After Death, My Sweet: From an Idea by Kubrick, a New Film May Be Born
By CHARLES McGRATH; New York Times
Stanley Kubrick never threw anything away. On the other hand, he didn’t have much of a filing system, and when he moved — permanently, it turned out — from Hollywood to London in 1962, a great many things went astray. Among them was the sole copy of a film treatment called “Lunatic at Large,” which Mr. Kubrick had commissioned in the late ’50s from the noir pulp novelist Jim Thompson, with whom he had worked on “The Killing,” a 1956 bank-heist story that became his first successful feature, and then on 1957’s “Paths of Glory.”
The manuscript remained lost until after Mr. Kubrick’s death, in 1999, when his son-in-law, Philip Hobbs, working with an archivist, turned it up, along with a couple of other scripts, and set about trying to make it into a movie.
There were a couple of false starts. Mr. Hobbs originally approached the French company Pathé — partly because the French hold Jim Thompson in the same esteem as Edgar Allan Poe and Mickey Rourke — and after that arrangement fell through, he formed a partnership with Edward R. Pressman, a New York-based producer, and the London producers Finch & Partners. Mr. Pressman, who is expected to announce the completion of the deal today, said the film would be directed by Chris Palmer, from a finished script by Stephen R. Clarke.
“When Stanley died, he left behind lots of paperwork,” Mr. Hobbs said in a telephone interview. “We ended up going through trunks of it, and one day we came across ‘Lunatic at Large.’ I knew what it was right away, because I remember Stanley talking about ‘Lunatic.’ He was always saying he wished he knew where it was, because it was such a great idea.”
Speaking from her home in Britain, Mr. Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, said: “My husband always had a drawerful of ideas. There were always a lot of stories on the go, things he started, things he left lying around. It was like being in a waterfall. I remember he was very excited at the time about ‘Lunatic at Large,’ but then other things happened.” First, she explained, Mr. Kubrick was forced off “One-Eyed Jacks,” with Marlon Brando, and then he was hired to replace Anthony Mann on “Spartacus.”
“ ‘Spartacus’ changed his life,” she said. “And after that his imagination was held by ‘Lolita,’ which gave him the opportunity to film in England, where making movies cost so much less.”
The loss of his manuscript was a bitter disappointment to Mr. Thompson, who had a long and mostly hard-luck relationship with Hollywood. Like a lot of writers who seek their fortune there, he eventually drank too much and became his own worst enemy. He died in 1977, much too soon for the revival of interest that made him a cult writer in the ’90s, when four of his novels were made into films: “The Grifters,” “The Getaway,” “Hit Me” and “After Dark, My Sweet.”
Despite its title, “Lunatic at Large” is not a horror story. It’s a dark and surprising mystery of sorts, in which the greatest puzzle is who, among several plausible candidates, is the true escapee from a nearby mental hospital. Mr. Clarke, the screenwriter, said that the recovered treatment (a prose narrative dramatizing an idea by Mr. Kubrick) was a “gem” but also “pretty basic,” and that he expanded it a bit, adding a new subplot, among other things, to make the solution less obvious. Mr. Clarke’s experience consists mostly of writing for British television, so he prepared for his new task by rereading Mr. Thompson and studying old Bogart films.
His finished screenplay has the feel of authentic Thompsonian pulpiness. Set in New York in 1956, it tells the story of Johnnie Sheppard, an ex-carnival worker with serious anger-management issues, and Joyce, a nervous, attractive barfly he picks up in a Hopperesque tavern scene. There’s a newsboy who flashes a portentous headline, a car chase over a railroad crossing with a train bearing down, and a romantic interlude in a spooky, deserted mountain lodge.
The great set piece is a nighttime carnival sequence in which Joyce, lost and afraid, wanders among the tents and encounters a sideshow’s worth of familiar carnie types: the Alligator Man, the Mule-Faced Woman, the Midget Monkey Girl, the Human Blockhead, with the inevitable noggin full of nails.
Back when Mr. Kubrick and Mr. Thompson were working on it, this was probably cutting-edge stuff, and you can imagine that Mr. Kubrick might even have been tempted to film “Lunatic at Large” in noirish black and white. Today it feels like a period piece, but the filmmaking team has resisted the temptation to update it. “That’s the beauty of it — that it is such a period piece,” Mr. Clarke said.
Mr. Pressman agreed. “You just couldn’t make it any other way,” he said. “It wouldn’t work.”
“Post-Tarantino,” he added, “this kind of film has become new in a way. Things go in cycles.”
The director hired for “Lunatic at Large,” Mr. Palmer, is in roughly the position Ridley Scott was in before “The Duellists.” He’s an acclaimed London director of commercials, that is, who has never made a feature film.
But Mr. Hobbs is untroubled. “You have to remember that before he got his big chance, Stanley had only made one or two films,” he said. “And you can’t go to just anyone with a Kubrick idea; it does have a bit of provenance. A lot of people would be frightened to take it on.”