The IFC Center in New York recently ended a week’s run of Stanley Kubrick films. I saw a double feature of two of my favorites, The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957), then topped that off the next day with the always awesome 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In terms of style, technique, acting, and story, The Killing, made when he was 28, is a huge advance on his first two features, Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955). In it we see him becoming Stanley Kubrick. And it’s one of the best film noirs ever.
Based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White, The Killing was written by Jim Thompson, author of tough novels with terrific titles, such as The Killer Inside Me and A Hell of a Woman, mostly paperback originals with lurid covers. Kubrick was impressed with The Killer Inside Me, and thought Thompson would be right to adapt Clean Break, though in the end Kubrick claimed the screenplay for himself, giving Thompson a “dialogue by” credit. This greatly upset Thompson, who nevertheless worked on the screenplay for Kubrick’s next film, Paths of Glory. I read a lot of crime fiction, and Thompson figures high in the hard-boiled pantheon. None of his books were in print when he died in 1977, but have been subsequently re-printed and re-discovered. His books, grubby and violent, written in a point-blank style, were perfect for neo-noir adaptations. Films from his books include The Getaway (filmed twice, first by Sam Peckinpah), The Killer Inside Me (also filmed twice), Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, and After Dark, My Sweet.
The Killing is about a complex race-track robbery, filmed in a semi-documentary style. The structure of the film is equally complex, presenting the story out of chronological order. An omniscient, totally objective narrator (an uncredited Art Gilmore, who narrated 156 episodes of the Broderick Crawford TV series Highway Patrol and documentary films during the ’50s and ’60s, making him perfect for this) introduces the characters and action, and keeps the time sequence clear by linking scenes with phrases such as “About an hour earlier, that same Saturday afternoon in September, in another part of the city…” Kubrick frequently used narration in his films. In discussing Barry Lyndon (1975) with French critic Michel Ciment, Kubrick says “A voice-over spares you the cumbersome business of telling the necessary facts of the story through expositional dialogue scenes which can become very tiresome and frequently unconvincing… Voice-over, on the other hand, is a perfectly legitimate and economical way of conveying story information which does not need dramatic weight and which would otherwise be too bulky to dramatize.” More importantly, in The Killing, the voice-over narration is crucial in keeping the audience situated in time and place, as well as building tension and suspense.
Interestingly, the film’s narrative structure was not even mentioned in the original New York Times review (May 21, 1956) when The Killing opened. The source novel, Clean Break, employs the same fragmented chronology, which is reportedly what interested Kubrick in the book in the first place. In a 1973 interview with Kubrick, Gene Phillips writes, “Kubrick was confident that his method of telling the story by means of fragmented flashbacks would work as well on the screen as they did in the novel. ‘It was the handling of time that may have made this more than just a good crime film,’ Kubrick said.”
Flashbacks had been frequently used in films up to this time, especially in film noir, notably in films such as The Killers (1946) and Out of the Past (1947), but what The Killing did with time hadn’t been done quite this way before, as far as I’m aware. The Killing‘s circular chronology must have influenced Quentin Tarantino’s use of time in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. I’d be amazed if he hadn’t seen it.
The opening of The Killing shows titles over scenes of a horse race about to begin. This sequence is repeated several times during The Killing as part of the film’s circular structure, with an increase in audience anticipation each time it punctuates the narrative. The music by Gerald Fried gives an urgency and importance to the scenes, but is not overdone or used to excess. Fried went to high school with Kubrick and composed the music for his first four features.
The following scene, which occurs six and a half minutes into the film, after four key characters have been introduced, begins with the narrator saying, “At 7:00pm that same day, Johnny Clay, perhaps the most important thread in the unfinished fabric…” The camera follows Clay in a low-angle, lateral tracking shot from screen left to right as he opens a bottle of beer in the kitchen and walks through at least three rooms. As he walks he explains the robbery plans to someone we don’t see until he reaches the living room. We see Clay moving behind furniture placed in the foreground of the shot. The effect of moving past foreground objects seen between us and Clay creates an almost 3D effect, and gets my attention every time I view the film. Take a look. The shot is much more elegant than I can describe.
The Killing stars Sterling Hayden as Johnny Clay, ex-con and architect of the scheme to rob the race track, a character similar in appearance and manner to Dix Hanley, who he played in John Huston’s great The Asphalt Jungle (1950), also a film about the careful planning and eventual failure of a robbery. Hayden has always been a favorite of mine. He was best at playing strong, imposing figures (being 6’5″ and muscular helped), such as a cop in the little-seen and underrated Crime Story (1954); an insane Air Force general who starts a nuclear war in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964); a corrupt police captain who famously gets his brains blown out by Al Pacino in The Godfather (1972); and an alcoholic writer in The Long Goodbye (1973), Robert Altman’s revisionist take on Raymond Chandler’s novel.
In addition to Hayden, Kubrick assembled an excellent cast for The Killing, with Timothy Carey being a standout. Carey plays Nikki Arcane (great name), a marksman hired by Johnny Clay to shoot a horse at the race track to create a diversion from the actual robbery. With his bizarre line readings and facial expressions, Carey was an eccentric screen presence throughout his career. He would appear to great effect in Kubrick’s next film, Paths of Glory. The following clip shows Nikki arriving at the race track to get in position to shoot the horse when the race starts.
A fascinating piece of casting in the film is that of Kola Kwariani, a professional wrestler and chess player from Russia, who plays Maurice, hired by Clay to start a fight at the race track to create yet another diversion at the time of the robbery. Besides having a wonderful name, Kwariani and Kubrick knew each other from the New York chess world. He brings an unusual presence to the film, both in appearance and in the way he speaks. The following scene shows Clay speaking with Maurice in a chess club, explaining what he needs from him. The dialogue is great.
And here’s the brawl Maurice initiates.
A pivotal character in the film is George Peatty (a perfect name for this nervous, henpecked little man), played by Elisha Cook Jr. at his twitchiest. Cook was a familiar presence in films of the ’40s and ’50s, anxious and bug-eyed in most of his roles, or acting tougher than he was. Memorable parts include the gunman Wilmer Cook, sold out by his boss Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon (1941); the doomed Harry Jones in The Big Sleep (1946); and as hotheaded farmer Stonewall Torrey, shot down in the mud by hired gun Jack Palance in Shane (1953). As Johnny Clay tells his girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray), none of the men he’s recruited for the robbery are criminals in the usual sense. Cook’s character, George Peatty, is a betting-window teller at the race track whose sole function in the heist is to open a locked door for Johnny Clay at a crucial moment. George’s wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), brassy and manipulative, knows something is up and pressures him to tell her. She gets enough out of him to interest her lover, Val Cannon (another great name), played by a thuggish Vince Edwards before he gained fame as Ben Casey on television.
A staple of many crimes films is the carefully planned job that goes south, and The Killing is no exception. Johnny Clay has put together a plan that requires interlocking precision and adherence to an exact time table by all participants. In retrospect it may seem odd that he didn’t get a whiff of George Peatty’s basic weakness, but Clay obviously wasn’t quite as smart as he thought he was. When Val Cannon’s attempt to horn in on the take forces Clay to improvise, we see what all that precise planning was worth. But by then things were already coming apart. Author Alexander Walker, in his book Stanley Kubrick Directs, points out that what attracted Kubrick to Lionel White’s novel, besides the fragmented structure, is that “the novel touches on a theme that is a frequent preoccupation of Kubrick’s films: the presumably perfect plan of action that goes wrong through human fallibility and/or chance.” Both are at play in an ending that recalls that of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), rich in irony and resignation. – Ted Hicks