Director Stanley Kubrick on the set
Kubrick with Sterling Hayden
Kubrick sandwiched between Kola Kwariani (left) and Sterling Hayden
Kubrick (left) with Vince Edwards and Marie Windsor
Sterling Hayden with Marie Windsor
THE KILLING A
USA (83 mi) 1956 d: Stanley Kubrick
The film that put Kubrick on the map, released by the studio as the second film in a double-feature, shot in just 24 days on a B-movie budget of only $320,000, elevated from the forty thousand he had to work with to film KILLER’S KISS (1955), but a flop financially, yet critics acknowledged a spectacular young talent, and the first Kubrick film to be adapted from another source. The director was particularly impressed by the time structure in Lionel White’s 1955 crime thriller Clean Break, as White was the master of the heist gone wrong novel. Even after 60 years, this is still a perfectly conceived film classic, a 50’s black and white film noir suspense thriller with voiceover narration and an unusual overlapping time structure that goes back and forth in time, starring Sterling Hayden at the top of his game as the bold and brash ringleader Johnny Clay, the recently released ex-con who plans a perfect heist at the Lansdowne Racetrack for $2 million smackeroos (actually shot at the Bay Meadows Racetrack just outside of San Francisco), assembling a five-man team of novices, an oddly devised collection of outsiders and luckless misfits, all driven by a desperate craving for money as the answer to all their prayers, where the ingenious scheme is carried out perfectly in a tightly planned time schedule until, little by little, everything unravels. There is terrific dialogue written by Kubrick and Jim Thompson (who felt cheated over his secondary “additional dialogue” credit, claiming he wrote most of the screenplay), great acting from a collection of B-movie standouts, loaded with suspense and atmosphere, as well as huge doses of humor, and while it’s beautifully realized by the constant handheld camera movement of cinematographer Lucien Ballard who actually got his start working with Josef von Sternberg in the mid 30’s, eventually working with Sam Peckinpah, shooting The Wild Bunch (1969), mostly shot in and around Los Angeles, there were severe disagreements between the 27-year old director and the camera crew, as Kubrick was insistent upon adhering to his own compositional vision, shooting the aftermath of the shootout scene himself, which Martin Scorsese may have had in mind in Taxi Driver (1976). The ingeniously complex narrative structure feels like a flashback film, yet there are no flashbacks, as the story is simply told out of order, with the dry voice of a narrator providing a 3rd person newsreel style accounting of what’s taking place in each sequence, recalling the March of Time newsreels that Kubrick directed, specifying the exact time of the action, transmitting expository information, keeping viewers detached from the central drama, giving the film a documentary style depiction, each segment feeling like a story within a story. The first few sequences are particularly illuminating, as they introduce the main characters, while also providing multiple levels of character motivation, delving into their inner psychology, revealing a fairly atypical gang of thieves, including two insiders. Johnny and his girl Fay (Coleen Gray) set the stage, as she’s a complete contrast from the usual femme fatale role, instead showing an intense devotion to Johnny. Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer), the track bartender, has a bedridden wife at home, while the crooked cop, Officer Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), is up to his ears in debt to loan sharks, while George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), a half-pint window teller at the track, is in over his head in a masochistic relationship to his disinterested, money-grubbing wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), spilling the beans to her about the upcoming heist while she’s two-timing him with another man, Val Cannon (Vince Edwards), who then wants a piece of the action. The odd man out is Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), whose bankroll is financing the operation, with suggestions of a homoerotic subtext with Johnny.
In addition, Johnny has hired two specialists to perform specific functions that are not part of the five-way split, knowing nothing about the overall operation, and paid up front not to ask questions. Professional wrestler and chess master (and philosopher) Kola Kwariani plays Maurice, paid to start a fight with the bartender and create a disturbance, distracting track cops from the heist taking place, while oddball movie psychopath Timothy Carey is Nikki Arane, a lunatic gun nut and sharpshooter, is paid to shoot the lead horse during the high stakes race, creating yet another distraction, slowing the crowd’s mad dash to collect their winnings. Influenced by the success of John Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), it spawned a whole subset of crime heist movies, all exploiting a headlines-grabbing event, the January 1950 robbery of the Brinks Armored truck office in Boston, at the time the largest heist in American history. The Halloween mask that Johnny uses for the crime mirrors the method used by the Brinks robbers. While Sterling Hayden is connected to Huston’s film, appearing as a gunman, three members of this cast, Hayden, Ted de Corsia and Timothy Carey, appeared together the previous year in the low-budget noir film, André de Toth’s Crime Wave (1954), also featuring a near documentary style, while the art director, Ruth Sobotka, was Kubrick’s wife at the time, who amazingly drew charcoal drawings of every scene for the actors to study. This film’s hard-boiled script represents a giant leap forward in quality from his earlier work, with Kubrick masterfully accentuating the meticulous precision needed to carry out this master heist, billed as the perfect crime, eventually thwarted by human fallabilities, a theme returned to frequently by Kubrick, including LOLITA (1962), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971), where most of his career, with the exception of Kirk Douglas in PATHS OF GLORY (1957) or Spartacus (1960), Kubrick displayed a preference for flawed protagonists who aren’t particularly virtuous or admirable, finding anti-heroes who are by no means sympathetic. Despite Hayden’s rock solid performance as the tight-lipped, perfectly chiseled, hard-nosed protagonist, emulating the virile masculinity of film noir, we never penetrate his inner psyche, knowing nothing about his backstory other than the knowledge he served 5 long years in prison, so while he has his appeal (and legions of followers), the film itself is tinged with an existential noirish fatalism, with the narrator at one point informing viewers that this could be the last day in Johnny’s life, reminded at every turn how easily things could go off the rails, where instead of one man standing out, the beauty of the film is the emphasis on the coordinated planning and execution, where each one is an essential cog in the overall success of the plan, continually offering shifting points of view. Young gun Quentin Tarantino was so enthralled with the nervy Kubrick style, not just Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), but the climax in Jackie Brown (1997) all emulate what Kubrick does in this film, each one showing different character’s perspectives told out of order, drawing comparisons to Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (1950), actually receiving a call of support from Marlon Brando afterwards who was impressed by such a distinctive style from a first-time filmmaker.
While Johnny is singled out with more screen time, as he is the brains behind the operation, it’s curious that no character in the film, including the omniscient narrator, is fortunate enough to have all the information, as each have knowledge of only certain parts of the overall operation as it unfolds, leaving viewers in the most advantageous position, as we see all. Johnny, for instance, never sees Nikki shoot the lead horse Red Lightning, or sees the cop drive away with the money, or hears the revealing conversations between Sherry and Val opening up a new can or worms, and he is excluded from the startling revelations at their meet site afterwards, arriving late, seeing one of the men covered in blood staggering to his car, beating a hasty retreat away from danger. Viewers, on the other hand, see every aspect of the robbery, and are privy to the intimate conversations between lovers, which is what makes the jagged storyline all the more intriguing, curious to see how it all plays out. While the film uses the conventions of 1940’s film noir, wrapped in a fog of an all-encompassing fatalism, filled with archetypal characters that we immediately recognize, it’s the unfamiliar elements Kubrick brings to the story that are most fascinating, where he expertly blends the familiar with the unfamiliar, something he does with all his films, no two of which are the same, combining elements of classical Hollywood with a more modernist technique, always finding new material that stands on its own, becoming something we’ve never really seen before. Other films have used fragmented narrative methods before, but not to the extent that it becomes the organizing principle of the film aesthetic. Members of the gang rarely see one another during the course of the heist, becoming glaringly obvious when they do intersect, if only for a brief moment, using double takes, returning again and again to the same moment in time, but from a different perspective, pushing the conventional obsession with time to the breaking point, with Kubrick literally replaying his narrative, continually accumulating more clues, creating a puzzle for the audience to piece together, where the fragmentary structure only heightens the interest. The taut manner in which it all unfolds, with near mathematical precision, provides a good likelihood that they can ultimately get away with it, even if they are an unlikely group of small timers, and they very nearly do pull it off. If not for a Hitchcockian device so brilliantly used in The Birds (1963), introducing a persnickety old woman in her 80’s, Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies), as a know-it-all who views herself as an ornithological expert, insisting “Birds are not aggressive creatures,” while here Kubrick introduces another chatty old grandmother (Cecil Elliott) at the airport, holding a diminutive poodle that she obviously spoils and dotes upon, but allows the poodle to escape and erratically create enough havoc at the airport terminal that Johnny’s dreams simply evaporate into thin air. So close, and yet so far. Like the crime itself, it’s an almost perfect film experience.