“Johnny, you’ve got to run.”
“Eh, what’s the difference?”
Astute film historians may note a bit of a chronological anachronism with our starting point with the beginning of this Stanley Kubrick analysis. Kubrick had a successful run as a photographer and documentary filmmaker prior to his big screen debut, but he was thoroughly embarrassed by his first film and did not have any particular strong feelings about the second. Partly in respect to his wishes, as he never wanted Fear and Desire to see the light of day and he was cold to Killer’s Kiss, we’ll be starting off with a bang and taking a look at The Killing.
As you may be able to tell from the apathetic exchange quoted above, The Killing is an exercise in technical mastery over film noir. It’s also an excellent example of a complaint leveled against Kubrick over the course of his career, which we’ll be examining a little more thoroughly in the coming months. Many feel as though Kubrick’s films are more cerebral and rooted in steadied execution then the expression of some deeply felt emotion or belief. I won’t say this applies to The Killing, noir is the perfect genre for Kubrick to showcase his dark sense of humor, but it does apply to some extent.
The Killing is an example of a superbly crafted noir, even if it’s lacking in some of the psychological complexity it’s forebears (most notably In A Lonely Place) or stylistic extremes (Night and the City). Kubrick and Jim Thompson‘s screenplay gathers together the pieces of what is fairly typical in noir and then delivers them with a cool hand. You’ve got the “good” criminal Johnny (Sterling Hayden), the spineless husband George (Elisha Cook Jr.), his vamp wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), and an assortment of character actors who are all riffing on the same basic “good guy whose gotta do bad to get ahead” motif.
No one is particularly bad, but very few make a solid impression. The film acknowledges this to a degree, utilizing a stern narration to announce chronological shifts in the plot and point out how all the ancillary criminals are just “pieces”. They’re given the barest of motivations, and only the really strange cases stand out. Most notable is Timothy Carey, a quirky actor with a nasal delivery, as the marksman and the Russian strongman played by real-life wrestler Kola Kwariani. He’s a brutal wrestler who is very intelligent, making his entrance in a chess hall (another consistent Kubrick touch), and makes some very intriguing statements about how Americans and Russians teamed up to strangle a monster some time ago.
I like how the film acknowledges the American’s manipulation of events which only serve to get everyone killed (another feature in that other classic noir, The Third Man). But other than that broad arc and those few statements, there’s not as much of the post-war dread throughout The Killing. Instead, we get a taste of the visual splendor that is to come.
Before I touch on the technical aspects, which are the main selling point of the film, what are some of your first thoughts Amanda?
I suppose we aren’t starting with the official first Kubrick movies, but if Kubrick did not like his first movie and was cold to the second, then is it that important to look at them? I say no because I like this movie enough to want to start with it.
You had mentioned the narration and I have mixed feeling about it. It is a little distracting at times because it reminds me of the narration for the old Justice League cartoon, I like that it gives a detective drama vibe to the movie and that it provides a time reference for the non-linear timeline. Normally I would abhor a movie for providing an unnecessary timeline in a movie, but it works for this movie for a very specific reason: the visuals and scenes are very good but not distinctive.
If an audience is watching a movie with a non-linear timeline and does not always have visual cues that determine when a specific event happened within the time frame, then the audience can get lost. An example of this is the outfit change of Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction. The audience can determine what events happened in what order according to when Vega and Winfield are wearing their suits and when they are wearing other clothes (it also helps that the audience knows why Vega and Winfield had to change their clothes).
I do want to make clear that I like the visuals of this movie. I enjoyed the atmosphere the lighting and the camera angles gave to the movie. It gave a sense of moodiness and unease without being unpleasant. It is not a breakthrough within the genre (Night and the City had similar visuals), but that does not mean the movie is terrible to behold. An example in the movie would be one of the conversations with George and Sherry. When Sherry is manipulating George into spilling about the operation, they walk over to a lamp, which illuminates the lower half of their faces, highlighting manipulation and deceit, in the situation.
If you were to ask me one part of the movie that stood out from any other part of the movie, it would be the conversations between Nikki the shooter (an ancillary character in the movie, but an important part of the complex plan) and the parking attendant. It sounds unnecessary, but the reason why it sticks out for me is because that particular parking attendant is an African-American character who is portrayed in a respectful manner while being in a movie before the Civil Rights movement. In fact, the parking attendant initially thanked Nikki for being so kind during their conversation about being in World War II. That’s a big deal. Unfortunately, the thanks are impeding Nikki’s part of the plan, so he calls the parking attendant a racial slur and tells him to scram, which paints Nikki as a jerk. It is a small part of the movie, but Kubrick left it in the movie for a reason, and for good reason because it sticks with me.
The last thing I will mention at this time is the pacing of the movie. It is perfect. It is the exact right level of tautness. It gives enough time to divulge important information, explore character traits, and show all parts of the heist without being too bogged down with extraneous subplots and an overdose of exposition. I enjoyed the film.
What else did you notice, Andrew?
Two things that you mentioned I really liked, the first being that scene between Nikki and the parking lot attendant. I’m still divided on the way Kubrick treated race in his films (really looking forward to watching The Shining again because of this) but that’s a strong scene and ends on the perfect ironic note. As we both noticed, the attendants attempts at being friendly and Nikki’s rebuttal end up killing Nikki in the long run.
The second is that narration. It helps, as you mentioned, keep the movie fairly taut but still gives the film the sense that it’s mostly a genre exercise and very little more. That’s not a bad thing, one of my favorite films of 2011 was Drive and I’m not about to accuse that film of any sort of Berman-esque psychological depth with its characters anytime soon.
Still, those visuals are amazing. I love the multiple tracking shots of Johnny moving into and out of the shadows, foreshadowing Kubrick’s discovery and fantastic use of the Steadicam later on in his career. The sets must have been a wonder to walk around, because Kubrick’s camera cuts into and out of walls, utilizing the space in clear paths of motion to each destination.
Another visual motif I enjoy is the way the film sections off Johnny as the survivor early on. The narration says, on the day of the heist, that Johnny may be facing his last day. Given the nonchalance the narrator has toward the life and eventual deaths of the other characters, it’s clear the narrator is pointing toward some sort of end but not the grave. The visuals follow in kind, utilizing a number of bedposts and bars to section Johnny away from the rest of the group and other little clues like the bullet-ridden gangster cutouts that signify Nikki’s eventual fate.
I really like The Killing, but it’s hard for me to muster up a lot of love for it. It’s tightly paced, but moves with a precision that’s too cold for me. There’s great acting, but characters who don’t really have a lot to do other than spout of expository dialogue and look sad or angry as needed. But there are so many amazing visuals the film really hits the sweet, yet dark, spot in the end. The final shot of all that money spiraling up into the void, then Johnny’s previously innocent girlfriend quickly leading him out of the airport, all highlight a story not explored of presumed innocence but still provide a stellar closing shot.
Final thoughts before we send this one out to pasture?
You say the precision is cold, but I have to disagree. It may not be particularly emotional, but considering that the overall plan must be implemented even at the expense of the rest of the partners (the movie even mentioned that the money was the most important component), the emotionally distant tone was the right tone. I would use the word “calculated” or “studied”, but that is just me.
Speaking of studied and calculated, the downfall of Johnny (that exquisite Sterling Hayden whose work I especially enjoyed in Dr. Strangelove) is anything but studied and calculated. I don’t want to give away how he is defeated, but just the fact that he was defeated by an unknown and unforeseeable variable gave the movie a bit of levity and amusement.
Is it a bad thing that the only thing I was thinking during the last part with Johnny in the airport is that his plan would never work today? With the advent of full body scans, metal detectors, and bag scanners, it would be absolutely impossible to pull it off now.
I like that you mentioned the narrator mentioning Johnny’s last day even though he lived through the whole movie. It reinforced the non-involved narrator and gave some ambiguous misdirection at the same time.
You also mentioned a lack of psychological depth, but I found the characters George and Sherry to be interesting. George because he is too weak-willed and dumb to see the wool pulled over his eyes by his conniving wife, and for Sherry because she has wits and humor and almost unearthly powers of manipulation, yet believed George’s lies.
Overall, The Killing is a great genre exercise that showed what the genre has to offer; Interesting characters, spectacular visuals, and a complex plot all wrapped up into one dark noir excursion.
Coming next Friday: the lighthearted comedy stylings of Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory.