Directed Viewing: Directorial Growth and “The Killing”

Directed Viewing is the regular series where I take a look at all the movies of a given director. Directors are chosen mostly to fill my cinematic gaps and with an eye to who might be a good candidate for broader analysis as I take in the filmography in a hopefully chronological manner. It’s very reliant upon some (sometimes admittedly facetious) presumptions about auteur theory, but it’s also a lot of fun, so hopefully I’ll be permitted some interpretive liberties.

We continue this week with Stanley Kubrick, who has proven to have come out the gate stumbling with two movies that were each bad in their own ways, the kinds of movies that today would potentially sink a director. But Kubrick soldiered on, and made a third movie, now we’re going to talk about it, and let’s hope for everyone’s sake the third time is indeed the charm.

The Killing (1956)

Many of the problems with Kubrick’s attempt at tackling noir were addressed last time he did so in my piece on Killer’s Kiss. That movie felt old and cheap, a small piece with limited ambition notable only due to who the director became and some handsome photography. Kubrick seems to have known quite clearly the faults of that movie because everything about his follow-up, The Killing, seems to be done to firmly plant a flag as having something worthwhile to say in the noir genre.

The movie opens with the rapid-fire, present-tense narration of a news report, coming in over the scenes of a horse race. At first you’d be forgiven thinking it was part of the announcement system, but it carries on in a no-nonsense manner delivering the facts. Something is afoot at the racetrack, and it’s not the thoroughbreds. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is a career criminal planning his Last Big Score, and it involves a whole group of very serious men to pull off a very serious job.

The plan is never fully explained to anyone on the team to keep them all in line, but it boils down to this: they’re going to create distractions during the big race, have an inside man sneak Clay into the main office where they handle the money, and make off with two million dollars, escaping under the cover of a run on the box office caused when a hired gun shoots the presumptive winning horse. Then they’ll all meet, divvy up the money, and go their separate ways. It’s a pretty solid plan, except one of the guys has a wife at home he can’t lie to, who can talk him into telling her everything, including the plans for the robbery. She has a boyfriend she’d rather split $2,000,000 with than a husband who only gets a piece of the pie.

The Killing is as tightly wound as a caper film could be, in its sub-90 minute runtime managing to pack in reams and reams of amazing noir dialog that just fills every scene with people talking in the most wonderfully hard-boiled ways. These are the great protagonists of the genre, with poetry like punches in their mouths and no romance to them. A movie like this would slap Killer’s Kiss around and not feel a thing. Each scene propelling everything forward, the pieces of an elaborate puzzle slowly being uncovered to the audience who is along for the ride as the giant scheme unfolds. It is one of the best examples of the elaborate job kind of movie, and each step is a delight as bafflement blossoms into realization again and again.

Marie Windsor's role as the scheming Sherry is one of the best noir villains.

On top of that, Kubrick expands his directorial chops in how the movie is shot. The interiors are gloomy, usually lit by only a single source. Every back room is grimy an every bedroom feels like the place something sordid happens. Tables where men talk about plans are a sea of light from a single overhead lamp in a setting of darkness. It’s almost fully impressionistic, intimating a sense of the theatrical. In juxtaposition, the outdoor shots are brightly lit and fully naturalistic, done in a style so without artifice that it almost feels like a documentary. It doesn’t hurt that most of these are the scenes that contain the narration, laying out time and character jumps with the same calm, objective radio announcer voice.

Which brings us to the final surprise of The Killing. The finale unfolds from a multitude of angles, with little interest in a chronological presentation of events. We start with a character, and see everything he did on the fateful day. Then, we jump to another character, and start from where he fits into the plan to where he exits. Each of the major actors are explored in this fashion, in a disjointed chronology that reveals the full machinations of the plan like the slow burn of a really good magic trick. It’s the kind of thing that became almost a running meta-gag by the time it appeared in Soderbergh’s Oceanstrilogy, but here is quite possibly the first time it appeared in film and it lends the movie a sense of subjectivity that belies its no-nonsense presentation, the audience as in the dark many times as each character.

The dark backrooms of the movie are some of the moodiest sets in the genre.

It also has another cinematic imitator: Quentin Tarantino. From the multiple viewpoints on a single heist of Reservoir Dogs to the elaborate time jumps at the end of Jackie Brown, it’s clear that this has to be an influence on his work. And it’s honestly pretty amazing to recognize that when digging into old movies like this, to recognize the influences on the people who got you into movies in a young age. That just makes The Killing even more special to me, and I already found myself surprised at how much I fully loved the hell out of it.

It took three movies, but Kubrick has arrived as a director of movies that work and work amazingly well. The Killing certainly isn’t as grandiose as Kubrick’s later work, but it establishes itself as a noir classic right up there with the greats of the 30s. This is the turning point of Kubrick as an emerging talent, taking the kind of restraint and care of Hitchcock and bending it around a new style that reaches all the way into filmmakers of today, who took this freewheeling narrative drive and ran with it. The Killing isn’t just smart or fun, it’s truly great cinema.

The mask used in the heist is not only effective and creepy, but I imagine probably inspired the opening of The Dark Knight as much as Heat does.


About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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