On the Hunt: The Films of James B. Harris

On the films directed by Stanley Kubrick's producer of _The Killing_, _Paths of Glory_ and _Lolita_.
Danny King


At the ripe age of twenty-six—the two were born within days of each other in 1928—James B. Harris and Stanley Kubrick formed Harris-Kubrick Productions. With Kubrick leading the charge behind the camera and Harris acting as the right-hand-man producer, the duo completed three major critical successes: The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), and Lolita (1962). But where Kubrick’s subsequent work has achieved a supreme, hall-of-fame stature, Harris’s own directorial career—consisting of five excellent movies made across a four-decade span—remains, despite the valiant effort of a few notable English-language critics (Michael Atkinson, Jonathan Rosenbaum), on the relative sidelines. The latest attempt to boost Harris’s reputation: BAMcinématek’s week-long retrospective of Harris’s producing and directing output, selected by “Overdue” co-programmers Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold.

Harris and Kubrick stopped working together amidst a pre-production disagreement during the making of what would become Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Kubrick, against his producer’s suggestion, bravely refashioned the project’s source material (Peter George’s Red Alert) into a satire, while Harris—inspired by years of observing Kubrick coolly manage the day-to-day pressures of his job—made the leap of directing his own Cold War-themed picture, the stern, nuts-and-bolts submarine thriller The Bedford Incident (1965). The black-and-white movie, based on a Mark Rascovich novel, opens on eager journalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier), Nikon in hand, leaning out of a helicopter and snapping photos of an American ship in the Denmark Strait. This wordless, five-minute opening sequence—which concludes with Munceford and new-hire Dr. Potter (Martin Balsam) being led aboard the destroyer—forgoes dialogue in order to establish the chorus of sounds (roaring wind, humming engines, crashing waves) that define a life on the USS Bedford.

Publicity photo of The Bedford Incident. Courtesy of Photofest.

Though Harris cements Munceford and Potter as sympathetic characters—with Poitier’s magazine reporter in particular acting as an audience-surrogate type—it’s the ship’s controversial, hot-headed leader, Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark), who fascinates Harris the most. The hallmark of Harris’s male protagonists is all-enveloping obsession—professional, psychological, sexual, or sometimes all three—and Finlander is no exception. He runs a tight, relentless regimen: he’s “the most result-getting officer in the U.S. Navy” (Munceford’s words), and, much to Potter’s shock, none of the 300-plus men under Finlander’s command ever report for sick call. When asked how he keeps his subordinates so disciplined, Finlander boasts: “I keep them interested—with the hunt. There’s something very exciting about the hunt.” By the end of the movie, it’s clear that this fixation on “the hunt” has nothing to do with Finlander’s men, and everything to do with Finlander himself.

Harris and Widmark unfurl Finlander’s psychology with great richness and patience. Though stylistically and tonally tame in comparison to Harris’s later works, The Bedford Incident holds up both as an influential, lived-in entry in the subgenre of the close-quarters, boat-confined thriller (memorable setting details range from the blips on the beeping sonar machine to the insidious fog that slices through the air as the movie reaches its climax) and a credibly downbeat character portrait of “an old-fashioned patriot.” Widmark nails both of Finlander’s extremes: the chaotic, gleeful glint in his eyes when he’s got his enemies right where he wants them, and the utter dejection when he knows he’s crossed the line.

Publicity photo of Some Call It Loving. Courtesy of Photofest.

Harris’s unexpected follow-up, the personal-to-the-hilt Some Call It Loving (1973)—lifted from the premise of a John Collier short story—concerns a stupid-rich saxophonist, Robert Troy (Zalman King), who stumbles upon a “Sleeping Beauty” act (or is it?) at a carnival. The spectacle, overseen by an eccentric doctor (Logan Ramsey), allows men to pay $1 for a chance to kiss the resting damsel (Tisa Farrow) and wake her from her eight-years-and-counting slumber. After the evening’s performance, Robert takes the girl back to his opulent, high-ceilinged mansion—dropping a cool $20,000 for the privilege—and waits for her to regain consciousness.

Some Call It Loving in no way feels like the work of the director of The Bedford Incident; its challenging, dreamlike, merry-go-round narrative logic is so unusual that it leaves one scrambling to locate potential reference points. The carnival sequence—with Robert walking aimlessly within a sea of careening lights and boisterous, fantastical attractions—suggests a colorized reworking of Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), while a later scene in which Robert watches a naked girl dance in an empty nightclub under lonely red lights foreshadows a similar moment in John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). But even these passing connections do nothing to diminish the singularity of Some Call It Loving—of all of Harris’s movies as a director, this one stands to gain the most from multiple encounters. And the immediate pleasures on display—the jazzy interludes, Richard Pryor’s soused-beyond-coherence performance as Robert’s friend, the hot-and-cold color scheme (blues and reds are everywhere)—are more than enough to make the prospect of a revisit tantalizing.

Publicity photo of Fast-Walking. Courtesy of Photofest.

Where Harris’s first two features represent opposite ends of the spectrum—Incident is objective and straightforward, Loving is personal and delirious—his third movie, Fast-Walking (1982), finds Harris discovering the genre-flavored register that would occupy the rest of his career. Based on Ernest Brawley’s novel The Rap and shot at the Old Montana Prison in Deer Lodge, Montana, the movie stars the inimitable James Woods—in his first collaboration with Harris—as Frank “Fast-Walking” Miniver, an irreverent prison guard introduced smoking a joint in extreme close-up. His place of employment is dirty and rundown—the nets on the basketball court are shredded to pieces—and Miniver revels in the sordidness, stirring his shit coffee with a pencil and cracking a mad grin as he overhears the racial epithets that erupt once the morning alarm wakes up the inmates.

Miniver’s jumpy, jittery charisma stems from how little he cares about hiding his disdain. (The annoyance on Woods’s face as he puts on his uniform’s clip-on tie is hysterical.) When his superior threatens to fire him as a result of his “smart-ass attitude,” Miniver responds: “Well, lieutenant, that’s the best news I’ve heard all day.” His extracurricular activities are no prettier: while helping his cousin (Fat City’s Susan Tyrrell) run her convenience store, he uses the sheds out back to run a hasty, makeshift brothel for the local immigrant workers. (He takes pleasure in hosing down the women himself.) And when a beautiful girl (Kay Lenz, the star of Clint Eastwood’s Breezy) comes knocking looking for work in the trade, he uses the circumstances to weasel his way into a free lay.

This is a phenomenal showcase for Woods in his breakout leading-man role, but Fast-Walking is also instrumental in reinforcing Harris’s knack for filling out the edges of an ensemble: in addition to Tyrrell and Lenz, there’s M. Emmet Walsh, Timothy Carey, and, most prominently, Tim McIntire—whose feverish, drug-empire ambitions are detailed in a for-the-ages monologue: “I got ‘ludes, crank, Bombitas coke, bam, black beauties, cartwheels, yellow jackets, reds, long greens, rainbows, beans…” (A possible genetic connection between McIntire and Orson Welles, as described by Harris in a recent interview with Pinkerton, hints at the astonishing authority of the actor’s presence here.) This kind of inside-baseball language accounts for the movie’s appeal as a portrayal of a world populated by junkies, killers, hard-asses, and degenerates—as with the stuck-on-a-boat Bedford Incident, Fast-Walking doubles as a character study and an enveloping illustration of a particular, destructive environment.

Additionally, Fast-Walking reveals some of the misogynist traces present in Harris’s work. In one conspicuous scene, a dim-witted woman gives Miniver a mini-rant on “them colored”: “Seems like these days they just so full of hate they’d just [as soon] kill you as look at you.” Miniver, sighing aloud for the woman’s benefit (but clearly mocking her for the viewer), asks, “I wonder how they got that way?” “They’re colored,” she responds emphatically. Part of what makes this scene problematic is that the construction is so shrewd: Woods’s perfectly feigned interest in this lady’s thoughts, as well as his disgusted, eye-rolling exit, are put across with exemplary comic timing.

A publicity photo of Cop. Courtesy of Photofest.

This combination of razor-sharp execution and questionable underlying values is on much larger view in a rhyming scene in Harris and Woods’s subsequent Cop (1988), the first-ever adaptation of a James Ellroy novel (Blood on the Moon). But where Miniver’s condescending run-in with the racist in Fast-Walking lasted only briefly, one of the stand-out sequences of Cop—an unfolding interaction between LAPD detective Lloyd Hopkins (Woods) and Kathleen McCarthy (Lesley Ann Warren), the traumatized, chain-smoking owner of a feminist book store—is prolonged enough to almost qualify as a conversational set-piece. The dynamic begins on a positive note, with Hopkins and Kathleen flirting in a believably adult manner in a variety of locations (her store, a precinct house-party, a restaurant).

But as the evening goes on, a rift occurs: Kathleen unloads more and more of her rocky past, while Hopkins’s mounting impatience to take her to bed starts to manifest itself. As Kathleen wonders if she should share yet another profound experience from her past, Hopkins responds with horrible cruelty: “Hey, I got through the rape okay, I might as well go for the whole enchilada.” He quickly retracts his statement and convinces her to tell the next story, and she takes a seat beside him. What ensues is a bravura 90-second take in which each of Woods’s gestures—fingers tapping on the couch, split-second glimpses at his watch, more eye-rolls—conveys the character’s studied frustration with amazing accuracy. The direct, full-access insight the viewer has into Hopkins’s thought process here signals it as an acting moment of a rare, exceptional caliber.

While this tricky element of Harris’s work merits further study, Cop as a whole—in its defense—feeds off of Hopkins’s callous, unrelenting worldview. For a Woods character, Hopkins at first seems relatively stable: where Fast-Walking opened with a close-up on a joint, Cop opens with a close-up on Hopkins pouring coffee. In an extended take, he moves through the office, delegating a series of piled-up files with admirable calm and conviction. But when he returns home in the evening, Harris reveals the first touch of that signature Woods insanity: as Hopkins tucks his eight-year-old daughter into bed, he tells her—with uncontainable delight—of his exploits on the job (sample language: “pharmaceutical speed,” “heavyweight downers,” “this bastard”). When his wife confronts him on the subject, he launches into a passionate speech about the danger of feeding unrealistic fantasies to young, impressionable girls: “Innocence kills, Jen! Believe me, it kills! I see it every fucking day of my life!”

Hopkins’s obsession soon discovers an outlet after an investigation into a horrific murder convinces him that a serial killer is on the loose. (The lurking, off-screen presence of this perpetrator is teased in a remarkable take that pans across household items—salt, pepper, stove, eggs, knives—as Hopkins and an interview subject have kitchen sex.) Hopkins buries himself in the evidence, and Harris does the investigation justice, showing Woods in detail as he pores over photographs or scans stray objects for potential clues. The array of food and drink—coffee in Styrofoam cups, cheap pizza, Coke, strawberry pancakes—underlines Hopkins’s around-the-clock commitment to his work. When he at last identifies the killer and corners him in a vacant gymnasium, his catharsis—culminating in an unbeatable curtain line—is exhilarating.

If Cop’s concluding cut-to-black produces an instantaneous rush of satisfaction, the overriding sensation of Harris’s fifth and final-to-date feature, Boiling Point (1993), is exhaustion. Like Cop, the movie begins with a ruthless murder—this time, of a police officer. But while Cop kept the identity of the killer a mystery, Boiling Point presents itself as a both-sides-of-the-law portrait: on the one hand, there’s cop Jimmy Mercer (Wesley Snipes), grieving for his deceased partner and estranged from his ex-wife and kid; on the other, there’s con-man Red Diamond (Dennis Hopper) and his younger, homicidal sidekick, Ronnie (Viggo Mortensen). Harris employs narrative parallels—Mercer is given a week to find the cop killer, Red is given a week to repay a debt; both Mercer and Red have run-ins with a kind-hearted hooker (Lolita Davidovich)—and careful crosscutting to render this material not as a kaleidoscopic ensemble piece but as a quiet, dialed-down look at the loneliness and broken relationships that plague the personal lives of both cops and crooks.

Harris has spoken of the troubles he had working with Warner Bros. on Boiling Point, and that’s no surprise, considering the movie’s largely excitement-free take on this milieu. But the heart of the picture is still resonant, contained within Hopper’s absorbed, deeply uncomfortable performance. He’s the opposite of the unkempt, doesn’t-give-a-fuck Miniver: Hopper’s pushing-60 Red Diamond is a man whose very livelihood depends on surface appearances. With slicked-back hair and spotless suits, he approaches possible funders of his bogus schemes like a smooth-talking salesman—pointing his fingers, waving his arms, forcing smiles. Even his interactions with Ronnie are painfully phony: despite Mortensen’s gullibility, it’s clear that Diamond’s wise, well-meaning-mentor persona is completely self-serving. Red Diamond is a criminal not often seen in movies: defeated, past-his-prime, down-on-his-luck, and willing to do anything—even look like an idiot—to avoid another stint in the joint. That this bleak, tired, weary character is the emotional core of a movie called Boiling Point—the poster promises an on-a-rampage Snipes, when his character’s really just a nice guy—exposes the perhaps-irreparable divide separating James B. Harris from the mainstream.

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