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Posts Tagged ‘The Killing’

Hindsight is a curious and not always reliable beast. I was at the Stanley Kubrick exhibition in London the other weekend and it only confirms, as though that were needed, his status as one of the most revered film directors in history – one of those handful of people who have been able to combine enormous commercial success with the most exacting artistic standards. After watching a film like 2001 or Barry Lyndon, it’s impossible to conceive of a Kubrick who wasn’t quite certain of his art, or just finding his way behind the camera. You just expect piece after piece of majestic, formal brilliance.

And then Former Next Desk Colleague offered to lend me The Killing, Kubrick’s 1956 movie and the one widely considered to be his mainstream debut. Would you recognise it as a Kubrick movie were his name not in the credits? Probably not, but if you put any two or three of his later movies together and show them to someone not familiar with films, they would be unlikely to instantly recognise them as the work of the same artist.

The film opens with black-and-white, documentary-style footage of a racetrack, over which the credits roll, accompanied by some strident music. It soon becomes clear that we are in a film noir, and one which is being executed with a high degree of formal and technical confidence: the story is told out of chronological order, with some scenes overlapping and being shown from different perspectives. The actual story is simple enough: veteran criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is planning one last big job before he retires (it’s a bit of an old chestnut, but never mind), and to this end he is putting together a team of people to help him rob the racetrack of $2 million (back in 1956, $2 million was probably a lot more than $2 million, too). Amongst those in on the scheme are a corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia), one of the track bartenders (Joe Sawyer), and an unhappily married teller (Elisha Cook Jr).

Naturally, things are never going to go completely to plan in this sort of film and the first problem is that George, the teller, just has to go and tell his wife (Marie Windsor) that he is onto a good thing and will soon have a lot more money. Clay attempts to warn her off, but she persists in telling her lover (Vince Edward), in the hopes that they can somehow help themselves to more than just George’s share of the money. Unaware of all this, Clay continues his preparation for the heist, which include hiring a couple of other men to create diversions for him – a wrestler (Kola Kwariani) and a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey). The plan has multiple stages and relies heavily on precise timing. Given the rather variable quality of the men on his team, can Johnny Clay get away with it?

Well, obviously this is a genre movie – or several different flavours of genre movie, to be precise. Most obviously it’s a heist movie, and sticks relatively close to the formula of introducing the different members of the gang and establishing their special contributions to the undertaking – although Kubrick avoids the scene where the planner runs through exactly what’s supposed to happen in the course of the robbery, preferring to let the viewer find out as it’s going on. It is also unmistakably a kind of film noir – while much of the film takes place in broad daylight, and there isn’t much in the way of visual stylisation, there is certainly a deeply amoral, cynical tone to the story, even perhaps shading over into existential angst as the film nears its conclusion.

Acting honours go Hayden, who is commandingly cool as Johnny Clay, but also to Cook and Windsor as the deeply unhappy couple whose failing relationship turns out to be central to the unravelling plot. I understand that Marie Windsor’s career was apparently impacted by her sheer height, meaning that most Hollywood leads were reluctant to appear with her; well, she is well-cast here with the diminutive Elisha Cook, although you do wonder just how these two got together in the first place.

However, it is the taut and efficient way the story is told which really makes the film distinctive. This is a very good genre movie, but even so you would struggle to recognise that the director would go to be quite as feted as Kubrick eventually was, and there are certainly points which you suspect a more experienced Stanley Kubrick might have handled a little more deftly – the terse voice-over establishing the chronology of the film is a little bit on the nose, and there’s also arguably an issue with Kwariani’s thickly-accented delivery making his lines unintelligible (shades of Tor Johnson in Plan Nine from Outer Space). Still, he makes for an effective heavy (this was Kwariani’s only film – apparently he died, some years later, after single-handedly taking on five much younger men in a street fight).

The film has a slightly slow start, but once the characters are established and the preparations for the heist are under way, it becomes a completely involving thriller, and a deservedly influential one. You can detect elements of The Killing in films as apparently different as Logan Lucky (another tale of a complicated heist at a racetrack), while I’m pretty sure the rubber mask Heath Ledger wears during the opening robbery in The Dark Knight is a homage to the one worn by Sterling Hayden in this film. The most obvious beneficiary, however, is Reservoir Dogs, another cut-up tale of a robbery which goes badly awry amidst mistrust between the thieves, concluding with a significant body-count.

Some would hail Tarantino as a director in Kubrick’s league, although I am not one of them. Once again I find myself obliged to say that while this may be one of Kubrick’s minor works, it is still a film most directors would be extremely proud of. The structure of the script we can certainly credit Kubrick for, even though the dialogue was apparently the work of one Jim Thompson, a crime novelist, and the deftness of the camerawork and cinematography is also clearly down to him. Hindsight is a untrustworthy and deceptive thing, but you would be forgiven for concluding that Kubrick began in the same way he continued: this is a superior, classy movie.

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