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Thursday 4 February 2010

The Killing (1956)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Star: Sterling Hayden
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

If you take a good look at this Top 250, as I grabbed a copy of it in 2004, you'll find nine films by Alfred Hitchcock and eight by Stanley Kubrick. No other director manages more than six, regardless how large their filmographies are. What makes Kubrick's achievement even more notable is that he only directed thirteen feature films over a career of almost fifty years as a director. That's an insanely high proportion of classics, even before you factor in that a ninth, Barry Lyndon, has popped into the Top 250 since and Kubrick bought up all the copies he possibly could of his debut feature, Fear and Desire, so that nobody could see it. He failed, by the way, as it's available on European DVD.

It also says something, though I'm not sure exactly what, that these two legendary directors did not win a single Academy Award between them, at least for Best Director. Admittedly Hitchcock was nominated five times and Kubrick four, but not one of those nominations turned into a win. I should add that Hitch won the Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968 as a thinly veiled apology for overlooking him across the years and Kubrick won two other Oscars, though only one had his name on it, for the visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The other went to Russell Metty for the cinematography in Spartacus, but after complaining to producers that Kubrick was taking over his job, the director told him to sit there and do nothing. Metty did so and won an Academy Award in the process for the work Kubrick did in his name. Irony is alive and well and living in Hollywood.

The Killing came early in Kubrick's career, during a period of lesser known films that he made relatively quickly, which didn't make waves on a commercial basis but which nonetheless prompted much critical acclaim and directly led to Kirk Douglas putting him into the director's chair for his first huge Hollywood picture, Spartacus, in 1960. You know his career from there, I'm sure, full of films that you've heard of and probably seen, but unless you're a film buff you probably haven't seen anything earlier than Spartacus. Yet before this three hour epic, shot in widescreen and Technicolor, budgeted at $12m and packed with star names, Kubrick had made four black and white films in the standard Academy ratio and at the standard length, plus three documentary shorts, all in a mere seven years.

This was the third of those four features, coming after Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss but before Paths of Glory, which I watched back to back with The Killing both in 2004 and again in 2010. The first time through they were both new to me, along with this whole era of Kubrick's work. Now, I've seen almost all his films, only Fear and Desire and one of the shorts still eluding me, and I've found that while it's nigh on impossible to even pick a favourite from such a diverse selection, let alone to nail one of them with such a vague honorific as 'the greatest', this early period is certainly the most fascinating to me because it's when he was just Stanley Kubrick, regular up and coming filmmaker, rather than Stanley Kubrick, legendary genius in exile.
The Killing has been called his first classic and that's probably true. Based, as always, on a novel rather than an original screenplay, Kubrick wrote and directed one of the tightest crime thrillers ever made, as meticulously executed as the $2 million robbery it details, one that Johnny Clay puts together at the Lansdowne racetrack, but without the inevitable slip that he makes at the end. This was released under the Production Code, after all, so it's no spoiler to say that he can't make a successful getaway with the loot, whatever happens up till then. How it all falls apart is as believable as everything else here and it's amazing to watch, the last thirty seconds of the film in particular carrying a powerful stomach punch. In 2004 it felt like nothing else, but now I can draw strong comparisons to Jean-Pierre Melville's similarly masterful Bob le flambeur, made the same year of 1956. They would work very well as a double bill.

Johnny Clay is played by Sterling Hayden, a deeply cynical man who brought life to some of the screen's most memorable deeply cynical characters. The cynicism is ingrained into his face and that benefits characters like Clay who is not as simple as he initially seems. He's a crook, one that's served five years inside already for his crimes, but he's the only one in the film and he's an honest crook too, one who fully intends to play fair with the crew he's brought together. None of them have ever been involved with anything shady, just regular joes with steady jobs but who all have very specific needs, needs that can be satisfied by a substantial windfall.

It's surprising that only a few are recognisable, given that they seem to epitomise the sort of fifties faces that the characters need. Most recognisable is Elisha Cook, who plays a cashier at the track called George Peatty. Cook, once aptly described as 'Hollywood's Lightest Heavy' and probably the first face most people will associate with the word 'gunsel', made films in what seems like every genre but he'll always be remembered for roles like this where he's the weak link in the chain, a small man acting big, but who nonetheless finds a way to do something tough regardless, whether it works to his advantage or not. He's great here, in a part that's more fleshed out than those he had in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Stranger on the Third Floor, to name but three.

Like all of Clay's crew, he has a reason to be involved, to need that money. In his case it's his wife Sherry, a sarcastic and manipulative bitch who cheats on him with a hoodlum called Val and constantly puts George down, though she hardly even bothers to look his way while she abuses him. She's played by Marie Windsor, who was glamorous in a very film noir sort of way and who was so good at this type of role that people sent her Bibles in the mail, promising hell and damnation if she didn't reform. Kubrick hired her after seeing her work in the film noir Narrow Margin but I remember her from Roger Corman's directorial debut, as the leader of the Swamp Women. While it's easy for us to see through her, it's also easy to see why poor George is so smitten and how she can continually string him along. Perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars will bring back her love and respect, he thinks, if he can be a big enough man to land it for her. Yeah, he's utterly kidding himself, but I know people who go through the same thing every day and they don't see it either.

The rest of the crew have better reasons than George. Mike O'Reilly, the track bartender, has a sick wife at home but not the money to pay for the doctors she needs. Joe Sawyer plays him with plenty of sympathy, unlike many of the cronies and two bit thugs he played in the thirties and forties, usually Irish American like here, even though he was Canadian and of German heritage. Randy Kennan is a cop, a frequent sort of role for Ted de Corsia, though as Clay suggests here, 'he's a funny kind of a cop.' He's broke and owes a growing amount of money to a loan shark. Only Marvin Unger, played by J C Flippen, doesn't seem to have a financial reason to be involved, though perhaps he's doing it just to help out Clay, who he sees as something of a surrogate son. He's a bookkeeper who owns the apartment Clay lives at and finances the job.
There are a couple of other faces that you may recognise too, playing characters that aren't in on the job specifically but who Clay hires to perform specific tasks for a fixed fee in order to ensure its success. $2,500 of Unger's money goes to Maurice Oboukhoff to start a fight in the track bar at a set time. Oboukhoff looks very much like George 'The Animal' Steele, but is really a different wrestler and promoter, Kola Kwariani by name, who Kubrick knew through his interest in chess. Both men were avid chess players who frequented the very chess club Kwariani's character runs in this story and from which he's recruited by Clay. $5,000 more goes to Nikki Arcane, a suitably bizarre name for a character played by cult actor Timothy Carey, a sniper who Clay hires to assassinate Red Lightning, the favourite in the $100,000 Lansdowne Stakes, during the race, to generate more chaos while he robs the place.

The details are magnificent, thoroughly believable and carefully unfolded, hardly surprising for Kubrick who is so well defined as the epitome of the director who focuses on the tiniest piece of detail that it's consistently surprising to realise that he was also a screenwriter who wrote most of his films. The original story here is by Lionel White, who wrote the source novel, Clean Break, but Kubrick adapted it and because of budget constraints, was forced to exercise his skill as a director to a large degree. Most of the film is shot from very close quarters, often indoors and following tightly scripted conversations. The complex web of flashbacks means that some shots could be used twice or even three times, as we watch scenes we've already seen but from the perspective of other characters, filling in little details as they go. Kubrick didn't like the narration but it seems to compliment the rest of the film pretty well.

The other contributor to the script was pulp crime novelist Jim Thompson, the 'Dimestore Dostoyevsky', who fleshed out the dialogue and according to some reports also wrote much of the script. Now if the dialogue had sucked in this film then the entire movie would have sucked, because there would be little else left to focus on, but instead Thompson's contribution gives the film its life. Like all the best film noir scripts, it could easily have played on radio as it's truly a joy to listen to these people run through their lines, especially when they have voices perfectly suited to the genre. The first time I watched The Killing, I only knew two of the actors: Hayden who has a deep manly voice and Elisha Cook who whispers like a monotone Peter Lorre. Both sound perfect in film noir and Jim Thompson provides them with the lines to do so.

Whoever came up with the way the story would unfold in such a jagged way, bouncing around in time as it fills in characters and plot details, deserves a huge part of the credit for this film. It's not particularly confusing but it's utterly not linear and it has an innovative feel to it. Certainly a lot of other filmmakers seemed to have paid attention and adopted the approach, not least Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs. It wasn't quite as popular at the time. Notably, Sterling Hayden's agent hated the whole flashback concept, so Kubrick and James B Harris, his producer and long term collaborator, re-edited the entire thing into a straight chronological story. They quickly found that it didn't work that way in the slightest and so put it all back the way they had it to start with. I'm glad of that and maybe over time so was Hayden as he became one of a select group of actors to work with Kubrick twice when he so memorably portrayed General Jack D Ripper in Dr Strangelove eight years later.

In fact 'over time' is the best way to look at Kubrick himself because his thirteen films are all very different creatures indeed. Many directors have shone within their chosen genre, whatever that genre happens to be but tend to flounder whenever they stray away from it. The only two American filmmakers that spring to mind who really flouted that sort of logic from the very beginning were Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick, who both simply chose film itself as a genre, making something different every time and building a body of work to keep the critics in books for years. For Kubrick it really began here and the rest is history.


  1. A terrific summation of a film I haven't seen for too long now. I really should try and remedy that. If you haven't seen Fear and Desire I wouldn't worry too much, it really isn't much good (surprised to hear it's on DVD). If you do see it, though, you will appreciate what a leap ahead his next few films were in a pretty short timespan.

  2. Thanks James.

    Yeah, I'm really not expecting too much from Fear and Desire. It cost half as much as Plan 9 from Outer Space. How's that for perspective? Kubrick himself pulled it from circulation for being amateurish, 'like a child's drawing on a fridge,' he said.

    But it's still Kubrick's first film so should be interesting as a reference point. Killer's Kiss was fascinating to me and a good film too, albeit not a patch on what was to come. The Killing and Paths of Glory were both genius in different ways. And then he was off and running.