The Killing (1956)

Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Starring Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor

The camera follows people from below, through walls and rooms, through shelves and bookcases. The people – mostly men – are obscured. The camera cannot pierce everything, but we see just enough setting and just enough of people’s faces to get the point. The people are serious. If they’re speedwalking through their apartments, then there’s a good reason for it. The Killing is a spare eighty-five minutes, moving at the same rapid pace as its characters. It’s a noir, a heist flick. There’s not much time for motivation, nor is there much reason to linger on it: for most of the guys involved in the plan, the hope of a massive payday is motivation enough. For others, like George (Cook), trickier motivations are provided; his wife, Sherry (Windsor) is clearly unfaithful and unimpressed with her husband, who has the ambition and sex appeal of Silly Putty. What Johnny Clay (Hayden) seems to be looking for is escape; fresh off a stint in Alcatraz, his plan is to go from the racetracks of California to the monuments of Boston with his moll, Fay (Coleen Gray). In all cases, though, the draw of making a quick buck can’t be overstated, and so with lightning – and, for those of us who grew up on mid-late Kubrick rather than early Kubrick, almost confusing – speed, the film launches into its plot with verve

Of all of the people in this true ensemble cast, Cook and Windsor are most memorable, if for no other reason than the time that’s spent on establishing the two of them. George is almost entirely powerless, a rarity in the average noir, where even someone who can’t escape his or her situation at least has the ability to put up a fuss doing it. (One thinks of Joe Gillis or J.J. Gittes here.) Yet George seems hardly to even understand how little power he has. Sherry is two-timing him for a younger, much handsomer fellow with the bodice-ripping name of “Val Cannon” (Vince Edwards), and yet George seems to believe that his marriage is within his ability to save. There are more obvious statements of George’s impotence in blocking, posture, tone, and action, but my personal favorite is a putdown Marie has for him. Isn’t there any dinner? he asks. (Somewhere, William H. Macy nods knowingly.) Sure there is, Marie says. There are steaks. Can’t he smell it? They’re just in the supermarket is all. Her delivery is pitch-perfect; she makes it sound too good to be true until it is, in fact, just that. In the end, George manages to get back at Sherry, to exert some small amount of power; he shoots her dead. Of course, by then George is seeing the bright lights himself; to borrow from another character, we may well ask, “What’s the difference?”

The lighting in this film is arresting. Kubrick and cinematographer Lucien Ballard make the light brighter and the darkness darker in southern California. Outdoor shots, like the ones of Johnny marching around a cheap motel or of Nikki (Timothy Carey) sitting in his roadster, waiting for Red Lightning to come around the track, are like a bad disguise for film’s better known and more ominous interior shots, which throw shadows on everyone and spotlights on a few. The employees’ locker room borrows its aesthetic from the interrogation rooms of the secret police with its black recesses and too-bright hanging lamps. The Peatty apartment is allergic to daytime; the shades are drawn, the lamps aren’t powerful enough, and the rooms are filled with shadow-casting clutter. The chess and checkers club is, despite its huge window, seemingly hazy rather than well-lit. The darkness even comes outside every now and then; there are shots of the race track themselves, especially the repeated ones that remind us of simultaneous action, which throw obscuring shadow on the track or the horses themselves like harbingers of the coming trouble.

What sets apart a man like Johnny Clay is his great attention to detail. His planning is exquisite; every bit of the plan has been timed down to the moment. Nikki must be in position with his rifle by a certain time in the morning; Officer Kennan (Ted de Corsia) must go from one part of town to another within a small time frame, and be in his spot at a certain moment. The brawler, Maurice (Kola Kwariani), who loses his shirt so fast that you half-expect Matthew McConaughey to sue, times up his disruption and then maintains it longer than you’d expect he’d need to. Yet for all of these perfectly timed maneuvers, the executions are an exercise in frustration. Johnny is, in one key way, careless; arrogantly believing in his own power, he has forgotten to take into account the sheer randomness of any given day, of the power that the ignorant have to impede the conspiratorial. The plans for the heist were made in secret, all but individually; they were thus made without real thought for the crowds, as if they were all extras and not agents themselves.

He fails to account for:

  1. …George Peatty’s cheating wife, who blabs about the heist to her boyfriend who decides he wants to get the money without doing the job.
  2. …a kindhearted parking lot attendant (James Edwards) who responds all too positively to Nikki’s wheedling, and for Nikki’s filthy way of trying to get that man off his back.
  3. …employee friends of Mike’s (Joe Sawyer) who offer to put some “flowers” (read: gun) in the refrigerator and who are told off much too harshly.
  4. …Marvin (Jay C. Unger), who puts up the money for the job, losing his nerve and showing up drunk to the track.
  5. …a brawl which very nearly tears Randy from the spot he’s supposed to be, and which raises suspicion when he leaves without investigating.
  6. …the ability of a little dog to ruin everything beyond salvage.

Kubrick, with the only exterior scene shot at night, saves that best pitfall for last. (It’s a pitfall which will keep this movie in the ’50s forever, which I kind of like.) At the airport, planning to fly across the country to keep the fuzz off his scent, Johnny has been forced to transfer the enormous pile of cash into a comically largely suitcase which will have to be stowed with the other baggage. He eyes the cart nervously – his first show of nerves, really, since the start of the movie. A woman’s little dog escapes her grasp, runs in front of the cart, and the driver swerves, and the suitcase, which he didn’t lock properly (and which we saw him fail to lock properly), explodes. A tornado of money – the wind aided by the propellers of the airliner – swells and flies and scatters over the tarmac. It is a dazzling shot, one which stands out alongside some of the apartment tracking shots and the look of Hayden, tall and threatening, haloed in the darkness of the locker room, wearing a hideous clown mask, as one of the clear signs that Kubrick had a seriously bright future.

The complexity of the film is in these alternate histories, these moments of change. Without the seemingly tiny elements, it’s possible that Johnny Clay and company make off with an incredible sum of money to split between themselves rather than apprehended or dead. With them, though, we’re reminded of a surprisingly topical story from Benjamin Franklin about what happens for want of a horseshoe nail.

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