Criterion Corner: The Killing (#575)

While I’ve enjoyed the Stanley Kubrick films I’ve seen, I couldn’t say that I have a clear idea of what makes a Kubrick film. I recognise certain aspects or qualities, certain directorial quirks, but I couldn’t say that I recognise a red thread going from Paths of Glory, Spartacus via Lolita and Dr. Strangelove to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon and finally Eyes Wide Shut, to name just a few. Every now and then there are scenes that remind me of the other films, such as 2001‘s notorious stargate sequence and Strangelove‘s aerial photography – but tonally, I couldn’t claim I have much of a grasp of who Kubrick is as a director, if he even has a typical tone. If anything, I would say there is a drily, drolly, sometimes even bleakly ironic streak that I’ve found in several of his films – but not in all.

So far, Paths of Glory (1957) had been the earliest Kubrick I’d seen, and it has probably been twenty-odd years since I did see it. However, I’ve had the Criterion edition of The Killing (1956) on my shelf for a while now, and about a week ago I decided it was finally time to watch it. Film noir, a script co-written by Jim Thompson (of Grifters and The Killer Inside Me fame), a cast led by Sterling Hayden – there’s definitely a lot there to look forward to.

Having seen The Killing, I still can’t say I have more of a grasp on Kubrick (perhaps he’s someone who needs to be watched chronologically to understand how he’s developed as a director?), but I can say that The Killing is well worth watching. Its individual elements certainly feel familiar from other films of the time, but its penchant for dark humour – again, is this one of Kubrick’s trademarks? – and its range of characters definitely give it a feel of its own. It’s from a time of Hollywood filmmaking where the bad guys can’t get away with it pretty much by decree, but while The Killing follows this, it doesn’t feel like a moralistic film. What happens to the crew that Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Clay (names don’t get much more hardboiled than that without toppling into parody) puts together to successfully pull off that most tricky of criminal activities, the One Last Heist, isn’t determined by the invisible hand of Justice: it is more an illustration of how, if you’ve got a clever but complicated plan, the way to screw it up is simple – just add humans.

Clay is a clever criminal. He’s willing to get tough if it is called for, but he doesn’t want to harm or even kill anyone needlessly. He may threaten violence, but he isn’t a brute or a sadist. Most – though not all – of his crew are selected reasonably smartly, though if anything, Clay can be accused of a certain tunnel vision: the people he chooses to work with him have the required skills and/or knowledge, but he fails to take into account their weaknesses, flaws and blind spots. One is a weakling trying to impress his wife, even though he should know she isn’t to be trusted, another may be a skilled sharpshooter but he is also racist and volatile, which costs him his life. Throughout the film, we see Clay enacting his plan to rob the betting office at a horse race track – and we see the myriad ways in which it is likely to go wrong, not because he’s an idiot, but because he underestimates the many ways in which, to summarise the summary of the summary, people are a problem. (A shout-out to the late, great Douglas Adams.) As are suitcases and little yappy dogs. The fun lies in seeing all these potential stumbling blocks and finding out which ones will actually trip them up in the end, and how.

The Killing isn’t flawless, and the things I liked less are largely down to the script. While the writing is satisfyingly hardboiled with a nice turn of phrase, the voice-over narration seems owed to the genre rather than actually being needed, and the backwards-and-forwards structure rarely adds much other than an element of confusion, where the whole thing could have been constructed more neatly and clearly without losing anything (or the film could have played with chronology in more interesting ways). You can see how The Killing prefigures more structurally adventurous films, not least in the same genre, but here there simply isn’t much need or benefit from these structural flourishes. And – like a number of other Kubrick films, perhaps – there isn’t much here to care about. The film, and as a result the audience, remains aloof. We chuckle as the heist begins to go wrong and then escalates from there, but the whole thing plays as an extended joke. Again, there isn’t a sense that this is moralistic, there’s no sense of retribution when things go bad for Clay and his motley crew: if anything, it’s an extended exercise in Schadenfreude, which can be fun – but it helps if you know that this is what you’re letting yourself in for. If that is what you’re looking for, The Killing is a stylish, supremely well-crafted instance of exactly that.

On the disk, Criterion also included the film Kubrick had made just previously, the 1955 noir Killer’s Kiss. Kubrick had made other films before: three short documentaries and the 1953 war film Fear and Desire (which I haven’t seen). I was surprised that Kubrick had made Killer’s Kiss only a year before The Killing, since the latter feels so much more assured and accomplished; Killer’s Kiss, by comparison, comes across almost as a student film, with uneven acting and especially writing. There’s a lot here that is good, and by and large the actors pull it off, but again, there’s unnecessary and in this case downright clunky voiceover narration, and not all of the leads are equally up to the challenge of the material.

At the same time, there are various sequences that show Kubrick’s skills as a director even this early in his career. The film isn’t polished, and it definitely doesn’t have The Killing‘s clockwork precision of a heist slowly going wrong in front of our eyes. But several of the scenes have a jagged energy that is unusual and striking, especially a chase and fight where the clumsiness of the characters adds to the sense of desperation and seriousness of what we’re seeing: this is not the choreographed almost-dance of many fight sequences, it’s two people who aren’t particularly good at this, but each knows that their life depends on incapacitating or even killing the other. (By comparison, a boxing match early in the film definitely hasn’t aged well, with both actors clearly pulling their punches, when what we’re supposed to be seeing is two boxing pros trying to win the match.) In one of the extras, film critic Geoffrey O’Brien talks about this seemingly loose quality that’s atypical for Kubrick, a director whose tight control of the material is usually felt in the films – but O’Brien suggests, half-jokingly, that perhaps what we see in Killer’s Kiss is an instance of young Kubrick exerting tight control to get this sense of looseness just right.

Overall, it is already clear that Kubrick has some strong ideas with respect to how to use the camera, and how to position characters. Visually, Killer’s Kiss may prefigured later films by Kubrick more than The Killing does (even, surprisingly, 2001). To some extent, the film might almost work better without the dialogue track – the visuals often speak for themselves, and at its best the film has a dreamlike (and, later, nightmarish) quality that the absence of some rather clunky dialogue might even heighten. Yet, while there is a strangeness to some of the sequences – not least an extended scene set at Times Square, where things seriously begin to go wrong -, the film also has a strong sense of place that’s emphasised by the camera work. The New York of Killer’s Kiss is almost uncanny at times, but it is very much a place that leaves its mark.

Verdict: Since the Criterion Corner is a new feature, I’ll be trying something new here too, namely to end each post with a verdict. Not a score, no “X out of 10!”, just a few thoughts on whether I thought it was worth getting this particular Criterion disk, primarily on the strength of the film itself, though sometimes the extras I’ve checked out may colour this verdict. Anyway, not to make this too long and drawn-out: yes, I would definitely say that The Killing is a worthy addition to my collection, in part because both it and Killer’s Kiss have helped me get a better idea of Kubrick as a director, but more so because The Killing is an enjoyable, very well-crafted heist-gone-wrong movie. It may not be a film I return to every one or two years, but neither do I consider it a one-and-done. Perhaps not my favourite Kubrick movie, and not my favourite film noir either, but definitely a good ‘un.

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