Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Killing

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Killing

Kubrick's name looms large over the landscape of modern cinema. Though I'm sure the point has been raised before, his masterpieces are like those monoliths in 2001 - cool, dark, imposing, impeccable. No other director came closer to perfection in terms of control - these are generally the grounds on which even his critics defer to meet him. Even the name rings of ancient marble - the man is bigger than life. As such, it's tempting to see him as arriving out of the blue one day, fully formed, like those monoliths, or else birthed on grand scale in the heart of the cosmos like the Star Child. But no, Stanley was a college dropout from the Bronx who liked to play chess with the street hustlers in Washington Square, and who had to shoot his first three pictures on shoestrings. The Killing, despite the presence of some excellent actors and an immaculate style, was still low-budget and both Kubricks are on display here - the godlike and the scrappy man too.


The Killing catches Kubrick before he launched into outer space - and after taking "the Trip" in 2001, he never really came back. Every film to follow exists, often thrillingly, in a kind of cinematic Valhalla (I was going to say Olympus, but Kubrick's much more imposing than that) - there's the same intoning bigness, signified by the trademark Kubrick wide lens and either low angle or high-above gods eye view, gazing upwards in brooding awe or downwards with aloof curiosity. Even Strangelove with its sci-fi sets and frightening coolness is a harbinger of things to come. Yet I once did a retrospective of Kubrick and even his earliest newsreel work (save the tedious infomercial for a maritime union) show signs of the auteur to come. And as early as Killer's Kiss, the B noir released before The Killing, we see that epic touch - a shot of the hero running across rooftops in the morning light, shot from afar so that the figure is isolated in a cold, overwhelming, alternately hostile and indifferent landscape. This is the first inimitably Kubrickian moment in the director's oeuvre.

But for now, for the most part, Kubrick's vision is rooted in the all-too-human. The characters in The Killing are all types, but the director's under-acknowledged touch with character details and actorial expression renders them unique, and believable, individuals. They're all in on the potential heist of a racetrack, each holding the key to one element of the plan (be it the money, the getaway car, the inside men, or the distractions), with only one of them knowing the big picture. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is hard-boiled, tough-talking...but also rueful; he's been to prison and he doesn't want to go back.

Johnny's omnipotence gives him power for much of the movie but, given the movie's subject, we can consider it like a horserace. Johnny pulls way ahead of his peers out of the gate and remains neck-and-neck until the final stretch. Then, as the film races to its conclusion, the rival horse pulls ahead and Johnny collapses...and Kubrick wins the race. Which is to say, trading in one overheated metaphor for another, that Johnny plays god and is humbled accordingly. It's often said that Kubrick's films reveal the follies of men but perhaps it would be more appropriate to observe that there's only room for one man-god in a Kubrick film, and he's always seated behind the camera.

Aside from the fascinating interplay of genre elements, budget limitations, and Kubrickian vision, this is an excellent, entertaining crime movie on its own terms. It's a marvellous exercise in storytelling, linear much of the time, until we reach the day of the race/heist. Then Kubrick follows one character as he positions himself for the operation, before doubling back to follow another, and another, until we've come up to the deciding moment several times without seeing what comes next. Not only does this build tension, it highlights the way that each man, even the all-knowing Johnny, operates on his own, with no control over the other elements in play.

When the time comes, Johnny bursts in on the moneyman, gun in hand, mask covering his visage. The image is indelible and fascinatingly revealing - for a moment Johnny is someone else, a masked monster whose unexpected arrival in the secure backroom of the racetrack throws everyone into confusion. But we've seen all the preparation that went into this surprise appearance and so we're simultaneously shocked at the chilling apparition and admiring of the effort involved. In a way, Kubrick is tipping his hand as to his own method: show up like gangbusters, unrecognizable, impressive, together, controlling our reactions. But get there by preparing meticulously, methodically, hidden away from view so that when the finished product emerges - in Johnny's case a successful and frightening heist, in Kubrick's case a tightly-wound, impeccably-told movie - it gleams and shines like polished stone.

And Kubrick, whose first two features didn't go anywhere (the first, a bargain-basement war picture, is pretty bad, actually) knows the risk of failure too. A few tiny screws loose, and the whole operation is blown. That's true on the metaphorical level - all it takes is a few words to an unfaithful wife, and suddenly the whole gang's lying dead on a ratty apartment floor - and literally - the suitcase with the money is flimsy and eventually bursts open on the airplane tarmac, spreading cash through the air in a propeller-whipped frenzy. The scene is suffused with black humor yet there's no shortage of sympathy as Kubrick guides Johnny to his doom. Cornered outside, unable to catch a taxi as the airport police approach, Johnny's girlfriend tugs at his arm and tells him to run. Hayden summons up an impressive apathy as Johnny barely manages a shrug, and whimpers, in the most perfectly defeated tone I've ever heard in the movies, "Ah - what's the point." It was an all-or-nothing game, and he already lost.

Kubrick stages the destruction of the suitcase, as well as certain other climactic moments, with an admirable offhandedness. After so much preparation, so much method, when something goes awry, it really goes awry - with shock cuts practically in the middle of the action (see also the mild-mannered clerk bursting from the shadows to fire on his assailants, shouting, "The jerk's right here!"). Speaking of the parenthetical example, Elisha Cook, Jr. is wonderful as the timid, paranoid, perpetually wide-eyed George Peatty, and Marie Windsor just as good if not better as his two-timing, perpetually scheming wife Sherry, whose machinations unwind all the carefully-laid plans. There's a great shot as Sherry tells George a lie, meant to turn him against his partners, and George covers his face with his hands, a look of sickening madness creeping across his face while the clock ticks in the stretched-out background. It's vintage Kubrick and a reminder that the director's visual flair often came at the service of character, something easily forgotten in all the talk of his coldness and precision.

There are other great characters too. Timothy Carey, one of the strangest actors in movie history, creeps and thrills as a sleazy gunman who's hired to kill the horse. And Kola Kwariani has a few great scenes as Russian chess player/wrestler Maurice Oboukhoff, hired to create a distraction. You may need subtitles to understand his dialogue, but when the time comes for him to act, no translation is necessary. Kubrick stages one of the great, if sublimely ridiculous, fight scenes in the movies, one you may want to rewind and watch again. Humorously, Maurice is the only character who winds up OK. Unless they link him to the heist, he'll end up with a few days in jail and $2500 in his pocket. The others get a prison sentence (Johnny) or death (everyone else). As the parrots squawks, mocking their dreams of success, "Not fair! Not fair!"

The film's look is steeped more in postwar photography than postwar cinema. Nearly every frame features the glowing orb of a source light, and the natural lighting and location shooting give it a stronger rooting in the era's culture than most fifties movies obtain. Indeed, the texture of The Killing is as much verite as it is noir, and in its self-produced, crime-obsessed glory it foreshadows Breathless and the French New Wave (though the French would go for a looser, more open aesthetic than the increasingly controlling Kubrick). What, then, did Jean-Luc Godard think of The Killing? In a sniffy Cahiers notice, Godard wrote, "This is the film of a good pupil, no more. An admirer of Max Ophuls, Aldrich, and John Huston, Stanley Kubrick is still far from being the bright boy heralded by the excited publicity surrounding this little gangster film."

Indeed, one can see the contours of Godard's argument, even if one disagrees. Kubrick's control and remove runs the risk of seeming glib next to the hotter, more impassioned stylings of a Ray or Aldrich. His work can indeed seem studied in its precision, affected rather than naturalistic in its mechanics, or as Godard puts it, "what in Ophuls corresponds to a certain vision of the world, in Kubrick is mere showing-off." But this showing-off has its credible antecedents as well, if one wants to play that game, and if Citizen Kane is more overtly humanistic than your typical Kubrickian picture, Orson Welles more flamboyant in his showmanship than the grandiose but temperamentally restrained Kubrick, the onetime boy wonder nonetheless reminds us that some directors foreground their style (hell, Godard foregrounded his style!) to wonderful effect. And Welles certainly saw an heir in the scrappy, intense Bronxster.

Indeed, this is more true than I even realized when writing the above. As I looked up the Welles quote I half-remembered from an interview book, I discovered that it's in fact a direct response to Godard's assessment:

Welles: Among those whom I would call ‘younger generation’ Kubrick appears to me to be a giant.
Interviewer: But, for example, The Killing was more or less a copy of The Asphalt Jungle?
Welles: Yes, but The Killing was better. The problem of imitation leaves me indifferent, above all if the imitator succeeds in surpassing the model... What I see in him is a talent not possessed by the great directors of the generation immediately preceding his... Perhaps this is because his temperament comes closer to mine.
Watch this space. What does that mean? That that kid from the Bronx ended up being something after all.

11 comments:

FilmDr said...

Excellent analysis. I find I like The Killing as much as anything else Kubrick directed in part because he had not yet reached his full maturity as a filmmaker. As in the case of, say Hitckcock's The 39 Steps, or Godard's Breathless, it is almost more exciting to see the promise of a director in those films than in their mature work.

I also like the way The Killing dwells on different forms of masculinity that varies from Sterling Hayden's assurance to Elisha Cook Jr.'s pitiful character's dependency on his wife. All of the various men display different levels of control over their lives, and yet, as you pointed out, Kubrick likes to undermine them all. The Killing seems both modest and immensely assured. Even in the last point of view shot of the cops moving towards the camera, thereby entrapping the viewer as well as Johnny, one always gets the sense that Kubrick placed them in exactly the right place in the frame. Every shot looks impossible to improve upon.

Ed Howard said...

That's a very smart review indeed. The Killing is not a great picture, but it is a good one and shows clear signs of the mature Kubrick to come. What Kubrick's early noirs have in common with his later work is their almost mechanical precision, something that Kubrick surely saw in many other noirs, with their emphasis on fate, and eventually translated into his own very different later pictures. The Killing, in its clockwork plotting and air of inevitability, isn't really that different from so many other noirs of the era, but you can see how the genre and its conventions must have made a strong impression on Kubrick as a filmmaker.

Welles must've been mad though: Asphalt Jungle is a far superior film.

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Given the image you used to illustrate this post, I'm surprised you didn't point out the obvious debt The Dark Knight owes to Kubrick's film. And every other heist film made after The Killing seems to owe Kubrick a debt.

The Killing is to heist films what 2001 is to science fiction films, simply the greatest example of its genre ever made. And I agree with Welles that it is a marked improvement over its inspiration, Huston's self-pitying Asphalt Jungle, regardless of how good that latter film may be.

Tony D'Ambra said...

The Killing is an OK heist flick and is not really a noir. Kubrick is one dimensional: there is no resonance and he always makes you know you are watching a movie - his movie. It is very easy to confuse The Killing with the superior The Asphalt Jungle, but it should not be - Kubrick has taken the heist movie no further and it survives only in the shadow of Huston's seminal effort.

This is not to say that there are not noteworthy scenes, with Kubrick writing some great dialog. The scene with the wrestler, Kwariani in the chess club, has the best lines in the movie, delivered in Kwariani's thick Eastern European accent (clear to my ear) and with a perfect world-weary understanding of exactly what he is saying :

Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden)
Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani)

Johnny: Good game, Maurice?

Maurice: Johnny, my old friend. How are you? Good to see you. Been a long time, eh? How long have you been out?

Johnny: Not long.
Maurice: It was difficult, no?

Johnny: Yeah.

Maurice: Very difficult. You have my sympathies, Johnny. You have not yet learned that you have to be like everyone else. The perfect mediocrity. No better, no worse. Individuality is a monster, and it must be strangled in its cradle to make our friends feel comfortable. You know, I often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They’re admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present an underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.

Johnny: Yeah…

Maybe this is what Welles was thinking of...

MovieMan0283 said...

In response to all & sundry:

Film Dr.,

Great observation about masculinity in the film. Whatever it's proper place in the canon, it's probably one of my favorite Kubricks too.

Ed,

I have not yet seen Asphalt Jungle, so I can't comment on that one yet (apparently you & Jerry agree with Welles, while Tony agree with Godard not bad company to keep, either way...though Godard kind of insults Asphalt in the process of saying it's better than Killing).

As for whether it's a noir, I agree with Tony that it's borderline. I chose the expansive direction, partly because I just bought it in the noir section at the video store for whatever that's worth, and partly because that way it boosts noir in the label function on my sidebar.

Tony,

As far as Kubrick I agree that his films exist in their own universe more than in a continuum, but I kind of like that...it's what I go for in Kubrick. But yeah, that doesn't cut if for some; you are certainly not alone in your school of thought. I remember in my commenting-on-imdb days, one particular poster who showed up whenever Kubrick, and Clockwork specifically, came up to knock 'em down a few rings.

As for the dialogue, ironically that's one of the few spots where Kubrick did seek outside assistance - though he wrote the screenplay, Jim Thompson is credited with the dialogue (though that particular line sounds like Kubrick...).

Welles certainly shared the sentiment of that quote, but also, I think, some of the visual flair - low angles, dynamic light and shadowplay, extreme close-ups, etc.

Jerry,

I definitely noticed the Dark Knight connection this time around, but I think I'm Dark-Knighted out for the year, so I let the connection pass...

And given the wildly varying opinion on Asphalt Jungle, all the more reason to see it I suppose...

MovieMan0283 said...

By the way, to those who read this post prior to Friday afternoon:
I changed "high school dropout from the Bronx" to read "college dropout from the Bronx." Sorry, Stan.

C. Jerry Kutner said...

One significant Welles connection - in Citizen Kane Welles showed the opera "Salambo" first from the point of view of Jed Leland and then again from the point of view of Susan Alexander. Kubrick runs with this idea, repeating a single event (the heist) from the point of view of six or seven different characters.

Also, I find it hard to believe that anyone wouldn't consider The Killing a noir given its genre (fatalistic crime drama), its writer (Jim Thompson, one of the two or three best - and most nihilistic - authors of American noir), and Kubrick's self-conscious use of noir conventions (noir camera angles and lighting, the casting of Marie Windsor as a femme fatale, and the casting of other familiar faces - like Joe Sawyer and Elisha Cook - whom we associate with noir).

MovieMan0283 said...

Jerry - this would be a good post idea. What makes a noir, what doesn't make a noir? Presumably someone's already written it, but if not, it's worth doing.

I think the reasons I don't automatically think of The Killing as a noir are, among other elements, the fact that much of it takes place in daytime, in open places like the racetrack or sunlit streets or locations like Nikki's barn. Those are the images I often have stored in my mind when I reflect on The Killing though I could also picture Hayden seated around the table under the single light, hatching the plan, which is definitely a noir image, or Elisha Cook, Jr.'s and his wife lying dead in the room, shades drawn, as the parrot squawks, "Not fair! Not fair!" An almost self-conscious noir image to be sure, but noir nonetheless. So I guess it's ambiguous - but that's just in terms of visual imagery.

MovieMan0283 said...

(Obviously, definitions of noir have been written for 50+ years, but I'm thinking more in terms of, which borderline films are noir and which aren't?)

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Movieman -

My lengthy attempt to define noir can be found here: http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/54/noirgolden.htm

At the time I wrote that article, I was reacting against many definitions of noir that I thought were too restrictive, i.e., that there were no noirs made after 1958, that it was strictly an American phenomenon, and that it was a genre, as opposed to an attitude or way of looking at things (often expressed through visual style) that could be applied to any genre. And there are many films which, if not noir overall, have great noir sequences, the classic example being the Pottersville sequence of It's a Wonderful Life.

Tony Dayoub said...

I've ended up defining many movies as neo-noir because of some of the exceptions to the noir "rules" (which I don't necessarily agree are as rigid as some others do, but it seems to quiet the naysayers like Tony).

For example, I would argue Polanski's Chinatown and Grosbard's True Confessions are unmistakably film noir. But by some folks' assertions, they can't be because much of the films take place during daytime, the films are in color, and they were produced post-fifties. So we can call them neo-noir if it makes people uncomfortable.

But in countless ways they are superior examples of noir than even some of the more frequent examples of noir that are often referred to... as is The Killing.