Meet Harris and Kubrick, two can-do guys growing up
babyface smart in New York.
It's 1955. Jimmy is looking for his break licensing
films to broadcasters when Stanley, an aquaintance through
a mutual pal, inquires if there is a chance to place
his 68-minute first feature "Fear And Desire"
somewhere on the glowing box. No dice. It turned out
the rights are hopelessly tied up in an estate dispute.
"We were like the characters in 'Marty,'"
says Harris. "What are you gonna do? I don't know.
What are you gonna do?"
screens Stanley's home-made second feature "Killer's
Kiss." He's impressed. Here is a guy who knows
what he's doing with a film camera. Likewise, Stanley
senses that James B. Harris has the goods to play ball
in the game of film finance and production. Jimmy proposes
a partnership, Stanley agrees and Harris-Kubrick is
Now Harris realizes with some alarm that he better
get some hot property onboard for his partner to direct.
He makes a beeline to the mystery section at Scribner's
on 5th Avenue and pulls a book off the shelf. By some
serendipity it's ideal. Stanley listens to the pitch
and says, "Absolutely."
Clean Break by Lionel White is a hard-knock
pulp that uses a nested structure to unlock the edgy
game of a racetrack heist gone
bad. To reduce a lot of work into one sentence, the
two New Yorkers went to Hollywood and made a hell of
a good movie a domino effect of action, suspense,
comedy and tragedy. It was called "The Killing"
(1956). Shot in 24 days for $330,000, it featured a
firecracker cast of noir vets like Sterling Hayden and
Marie Windsor. Thanks to Stanley's visual know-how and
a Gatling gun script belt-loaded by pulp writer Jim
Thompson, "The Killing" joins ranks with "Kiss
Me Deadly" and "Touch of Evil" as the
requiem for classic noir cinema. The title hit the Top
10 list with Time's yearly critic, a major coup
but as the B-feature behind a Robert Mitchum actioner
called "Bandido," it was basically undistinguished
in its initial run.
partnership had found its rhythm, however, and Harris-Kubrick
hit the bull's-eye with their follow-up. "Paths
Of Glory" was adapted from a novel Stanley remembered
from age 14. Where "The Killing" was effective
genre stuff, this was the war picture par excellence,
thematically ambitious, technically superb, affectingly
played, showcasing Kirk Douglas at the height of his
screen powers, a palpable hit with critics and exhibitors
alike. It had violence, it had Kirk, it had tragic pathos.
It made people cry.
Harris-Kubrick was on the map and on a creative roll.
Jimmy had their next project in his sites. It was the
talk of the city's literary scene a notorious,
possibly immoral, not-yet published new novel by someone
Harris was intrigued. Then Stanley's friend and co-scripter
on "Paths Of Glory," Calder Willingham, piped
up he knew about Nabakov from Cornell University and
he had heard about this. The trio wanted to read this
novel damn fast. It arrived in the post from Putnam's
and the three friends split the manuscript of Lolita
into thirds and relayed their way through the novel.
"We loved it," says Jimmy. "I said,
'my God, we have got to do this. I don't know how we
are going to get it made but we have got to do this.'"
Lolita was the ideal change of key for Harris-Kubrick,
from crime and war to a bizarre love story; a subversive
tragedy leavened with wit; and a dangerous liaison with
roots in DeSade and Restoration English drama and branches
in Kubrick's later titles "Barry Lyndon" and
"Eyes Wide Shut."
Right at the start Jimmy and Stanley agreed on their
approach. The public knew
the book was controversial. They would expect a dirty
old man, a deviant, someone to despise. Instead, in
"Lolita" they would find a man destroyed by
unrequited love by fate, folly, vanity. Whether
you called it a perversion or a fatal flaw, he was someone
you could actually feel for. Stanley delivered the dramatic
goods with the kind of genius for which he was quickly
Meanwhile it was Jimmy's job navigating the rocky straits
between nay-saying agents, fickle financiers, The Legion
of Decency, the MPAA censor, and scores of critics who
demanded perfect fidelity to the novel (at the time
the auteur theory favored the novelist). It took
years to get the cameras rolling. There were lengthy
delays (Harris labored on setting up "Lolita"
while Stanley shot "Spartacus" for Kirk Douglas).
Lead actors fell in and out. Studio deals collapsed.
Harris kept up the fight to make a new, better, more
challenging picture with "Lolita." He ran
the risk of the public hating it because they hated
the subject and critics hating it because they loved
the novel. Instead the title turned a profit and critics
recognize it as vital, the black comedy, or comic tragedy,
that preceded "Dr. Strangelove."
It's a tribute to Jimmy it exists.