This was the first film on which Stanley Kubrick worked with a cinematographer. Lucien Ballard was hired because Kubrick was officially working on a film union production for the first time, which meant he could not be both director and cinematographer, as he had done in the past. The two often did not agree on camera and lighting matters.
Initial test screenings were poor, citing the non-linear structure as the main problem. Stanley Kubrick was forced to go back and edit the film in a linear fashion, actually making the film even more confusing. In the end, it was released in its original form, and is often cited as being a huge influence on other non-linear films like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994).
The location where John Clay (Sterling Hayden) proposes the deal to Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani) is a mock-up of the 42nd Street Chess and Checker Parlor in New York City. Director Stanley Kubrick was a regular chess player there, as was Kola.
The total budget for the film was $320,000. United Artists put up $200,000 and the rest was raised by producer James B. Harris. This was a paltry budget for a feature even by 1950s "B" picture standards.
Film debut of Rodney Dangerfield. NOTE: He appears as an extra in the racetrack fight scene. When the fight is shown the first time he is at the end of the bar. A clearer shot of him doing a characteristic double take occurs when two cops come out of the door to the stairwell to the safe room with Sterling Hayden next to it, watching the fight/distraction develop.
Director Stanley Kubrick formed a production company with James B. Harris, Harris-Kubrick Pictures, before making this film. Kubrick and Harris bought the rights to the Lionel White pulp novel "The Snatch" for $10,000, but found out that the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) Code would not allow movies to be made about the kidnapping of children, the premise of White's potboiler. White subsequently swapped the rights to his novel "Clean Break" for "The Snatch" to get them out of the predicament. United Artists had considered buying "Clean Break" as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra. "The Snatch" later was made into The Night of the Following Day (1968) in the more permissive 1960s, when the MPPDA Code had been superseded by the ratings system.
Stanley Kubrick and producer James B. Harris first attempted to produce the movie around New York, where they lived, but after failing to find an East Coast racetrack that would allow the crime to be filmed there, they moved it to Bay Meadows, near San Francisco, which closed in 2008. Although named "Lansdowne" for the movie, "Bay Meadows" can be seen above the starting gate at the start of the race early in the film.