Marking the 50th anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we take a step back to look at his earliest film, The Day of the Fight from 1951.
The Day of the Fight is the primary touchstone from which Stanley Kubrick’s unique cinematic style would evolve.
Like the battling man-apes during 2001‘s Dawn of Man sequence, The Day of the Fight depicts a man’s struggle to survive the elements of a disinterested, sometimes hostile world.
The Day of the Fight is a short newsreel documentary that tells the story of rising middleweight boxer Walter Cartier preparing for the fight of his life. For Stanley Kubrick, it was his first chance to prove to the world he had what it takes to produce a professional film.
Kubrick and his friend, fellow filmmaker Alexander Singer, realized the sports segments in newsreels of the day were invariably composed of bad photography and poorly conceived stories.
It struck them that if they took a more journalistic approach, modeled on Kubrick’s work in Look Magazine, they could convey cinematically a dramatic rhythm that evoked the high emotional impact building as the fight approached.
Each segment for the newsreel series March of Time cost around $40,000, roughly equal to $400,000 today.
Kubrick convinced the March of Time executives he could produce a segment for a mere $1,500, the equivalent to about $15,000 now.
Stanley estimated if he used the money he had saved while working as a staff photographer for Look Magazine, he could the use the photojournalistic technique he had developed, shoot a low-cost film, and still make a tidy profit.
Look Magazine was a human interest rag that published more pictorials than articles, much like its competitor Life Magazine’.
For the protagonist, Stanley reached out once again to up-and-coming boxer Walter Cartier who was the subject of Kubrick’s original photo essay for Look in 1949.
This seven page pictorial about the photogenic pugilist Kubrick shot for Look several years earlier would be the blueprint for documenting the prizefighter’s preparation for the bout. Kubrick was only 21 at the time, but boxer Walter Cartier admired Stanley’s maturity and attention to detail. This rapport and mutual respect would lead Kubrick to credit Cartier as technical advisor so they could produce the most authentic film possible.
“Walter would say, ‘Stanley, this would be a good shot . . . Stanley would think about it and make a quick decision, he was amiable to suggestions,” Cartier’s brother recalled in Vincent LoBrutto’s Stanley Kubrick: A Biography in 1997.
Outside of the boxing arena, Kubrick captured the real lives of the Cartier twins in the cramped Greenwich Village apartment they shared with their aunt.
Though some moments were contrived, Kubrick closely focused on the actual moments of the boxer’s day — walking the streets, taking communion, eating a steak, getting a physical.
Whether Cartier won or not did not matter so much as filming the real life drama that unfolded before them.
To further distinguish the short, Kubrick skillfully lit his subjects in the moody, film noir style common in crime movies and TV police dramas of the day.
The beginnings of a clear aesthetic which would leave indelible marks that can be traced through all of Stanley Kubrick’s films are present here — the dramatic rack-focus, the handheld camera roaming around the action, the attention to depth-of-field, the careful balance between narrator and music to drive the momentum forward.
Despite the cost of buying, shooting, and processing 35mm B&W film doubling his budget, even if he had to get a loan from his father, Stanley was too far along not to trust his instincts. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I could do better than most of the films I was seeing at the time,” Kubrick told The Film Director as Superstar author Joseph Gelmis in 1970.
Besides the money, Kubrick knew the stakes would be even higher when he filmed the actual fight.
There would only be one chance to get it right.
While Kubrick shot a handheld Eyemo camera, Alexander Singer operated a second camera fixed upon a tripod. It was essential they get the maximum amount of coverage to have optimum amount choices during the edit, and make sure they caught any decisive blow.
To capture the entire fight, Kubrick and Singer had to sync themselves so that at least one camera was always rolling while the other could be reloaded.
It was a fateful decision since it was Singer who singularly caught the final knockout.
Stanley missed it.
He was in the middle of reloading his camera.
In one shot, Kubrick reached his camera into the ring and pointed it upward, shooting blindly but still catching the boxers from below as they made contact.
Kubrick passed over the typical canned soundtrack so common in newsreels and instead recruited Bronx neighborhood friend and Julliard oboist Gerald Fried. Fried had never considered film scores before, but was captivated by the idea and spent a year going to movies and taking notes, often with Kubrick.
“Stanley and I went to the movies together and we would say, ‘This is working, this is not working.'” Together, they developed an intuition where music was effective, and where it didn’t work at all.
This led Kubrick and Fried to mutually agree that the fight sequences should have no music.
The raw sound of the blows of the fists and the roar of the crowd was the only soundtrack needed to heighten the film’s climax.
To narrate, Kubrick hired Douglas Edwards, a veteran newsreader from CBS who was the predecessor to Walter Cronkite.
By The Day of the Fight‘s completion, March of Time was going out of business.
Kubrick was able to sell it to another newsreel distributor, making barely a $100 profit, about $1,000 today.
Later, he would claim he in fact lost $100.
Even so, the true value was in the experienced Stanley Kubrick acquired, in his ability to put his stamp on a typically formulaic genre, and maybe more importantly, having the opportunity to secure an advance from the distributor to produce a second film.
The Day of the Fight would be released on April 26, 1951 as a short before , and marks Stanley Kubrick’s step up from magazine photographer to bona fide filmmaker.