never resorted to simply filming the fight head-on and letting Cartier and his opponent do all of his work for him. He shot on an angle outside of the canvas, forcing the audiences to peer up through the ropes like an enthralled child with front row seats. He shot under one fighter’s stool before the bell. He even shot directly under the boxers as they traded punches overhead.
Kubrick returned to the ring one more time with Killer’s Kiss, his second feature-length film (and the first feature he didn’t hate in retrospect). The 1955 film noir kidnapping caper begins with its main character, a welterweight named Davey Gordon, preparing for his latest fight, going through many of the same motions and rituals as Cartier did in Prizefighter and Day of the Fight. Kubrick also revisits many of the same shots and setups as he used is his photo essay and short film and improves on them.
Documenting actual fights might give a photographer or filmmaker an intensity that choreographed action can never quite imitate, but staged matches offer talented filmmakers a plethora of creative shots that would be impossible in all-out combat. As one of the most talented filmmakers of all-time, Kubrick certainly made use of the cinematic opportunities when he was making Killer’s Kiss, jumping right into the ring with actors and taking the unique camera work of Day of the Fight to a whole new level of creativity and innovation.
Watching the boxing scenes in Killer’s Kiss is like watching Kubrick become a full-fledged filmmaker. There are many stunning scenes in the film, but most of them are quite static in nature, like they’re framed and shot with a photographer’s eye. When Kubrick and his characters get in the ring, you can, for the first time, see the burgeoning brilliance of the director’s vision in motion. Boxing is, if you’ll allow a ridiculous Kubrickian analogy, like the monolith in 2001: the young filmmaker stumbles upon the sport, he interacts with it, and then he suddenly makes incredible intellectual and artistic gains.
Kubrick moved on from boxing after Killer’s Kiss, but the influence of those early days is evident in everything else he made.
In an exhaustive article on her site, writer Juli Kearns makes an impressive case for the ways in which Day of the Fight predicted everything from The Shining to his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. The author’s personal distaste for boxing permeates most of the observations—it’s a bit like someone writing “I loathe outer space, but here’s my take on 2001!”—but it’s an impressive breakdown nonetheless.
Kubrick’s interest in violence gravitated toward condemnation of war—a theme in many of his works like Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket—and the ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange in the greater part of his oeuvre. But there’s also a recurring theme of hand-to-hand combat in his work. Spartacus and Barry Lyndon have fight scenes filmed with the same inventive eye that once followed Walter Cartier’s jabs and hooks. Dr. Strangelove adds slapstick to the mix with the spat in the war room (and the original ending involved a pie fight).
You can also see the influence of Kubrick’s boxing period in the work of other prominent directors. Take Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, for example.
When I was picking a Kubrick-loving friend’s brain for this piece (to see if I’d missed any fights in other movies, and to confirm that I had, in fact, hallucinated in a scene in Eyes Wide Shut in which Tom Cruise’s characters gets into humiliating fisticuffs with a random man on the street), she said, quite casually in the course of our conversation that Kubrick could have made the boxing masterpiece instead of Scorsese.
I had just written about Raging Bull in my last article, and was still feeling ambivalent about my assertion that anyone might be able to film a remake that wouldn’t entirely suck. Her suggestion that someone else could have made the original instead of Scorsese took me aback.
Then I went back watched Raging Bull’s opening credits again, that iconic, anticipation-building shot of Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, shadowboxing in his corner. Other than the angle of the shot—Kubrick would have titled that camera upward—it’s pure Day of the Fight.
So maybe Kubrick could have made Raging Bull, but that’s a moot point now. What’s important and undeniable is that Scorsese certainly couldn’t have made Raging Bull without Kubrick.
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