The Killing (1956, Stanley Kubrick)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The Killing is both a beginning and an end for Stanley Kubrick; although he made two earlier features, one barely released and one that briefly rotated on the B-grade circuit, this is the first of his films that matters in any broader sense, and the one that effectively launched his career as a director. Kubrick’s background, nearly unique among major filmmakers of his era, was in still photography; as a journalist he had work published during the 1940s in Look Magazine, before transitioning to motion picture film with a few documentary shorts. Apart from the striking, stark imagery to which he always seemed naturally drawn, there isn’t much indication in those works of just how singular an artist he would prove to be in the decades to come — but that changes with The Killing. Conversely, it is also Kubrick’s farewell to a certain kind of storytelling, seen also in his prior feature Killer’s Kiss and to a lesser extent in his shorts, marked by a pulpy grit, sleaze and chaos that would mostly be absent from the canon features with which he would later permanently make his name; because Kirk Douglas picked him up and changed his course with Paths of Glory and Spartacus, we won’t ever find out what Kubrick’s career might have looked like had he spent more time on small-scale crime thrillers like this, imbued with sleaze and desperation. But The Killing alone suggests, not to wish masterpieces like Dr. Strangelove and Eyes Wide Shut away, that it might well have given us some extraordinary cinema.

The most frequently remarked upon aspect of The Killing, which Kubrick produced with his partner James B. Harris and some financing from United Artists after essentially picking up a random paperback (Lionel White’s Clean Break) to adapt, is the tightness of its scenario. Discussed less frequently than it deserves in comparison to the likes of The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, the picture revolves around a brazen racetrack heist involving a small group of downtrodden employees and ex-convicts. Their leader is Sterling Hayden, a coolheaded schemer newly released from prison and attempting a clean break from his old life, with long-suffering girlfriend Coleen Gray clinging, secretly wounded that he’s immediately returning to crime but incapable of protesting. Although the film juggles multiple characters and timelines, Hayden’s Johnny Clay is its beating heart, the classic noir image of a calculating tough-break comeback kid who will be on easy street if he just gets this one shot, but one without a trace of the typical fear or longing. He seems to accept every event, even if it’s a shocking setback, before it even occurs, and is never caught displaying anguish or uncertainty until the final moments. His strength is both cautiousness and speed; the time to hesitate is in the broad planning of the operation, never in its execution.

All that said, when one looks closely at the mechanics of the crime documented here, they are largely unremarkable, and quite by design at that. This is not Logan Lucky or even a Dick Francis novel; getting lost in a procession of minute concerns would dilute the film’s impact. All Johnny is ultimately doing is setting up a few distractions, thereby creating hysteria, and thereby allowing for a simple holdup, the main special distinction of which is his hiring of an actual on-duty cop to inconspicuously cart the gigantic sack of money away. What we’re given to marvel at is not so much the event itself as the way Kubrick stages and then, masterfully, cuts it along with the otherwise mostly obscure editor Betty Steinberg; after a breathlessly tense, anticipatory first act, the film spends much of its blistering 85 minutes careening across the events of the day of the race, periodically skipping backward, repeating and recontextualizing moments, and breaking chronology to provide complete narratives for its various doomed participants.

All this works seamlessly, its only cop to convention being the dry House on 92nd Street voiceover (which will make some cringe, will delight others for its retro detachment) that clarifies the structure, because Kubrick is so much more interested in the people involved in the grand heist than he is in the intricacy of the scheme itself. And he focuses on those people, and those in their periphery, because what makes The Killing so fascinating and singular is, as in W.R. Burnett’s novels, the naive hopefulness central to the criminals’ faith in everything working out for them. (The forces of supposed Good are all but absent from the narrative as a controlling or contrasting ideal.) As a result of this, Kubrick and his cowriter Jim Thompson are able to make sympathetic audience vessels out of a whole troupe of scumbags and weirdos, because their wide-eyed longing for things to go right for once — and the trust they put in Johnny, in whom they believe so much they can taste it — is so familiar to everyone peering into these tiny rooms and dank corridors, especially anyone who’s ever just needed a few more days to set things right.

There’s no use debating the point that The Killing is part and parcel with a long line of heist thrillers that began long before it and persists to this day, or that it toys with a number of familiar, even clichéd genre tropes, even if far more competently and pleasingly than did Killer’s Kiss (which was basically just a programmer). Yet it’s unlikely that most 1940s noir or even gritty writers like Burnett would’ve exhibited the morbid, blackly comic interest Kubrick does in a pathetic yet oddly believable character like George Peatty, the cuckolded predecessor to the neutered, aggressive male losers played by Hayden in Dr. Strangelove and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. Peatty’s story harks back to Fritz Lang’s noir Scarlet Street (therefore Jean Renoir’s La Chienne) and inevitably to numerous other whining psychopaths in sham marriages with women they misguidedly adore, in this case the impeccably entertaining Marie Windsor as slightly awkward glam queen Sherry, who’s stepping out with young dumb hot crook Val (Vince Edwards) and spends all the rest of her time hectoring George, who in fairness does not make it difficult and frankly seems to demand a certain degree of torture. The horrendous Stella D’Oro Breakfast Treats domestic scenes of this marriage, during which Kubrick casts us relentlessly as voyeurs to the very dregs of miserable domesticity, are as knowing and witty in their fashion as the commentary on Mr. and Mrs. Spoon’s dead bedroom in Night of the Hunter (and contrast hilariously with the stoic narration). It is these telling, distressing moments of raw humanity that make these films stand out from the standard-issue dread of film noir.

Windsor’s height kept her mostly on the sidelines in the sexist film industry of the day, relegated to B-pictures (she’d just wrapped a Roger Corman movie prior to this) because she towered over her male costars, but Kubrick utilizes this as well as her Virginia Mayo-like budget-line decadence brilliantly, underlining the discomfort and distance in the marriage by emphasizing the smallness she elicits and exploits in George. When she wrings information out of him about the supposedly top secret plans being laid out in which he is involved, she nearly botches the entire gig by spying on a meeting of the criminals, then gets her illicit boyfriend involved and, just for good measure, tries to harness George’s depressing possessiveness of her by suggesting that Johnny sexually assaulted her. On paper his all sounds like a fairly routine femme fatale role, yet Windsor’s performance is phenomenal largely because — and both Kubrick and the character Johnny openly recognize this — her motives are no different from those of the men robbing the track. She’s gotten a raw deal too, and we can only imagine what series of bizarre events led her into this enigmatic sham marriage, the only power available to her being that which she holds over the lustful, vengeful but slimy and impotent George. (One genuinely wonders if there has ever been any sexual element to their union, and is tantalized by the oddly reasonable thought that George has been kept in constant limbo, a careful distance from her body, for the entirety of their relationship.) She is not a mysterious nefarious force stymieing a sad little old man; she is half of a union of terrible misfits whose lives are too far gone to reconcile with any warm reality of love or contentment. “Before, all I thought about was the money,” George says at one point when he starts to chicken out; sensing his apprehension, Sherry cuts him off: “Well, you just keep on thinking that way.”

This bizarre cross section of locked-door everyday life, the sideshow of overheard drama, carries through in the moments we’re granted with all the rest of Johnny’s charges, hired hands and loved ones, none of whom are one-dimensional characters despite the film’s brevity and our short time with each of them. There’s Ted de Corsia as a corrupt cop up to his ears in debt, and we get the chance to see the pleading in his eyes as he staves off his crooked creditors for just two more weeks, as well as the way he tries to rationalize his participation in the robbery later on, just listening to himself talk as others look on. There’s the lovelorn despair of Johnny’s girlfriend Fay, who’s been faithful for years without him and is terrified of losing him again, and has clearly been run ragged by the one-sided relationship. There’s the philosophical chess-playing wrestler Maurice (Kola Kwariani, a friend of Kubrick’s who in real life was… a chess-playing wrestler), who greets the latest commercial boon, providing chaos as a cover for Johnny at the track, with a certain amused distance and displays an undeniable thirst for life that marks him as maybe the one figure we meet who has any hope of moving forward. There is the rifleman played by monumental oddball Timothy Carey, a slurring Battle of the Bulge vet (he claims) with a little dog in his arms when we first meet him foreshadowing the finale that will have a dog putting the kibosh on all of Johnny’s last remaining dreams.

There is the haunting-faced ill wife (Dorothy Adams) of the track bartender (Joe Sawyer) who dotes on him even from her sickbed, patiently nodding at all of his promises of future riches even as Sherry sees only opportunism and a window for belittlement at the same suggestions, the tragic flipside of the Peattys’ marriage; once again, it feels real, like something we shouldn’t be allowed to see, and the narrator moves forward totally free of amusement. Finally there is sad-eyed Jay Flippen as Marvin, whose minor gestures set the wheels into motion, but more importantly a character whose paternal feeling for Johnny passes over into what amounts to an embarrassed expression of homosexual desire in their last verbal exchange, which Johnny gently rebuffs; that is a fascinating enough scene to bulk up an entire essay, and it’s almost never mentioned in analysis of the film. These little snatches of life feel really substantial, like something beyond the mere fun of watching a strategy form then fall apart — they are a direct rebuke to the idea that this is some sort of a “puzzle movie,” moreover to the idea, yet again, that Kubrick is a cold calculator of heartless movement.

And as to Johnny himself, he is hardly positioned as a cipher around whom all these other figures revolve; rather, you can sense why he inspires such faith in others, much of it being down to Hayden’s typically surehanded performance. While his behavior is socially reprehensible in the proper sense, he operates with a kind of integrity that communicates plainly to the audience, in a covert undercurrent to Hays-imposed morals, that he deserves to succeed at this wild plot. There are odd, telling bits of warmth and politeness he exhibits throughout the film, for instance the surprisingly patient manner in which he dispatches Sherry when he discovers her spying, or his spirited, friendly interactions with a motel owner delightfully named “Joe Piano.” It is strongly implied that, however equally well-motivated those he brought into this may be, he is not just a more assured but also a better man than most of the rest of them. (Nikki the shooter spouts off a racial slur at the security guard who will soon thereafter kill him; George is a live wire who needs no further explanation; and police officer Randy is amusingly seen completely ignoring a random woman’s cries for help when it threatens to inconvenience the timetable.)

Barely a step into his career as a feature director, Kubrick is already an intimidatingly accomplished visual stylist, and this is one of the most strikingly photographed late-period film noirs. His compositions and the cinematography by Lucien Ballard, who would later lens The Wild Bunch, plays up sad faces and ominous under-lighting, as well as an absorbing use of tracking shots between rooms, especially those claustrophobic settings in which events transpire before the races. Springing forward from the mannequins in Killer’s Kiss, the most exciting part of the New York director’s only genuine New York film, Kubrick finds more seamless opportunities for outrageousness and eccentricity here to match the urban, corrupting darkness of the script: Hayden’s eerie “wacky” mask, Kwariani’s splendidly bizarre shirtless wrestling scene in the middle of the bar, and the bloodbath that occurs when Val and George have their moment of crossfire. Indeed, the tremendously well-executed irony of that scene bears elaboration: the gang returns to a centralized location only to be compromised by Val who, in a bit of a Scatman Crothers moment, is then instantly shot and killed by an unhinged George. Elisha Cook’s last scenes in the film take his pitiful character to the logical extreme; his eyes appear increasingly lost and crazy, and in the freakishness of his climactic murder of his wife (a “bad joke without a punchline,” she moans after acknowledging verbally that she wasted her entire life), he is joined by an annoying parrot, unfazed by its cage’s collapse to the floor after a dying George grabs it.

The synchronicity of it all, the cruelty of its fucked-before-you-start fatalism, could be crippling if its events weren’t such an argument against the very existence of precision. Throughout the actual execution of the heist, flawed connections between people continually wreck the best laid plans. Marvin, lonesome and rejected, is drunk before anything actually happens; Nikki’s attempt to sweet-talk his way to the right vantage point for killing the horse mistakenly leads the guard to believe he’s made a friend, which then leads him to nearly circumvent the operation just by being polite; George’s raging jealousy, and Val’s raging greed, get nearly the entire cast killed; and finally, Johnny would perhaps make it home free if not for American Airlines’ baggage policy.

The closing airport scene of The Killing is among Kubrick’s career-peak tour de force sequences; it deserves to be considered in tandem with any of the signature moments in his various masterpieces, and it is a tragicomic triumph because it lays the failure of Johnny’s last-ditch scheme to leave town with the disputed cash squarely at the hands of the absolutely mundane matter of airline rules dictating that carry-ons not exceed a certain size. Johnny, the brilliant architect of this scheme, is finally done in because his fucking suitcase is too big, and he errs at last in his first-ever moment of obvious desperation — he did not break when he realized that the meeting place with the others was botched, or when he gathered that the secrecy of his mission had been compromised, or when Joe Piano asked if he’d like to have a drink, but now, with his girl by his side, he sees no easy way out and allows the bag to be checked. There is a wonderful moment when an AA employee brightly announces that they can reach a compromise: he can refund Johnny’s tickets, his beaming ineffectiveness akin to the people trying to be nice to Bruno in Strangers on a Train when his telltale cigarette lighter falls into the grate.

And still, in this age before x-ray baggage screenings, Johnny — who already seems resigned to failure — is only ultimately doomed when a woman’s small dog runs out onto the tarmac and the driver of the cargo vehicle swerves to miss him. The suitcase falls and there is the indelible image of millions of dollars flying in the wind as Johnny and his girlfriend look on, defeated, and make their way out to try and hail a cab, only to be stuck watching as the airport police move toward him. “What’s the difference?” Johnny mutters, but because of our position we know that it made all the difference — so many are dead, and so much was at stake, and now there is nothing. Somehow Kubrick manages to make the classic Crime Doesn’t Pay ending a moment of bleak, humane beauty, the absolute sense of loss as incalculable as death itself. The fate to which Johnny is resigned is the death of the future, the death of love; every snatch of life we’ve seen in the prior hour and a half comes careening back. My own mind can never help tracking back to the bedridden wife who will never see her husband again, in a scene that increases in poignance each time one sees the film. There is a great deal of strange, perverse fun to be had in watching all this unfold, but there’s also a sickening sense of destruction. The end is baked into the beginning. Perhaps the reason The Killing resonates so much, brings us calling back as if we’ve forgotten how it all unravels, is that many of us are born with a sense that all of our fondest desires will invariably meet such a fate. Perhaps we need to see it happen to others. Kubrick’s later films would prove at times more optimistic (Eyes Wide Shut), at times even bleaker (The Shining) about human relationships and the fragility of everything, but in many ways his first pass at expressing his philosophy seems to be his most honest and complete one of all.

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