The Killing (1956)

- by Andrew Baron

Stanley Kubrick's The Killing is a crime/caper film executed with great wit, resourcefulness, and efficiency. Made in 1956, it is Kubrick's first Hollywood film and, although made on the relatively small budget (even for the time) of $300,000, the film never feels compromised by these apparent constraints. For Kubrick, it represented a different realm altogether - his previous two films (Killer's Kiss and Fear and Desire) being made for about $40,000 each.

Marie WindsorThe plot (in brief) concerns the planning and execution of a racetrack heist by a band of men all motivated by varying degrees of moral and immoral desperation. Sterling Hayden as ex-con Johnny Clay acts as the brains and leader of this group, and is perfectly cast as the man of action that the others look up to and depend on. Interestingly, Johnny is the only one of the bunch who appears to be a criminal by profession and, although we might reflect that he is not particularly admirable, Hayden plays the character with such authority (with his patented speaking-from-the-pit-of-the-stomach delivery) that we never question the essential "rightness" of the heist.

Johnny's accomplices all have different motivations that run the moral gamut - from a crooked cop in debt to a loan shark, to a bartender who wants to pay for medical treatments for his ailing wife. The casting of this ensemble was truly inspired, with real standouts Elisha Cook as milquetoast/weak link George Peatty and Marie Windsor as his poisonous wife Sherry (more on these two later).

With every viewing of The Killing I speculate as to the nature and relationships of these supporting characters to the Johnny Clay character. Some are fairly easy to infer. We can assume that some of these associations arose from doing jail time or from some previous criminal association. His other relationships seem suffused with a strange pathology/dependence that is sometimes darkly hinted at. The first time I saw this movie (some time in the 90's), the audience thought it was a hoot when love interest Fay (Colleen Gray) says to Johnny "I'm not pretty and I'm not very smart, so please don't leave me alone anymore! I'm no good for anyone else!" I suppose the hip, urbane audience felt that bit of dialogue was hilariously anachronistic and unliberated. Certainly, while it's tempting to regard these lines as a product of less enlightened times, I get the distinct impression that this outburst is intentionally meant to portray Fay as someone who is emotionally needy - abnormally so. This dialogue is soon followed by the entrance of Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), who tries to suggest that he and Johnny go on a trip after the heist. Johnny, seemingly unaware of Marvin's fatherly (possibly homoerotic) attachment, distractedly gives him the brush off. In this scene with Fay and then Marvin, the movie touches on the unhealthy psychology of these two supporting characters while leaving their back-stories tantalizingly untold.

Part of this focus on off-kilter psychology is perhaps due to the contributions of Jim Thompson to the screenplay. For those familiar with his numerous crime novels, The Killing has many of the earmarks of his work - a fascination with pathological tendencies, a pronounced sense of doom, and sharp, acerbic dialogue. This dialogue is a real delight in those scenes between the hapless George Peatty and his sarcastic and supremely manipulative wife Sherry. Of course, George doesn't stand a chance, and it's not long before he divulges the whole scheme to Sherry. It is difficult to suppress a laugh, although we know that Sherry's involvement now dooms the plan to failure.

Kubrick wisely lets these actors drive these scenes, his sense of visual bravura being subservient to the story in this very densely plotted, efficient film. Still, Kubrick doesn't just rely on the accepted filmic grammar of the time. One inventive scene uses the camera to track open-wall sets from room to room, something unheard at the time and a way that he was able to stretch his budget. I would be remiss (because every review and blurb that I've ever read about The Killing doesn't fail to mention it) if I did not also add that the film is told in nonlinear fashion, cutting back in forth in time as different elements of the heist unfold - a structure that was immensely influential on 1994's Pulp Fiction.

Timothy CareyThis innovative sensibility and the aforementioned dialogue give The Killing a very modern sensibility that is at times startling - I never feel as though I am making allowances for the time it was made (unlike many films that I have a great affection for). One scene that I always find a bit shocking (and I wonder how audiences reacted to it in 1956) is when the gunman Nikki Arane (played to creepy perfection by Timothy Carey) hurls a racial epithet at the well-meaning parking lot attendant (James Edwards). I suspect that other directors would have shied away from a scene this transgressive.

Other interesting bits of business are also hallmarks of the Kubrick imprimatur. There is the strange clown mask that Johnny uses in commission of the robbery that brings to mind the mannequin scene in the earlier Killer's Kiss and his seeming fascination with masks and dehumanization in general. In another scene, George Peatty (finally pushed to his limit) ineptly opens fire in a crowded room and the viewer (through the magic of a very active whirling camera) is very realistically pulled into the confusion of the melee, unsure of the outcome. Despite the violence, these scenes resonate with a sort of irony veering between horror and humor that is unique to Kubrick.

This irony makes The Killing notable for its lack of sentimentality. For all of the so-called realism of the noir genre (with which this is often lumped), there is often a romantic quality to the hero's defeat (Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past comes to mind). But The Killing doesn't close with the death of Johnny Clay. We see a whirlwind of money scatter on an airplane tarmac, and all life seems to drain out of him - but only metaphorically. As Fay urges him to run, Johnny can only dejectedly respond "What's the difference". The film closes from Johnny's point of view with two very undynamic plain-clothes officers (they in fact seem to be the twin paragons of soulless mediocrity) walking slowly toward him, drawing their guns. As the screen flashes "The End", we suspect that Johnny will rot in a jail cell for the rest of his life, agonizing over the loss of his big score.

There's something very unflinchingly grown-up and admirable about a movie that tells you that dying is relatively easy and living is hard.

(See Andy's other essays (Click Here).

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