A Bad Day at the Races
Unlike Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951), my fifth favorite film noir, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) is not my favorite work by the visionary director. In fact, the film probably wouldn't even make it onto a list of my top five Kubrick films. Yet, with a career that included such amazing films as Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Barry Lyndon (1975), and The Shining (1980), that's not an indication that The Killing is a film of poor quality but an indication that Kubrick's body of work comes the closest to cinematic perfection than any director I can think of. Thus, while The Killing may not by Kubrick's strongest, that doesn't keep it from earning the number four position in a ranking of my top five noirs.
The film, like Strangers, was adapted from a novel by a prominent hardboiled author (Lionel White, whose novel Obsession was adapted by Jean-Luc Godard as Pierrot le Fou) by a fellow colleague (Jim Thompson, author of The Grifters and A Hell of a Woman, which was adapted into one of my favorite neo-noirs, Série Noire). Perhaps due to the presence of these two hardboiled authors, casual but knowledgeable viewers of the noir genre might feel that the plot of The Killing is not terribly unique. After all, the film covers the meticulous planned robbery of a racetrack, masterminded by veteran criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden). On the surface, the plot sounds a lot like John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) which also stars Hayden. Yet, as Kubrick and noir scholar James Naremore notes in his book length study on the director, Kubrick was drawn to the novel precisely because he held affection for Huston and his film. In fact, the reason why The Killing is such a fascinating noir is that it capitalizes on a familiar plot in order to direct our attention elsewhere.
The bulk of the film revolves around Clay and his band of outsiders, which includes a corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia), a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey), a bartender (Joe Sawyer) and George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), a payout clerk at the track. The genius of the plan lies in the fact that the payout is huge ("They can put you away just as fast for a $10 heist as they can for a million dollar job.") and that none of the men are traditional criminals (but "they've all got a little larceny in 'em."), so they're not, to borrow the title from Bryan Singer's film, the usual suspects. Yet, the fabric of Clay's painstaking plan begins to fray when George lets it slip to his unfaithful wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), who has "a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart." Sherry isn't happy with George's cut of the potential two million dollars and begins devising a way to make off with the entire take. As I said, it's not the most original plot, but Kubrick utilizes its conventionality to experiment with film form in order to drive home one of themes that lies at the heart of the noir genre: existentialism.
Kubrick amplifies this existentialism by using both the plot and film form to undermine the meticulous heist that Clay has devised. In terms of the narrative, Clay's plan appears flawless. He has assembled a competent team, every consideration has been made regarding each individual's alibi, and he even realizes the potential of Sherry's betrayal rather early in the plot. Yet, the plot begins to break down due to acts of God: a traffic jam, a misplaced horseshoe, a faulty suitcase, and a small dog. As George notes in the aftermath of the heist, "Everything else runs on a timetable 'til it comes to payin' us our shares. Then the timetable breaks down." In the end, faced with a cosmic vengeance matched only by John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), even Clay reaches the realization that fate is both inescapable and indifferent to human endeavor. As he states in a dialogue with his girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray):
FAY: Johnny, you've got to run.
JOHNNY: Nah. What's the difference?
With regard to film form, the film's emphasis of existentialism comes from two factors. First, Kubrick's camera style makes use of a 25mm, wide-angle lens that often makes sweeping lateral movements through the cramped spaces of the film, often gliding where walls would traditionally stand. The wide-angle lens, presenting us with deep focus imagery from impossible to reach, Godlike spaces, presents us with a seemingly omnipresent point-of-view, which Kubrick further emphasizes in his narrative structure. The structure of the film is shuffled chronologically (Quentin Tarantino later cited the film as an influence on his time-bending structure) and Kubrick places of a narrator on the film's soundtrack. The narrator speaks to us in the past tense and, due to his overwhelming guidance and authority over the timeline, the viewer perceives that he is both truthful and omniscient. Yet, for those viewers paying attention, the narrator not only leaves out a key plot development but also makes several errors in describing the chronology of events. The omniscience of the narrator begins to disintegrate through its distortion; just as a wide-angle lens will subtly warp space.
While one of my favorite aspects of The Killing is its use of a well-treaded plot in service of a deeper examination of existentialism, Kubrick also utilizes the plot to examine sexual and racial issues as well. The film's investigation of sexuality primarily arises from two relationships: between Marvin (Jay C. Flippen) and Clay and between Sherry and George. The first relationship is less substantial, as homosexuality could only be implied at the time. The second, on the other hand, is one of the focal points of the film as we watch Sherry's femme fatale continually manipulate the impotent George. As she tells him, "I never had anybody. Not a real husband, just a bad joke without a punchline." The only way George can assert his power and sexuality is through violence, a scathing view of masculinity. The racial subtext comes across in an interaction between the sharpshooter and a black parking attendant whom, according to Naremore, we are encouraged to feel both sympathy and animosity towards. I would tend to agree and I imagine that this mixed emotion provoked quite an uncomfortable response in certain viewers of the film at the time of its release. While the film's examination of sexuality and race are left vaguely defined in comparison with its realization of existentialism, I admire the film for providing the viewer with much to digest.
I've left much to be unearthed for unfamiliar viewers of The Killing and, like most Kubrick films; I would be unable to admire all of the film's intricacies in roughly 1,000 words even if I so desired. I've neglected to spend time discussing Lucien Ballard's (The Devil is a Woman, The Wild Bunch) awe-inspiring cinematography (particularly a shot that comes out of a reflection in a mirror) and the incredible performances of Windsor and Cook Jr. Yet, I want you the reader to relish in the discovery (or re-discovery) of elements that personally draw you to the film. I look forward to your comments and to the unveiling of my number three choice. Want a hint? I like my gin and tonics with a bit of lime.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.