Kubrick #11 – The Killing (1956)

Even when it all goes right, it still goes wrong.

The Film: Johnny (Sterling Hayden) plans to get out of the heist business, and all he needs is One Last Job. He hatches a plan to steal two million dollars in racetrack money and hires a Mission: Impossible-like team of crooks to pull it off: a sharpshooter, an inside man, a corrupt police officer, and a Soviet wrestler who looks remarkably like Vladimir Putin.

The plan is solid, but frays at the edges. The inside man, George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), has an evil wife with “a dollar sign where her heart should be.” She pries the plan from hapless George, then convinces her lover to swipe the cash as soon as it arrives. The heist succeeds, but the B-heist doesn’t, and pretty much everyone winds up shot. Johnny realizes the plan has collapsed and moves to skip town, but a mishap on the runway scatters his plans literally to the winds. Johnny, resigned, waits for the police to close in as the credits roll.

The Production: Following the modest success of Killer’s Kiss, Stanley Kubrick finally made it to Hollywood. The Killing, an adaptation of Lionel White’s novel, Clean Break, was Kubrick’s first official studio job, with all the packaged benefits and drawbacks. For the first time in his career, Kubrick had a budget (an anemic $320,000) and a big-name actor (Hayden) on board. Union rules, however, prevented Kubrick from exercising his notorious control, forcing him to cede camera duty to cinemtographer Lucien Ballard, a talented lenser who would go on to shoot classics like True Grit and The Wild Bunch. That didn’t stop Kubrick from getting into Ballard’s way repeatedly with “helpful suggestions,” and there was nearly mutiny on set.

“Putin SMASH!!!”

Best Moment: Film noir earned its name, and was often characterized by, the general bleakness of its themes and stories. Like classic tragedy, no matter how hard a noir hero (especially a crooked one) struggles to succeed, an invisible hand intervenes and blocks the hero from his goals. All crimes are punished. You could interpret this as the actions of a moral god at work, and some audiences clearly did. In reality, it was Hollywood’s Hayes Code, an ethics guideline that ensured high moral standards in American film. According to the code, no movie criminal can succeed at crime, ever.

Not even the 1950s power of racism could keep this cop from winning.

This led to a focused pessimism in classic noir as characters struggled and raged against a force literally too big for them to defeat: morality. My favorite example is the noir classic Detour, in which the hero accidentally (really) murders two people and leaves pretty much zero evidence behind. He’s in the clear with 30 seconds to go in the movie, when the police simply arrive and arrest him, with no motivation or evidence. The End.

Johnny suffers a similar fate in The Killing, but it’s handled with considerably more skill. It’s the end of the picture and Johnny has seemingly gotten away with his crime. He’s on the runway, ticket in hand, and his money case is nearly on the plane, but then a series of random elements conspires to take him down. We know that his suitcase has a faulty latch. We see the female passenger and her yappy dog. We see the wind whipping at coats and jackets. Even before it happens, you can see the fatalism in Johnny’s eyes. Despite his near victory, his face still suggests crushing defeat. Moments later, when his money is blown to the winds, Johnny doesn’t even try to run. He knows his plight is hopeless. After all, it’s noir.

Lasting Impact: It gave Kubrick a career. While the studio balked at the finished film and buried it in a double-feature with Robert Mitchum’s Bandido, audiences who saw The Killing realized that it was the better of the two pictures. Actor Kirk Douglas took notice and brought Kubrick onto his new war picture, Paths of Glory. That worked out OK.

Yes, dude’s carrying a puppy at a gun range. Why? I don’t know.

Overall: I have a rule of thumb with heist movies that never fails. If the audience doesn’t know how the heroes plan to pull off their robbery, it will go off like a charm. When the heroes outline each step of the process in detail, well, that’s when you worry. The Killing pulls this trick on its audience twice. The heist plan is laid out in detail and goes predictably awry, but then Johnny executes his backup plan and nearly gets away a second time until fate (played here by a yappy dog) executes a Rube Goldberg device to beat him. Poor Johnny, if only he’d kept his plans to himself.

The Killing wasn’t the first heist movie, or the first movie to sympathize with criminals, but The Killing is one of the first films to execute its robbery with such precision, and its modern grandchildren (the Ocean’s Eleven series, or even The Dark Knight) owe it a huge thanks.

I’ve read descriptions of The Killing that describe it as “economical.” That’s a kind way of saying “cheap,” which it was. Kubrick’s second straight go at noir had an higher budget, although one still below the going rate, and corners were cut so tight that the film almost rolls over (ba-dum-bum.) It’s only the film’s experimental approach, and Kubrick’s attention to detail, that keep it on the road.

At first look, The Killing seems like any other pessimist crime drama about characters who wear their fedoras down low and spit zingers through clenched teeth, but the film is surprisingly innovative and unique for its time. Kubrick plays with storytelling conventions here, to promising results. A lot has been written about the way The Killing picks through the timeline, showing whichever scene delivers the most dramatic impact at that moment, and then jumping forward or backward in the robbery, looking for the next big punch.

Pictured: moments before the Joker’s bus busts through the wall.

It’s a great idea, but the movie only holds together thanks to an impartial newsreel-like announcer that informs the audience of exactly when and where they are, a gimmick that adds more than perhaps intended. What may have been simple logistics transforms into a sage doomsayer of sorts. Like the then-popular Dragnet, the officious voice foreshadows a final, unhappy fate for the characters and contributes to the feeling of grim inevitability that drips from every frame. Function turns into form.

When I watch The Killing, I can’t help but get wrapped up in the fate of these sad sack characters. They each have their own petty dramas and obligatory backstory — one owes money to a loan shark, another wants to retire from the criminal life — but Elisha Cook, Jr. (the “gunsel” from The Maltese Falcon) nearly steals the movie with his pathetic pursuit to please his manipulative wife, to validate their marriage. He defines himself by the very idea that this woman would love him, refusing to believe what everyone else sees plainly; she’s no good and she’ll bring him a bad end.

This attention to character is an unusual trait for a Kubrick film. The director was often criticized for favoring the visuals or the metaphors over the people in his work, but here he’s downright chummy with Johnny and his gang. The only hint of his usual cynicism comes from the (mostly unintelligable) mouth of wrestler Kola Kwariani. I’ve linked his scene (one of the film’s most famous) below.

For those who had a hard time understanding him, and that would be all of you, he actually says:

“You have not yet learned that in this life you have to be like everyone else – the perfect mediocrity; no better, no worse. Individuality’s a monster and it must be strangled in it’s cradle to make our friends feel confident. You know, I’ve often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They are admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present an underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.”

The Killing is happy to oblige.

The Stanley Kubrick Project

10. ???

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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