Kubrick BFI Season – The Killing (1955)
Another year, another film season. Like I said I obviously welcome the chance to revisit more of Stan the Man’s movies on the big screen but it does seem a little premature after last years Barbican season. This is pure supposition but I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the film orientated government, lottery and charity funded organisations in London don’t club together to share costs on marketing and developing new prints of films thus the this apparent repetition of screenings , I quite often see older films playing at some independent cinema then cropping up at somewhere like the Hammersmith Riverside a couple of months later, I guess it makes sense. In any case its only just clicked that it’s actually been a decade since his death on March 7th so it does make sense for the UK’s most prominent film organisation to pay appropriate respect to one of the titan’s of cinema who elected to make most of his films in the UK. I’ve loosely decided to catch an early, mid and final season movie from Kubrick’s canon as part of this season, I’m keeping my other choices under wraps in a pathetic effort to inject some element of suspense into proceedings. No, its not working is it? Anyway, let’s kick off proceedings with ‘The Killing‘, technically Kubrick’s third theatrical feature not counting the half dozen shorts he had produced in the early fifties, nevertheless ‘The Killing‘ is regarded as his first professional, studio backed feature which was released by United Artists in 1956.
It’s your archetypal film noir plot – central hood puts together a multi-disciplinary crack team to perform one last heist, this time at a racetrack during one of the season’s most busy meetings. Each of the criminals on the team have their own reasons for risking another stretch in the big house should the plan fail, their problems being of a financial or personal nature, in the case of the brilliant Elisha Cook Jr. both who is twitching under the talons of his adulterous femme-fatale wife, played by Marie Windsor. Team leader Johnny Clay (the stoic Sterling Hayden) just wants to achieve one last score and settle down with his new wife. What makes ‘The Killing‘ a truly great exemplar of noir is that sense of doom and inevitable failure hanging like the sword of Damocles over the meticulously researched and professionally executed caper. Fate does not favor these social transgressors, crime does not pay and the best laid plans are always vulnerable to the most absurd of coincidences in a cruel and impersonal universe
Although the screenplay was a collaborative effort, producer James Harris hired the hard-boiled Jim Thompson to insert some of his street wise slang in the guise of dialogue editor. Thompson was a highly regarded crime writer who I finally got round to reading last year, his most famous novel ‘The Killer Inside Me’ is currently being adapted into a Michael Winterbottom movie starring Casey Affleck either this or next year. The blistering dialogue is superb in the movie, abundant with pulpy exchanges between Johnny and the traitorous Sherry who sings to her boyfriend about the robbery and leads to the gang themselves being robbed and the granite Sterling Hayden are laugh out loud funny. What I do find distracting though is the distracting voice-over that permeates the film. The jury is still kind of out on voice-overs, some regard them as cheating, a clumsy storytelling device whilst others regard them as a useful tool in reducing redundant exposition, forcing unrealistic dialogue into characters mouths to connect possible story gaps. Kubrick was certainly in the second camp but I’m not so sure it works in this instance, the voice-overs serve as essential additions to the visual experience of ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘A Clockwork Orange‘ and its limited use in ‘Dr. Stangelove’, in ‘The Killing’ I found it quite distracting and unnecessary. At one point Stan was going to use a Martin Balsam voice-over for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘, thank god that idea was jettisoned eh?
What really caught the critics attention was the films fractured narrative which is widely accepted as Kubrick’s idea. After he and producer had knocked out a few drafts of the script with Thompson they had reached something of a stalemate, what they had was a seed of a film but they lacked an unusual angle, a different take to differentiate the movie from its peers. perhaps inspired by his and Harris working practice of buying books to adapt, tearing in the story down the middle to read half of the text each and then coming together to relate to each other the plot during story meetings Kubrick suggested mixing up the normal A.B,C,D form of plotting. The influence has been extraordinary, not least on the likes of this or this or this, it’s now a tradition to design and execute a calling card movie and catapult your career into the mainstream by making the use of what is free on a even a limited budget film – a real imagination – to charm the critics.
Those masks have surely been an influence on a more recent crime film don’t you think? For all Kubrick’s legendary perfectionism and exhausting search for the soul of a scene I think certain detractors have failed to note that in fact many actors came back to work with him again again, Timothy Carey was in ‘The Killing’ and then returned in ‘Paths Of Glory’, Hayden returned of course as General Jack D. Ripper in ‘Dr. Strangelove‘ and most memorably for me the great Joe Turkel teamed up with Stan again some twenty five years later as Lloyd the ‘best god-damn barman from Portland Maine to Portland Oregon’. There are many more examples after he had relocated to England, more details here – kind of contradicts the image of the harsh, brutal taskmaster doesn’t it? Ah, maybe not. He did have some showdown’s with technical staff on ‘The Killing’, veteran Cinematographer Lucien Ballard and he clashed over lens choice and camera placement for certain scenes, Kubrick quietly made it explicit after the very first example of disobedience that you either do what I tell you to or get off my set, you can see that he was already fermenting his visual signature of the sweeping tracking shots that found full fruition in ‘Paths Of Glory‘. It’s that behavior that’s one of the things I most admire about Kubrick. It’s not just the utter devotion and unprecedented level of control he wielded, its the fact that he launched his whole career himself with such self-confidence in his skills , he had effectively taught himself everything from the photography, the sound design and editing on his earlier shorts, read the then essential texts on screen acting and performance and then strolls in and makes a minor masterpiece such as the ‘The Killing‘.