The Killing

The Killing
   United Artists, 85 minutes, 1956 Producer: James B. Harris and Alexander Singer; Director: Stanley Kubrick; Screenplay: Kubrick, Jim Thompson (dialogue), based on the novel, Clean Break, by Lionel White; Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard; Music: Gerald Fried; Assistant Director: Milton Carter; Art Director: Ruth Sobotka; Set Decoration: Harry Reif; Wardrobe: Jack Masters and Rudy Harrington; Makeup: Robert Littlefield: Sound: Earl Snyder; Special Effects: Dave Koehler; Editor: Betty Steinberg; Cast: Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay), Colleen Gray (Fay),Vince Edwards (Val Cannon), Jay C. Flippen (Marvin Unger),Ted De Corsia (Randy Kennan), Marie Windsor (Sherry Peatty), Elisha Cook (George Peatty), Joe Sawyer (Mike O’Reilly), James Edwards (parking attendant), Timothy Carey (Nikki Arane), Kola Kwariani (Maurice Oboukhoff), Jay Adler (Leo),Tito Vuolo (Joe), Dorothy Adams (Ruthie O’Reilly), Joseph Turkel (Tiny),William Benedict (airline clerk).
   Stanley Kubrick’s first important film, The Killing, marks the true beginning of his career. The script, by Kubrick and crime novelist JIM THOMPSON (The Grifters, 1963), is based on Lionel White’s novel, CLEAN BREAK. The tightly constructed screenplay follows the preparations of a makeshift gang bent on making a big pile of money by holding up a race-track. They have planned the robbery to coincide with the actual running of the seventh race, and Kubrick photographs the heist in great detail with all of its split-second timing. He builds suspense with great intensity by quickly cutting from one member of the gang to another in a series of flashbacks that show how each has simultaneously carried out his part of the plan. All of these parallel lines of action lead inexorably to the climactic moment when the ringleader gets away with the loot. Edward Buscombe remarks: “This early Kubrick picture shows all of his characteristic precision and care in the construction of the narrative, pieced together through flashback and voice-over narration. ” Kubrick was confident that his method of telling the story by means of fragmented flashbacks would work as well on the screen as it did in the novel. “It was the handling of time that may have made this more than just a good crime film,” he told Gene Phillips.
   The Killing gives us a glimpse into the seedy lives of each gang member involved in the robbery, thereby lending the movie a touch of sleazy authenticity that likewise raises it well above the level of the ordinary crime film. Furthermore, the director elicited a high order of ensemble acting from a group of capable Hollywood supporting players who rarely got a chance to give performances of such substance. STERLING HAYDEN plays Johnny Clay, the tough organizer of the caper; JAY C. FLIPPEN is Marvin Unger, the cynical older member of the group; ELISHA COOK JR. is George Peatty, the timid track cashier who hopes to impress his voluptuous wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) with stolen money since he cannot otherwise give her satisfaction; and Ted De Corsia is Randy Kennan, a crooked cop. They and other cast members help Kubrick create the brutal atmosphere of the film.
   Some of the strongest dramatic scenes in the movie are those between mousy George Peatty and his sluttish wife, Sherry. George is hopelessly in love with Sherry and is constantly afraid that she will two-time him with another man—something she has already done repeatedly. Maddened by her constant condescension, George blurts out that he is involved with a big operation that will make them rich. Sherry shrewdly tries to pry more of the details from him, but George, unaware that he has already said too much, becomes evasive. Later Sherry tells her lover,Val (Vince Edwards), what she has been able to wheedle out of her husband. Ironically, she is as submissive to this cheap crook as George is to her. At the meeting which Johnny has called with his fellow conspirators, he goes over the intricate plans which he has laid. A single overhead lamp illumines their worn, defeated faces as they talk, leaving them surrounded by a darkness that is almost tangible. It is this darkness that seems to hover around Kubrick’s characters in many of his films and which they desperately seek to keep from engulfing them—usually without success.
   As a matter of fact, the thematic note that is found repeatedly in Kubrick’s films is initially sounded in this film, his first major success. As critic Michiko Kakutani puts it, Kubrick was “obsessed with the notion that ‘if something can go wrong, it will. ’” In the “off-kilter world” of Kubrick, “the perfect crime inevitably goes awry, . . . the carefully plotted scheme unravels. ” This uncertainty principle is the engine that generates suspense, Kakutani concludes, as here in the present film.
   Tension begins to mount as the day of the holdup dawns. “Four days later, at 7 A. M. , Sherry Peatty was wide awake,” says the narrator. Badgering her nervous spouse at the breakfast table, she gets him to admit that today is the day. The two performers breathe a great deal of emotion into these scenes, particularly Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon, 1941), whom Penelope Houston describes in Contemporary Cinema as “the prototype of all sad little men. ”
   From this point onward Kubrick begins to follow each separate strand of the robbery plot through to its completion, doubling back each time to show how each of these elements is implemented simultaneously with all of the others. Kubrick repeats the shots of the horses getting into starting position for the seventh race each time he turns back the clock, to develop a different step in the complex robbery plan, thereby situating the viewer temporally. Kubrick builds his film from the beginning toward the peak where all of Johnny’s meticulous planning suddenly converges on the moment when he enters the cashiers’ office and scoops up $2 million. Johnny is wearing a rubber mask; with typical Kubrick irony, the face on the mask is frozen into a perpetual grin. After Johnny fills his large laundry sack with all the money it will hold, he makes his getaway.
   Kubrick begins to draw the last threads of the plot together as Johnny’s companions in crime assemble in Marvin’s shabby living room to await Clay’s appearance with the money. “Where’s Johnny?” George whines nervously. “Why does his timetable have to break down now?” There is a knock at the door, but instead of Johnny and the cash it is Val and one of his mobsters. They force themselves into the room, expecting to grab the swag for themselves. A shoot-out ensues that leaves everyone in the room dead—except George, who is mortally wounded. For a moment Kubrick trains his hand-held camera on the pile of corpses spread around the room. The room is silent, except for the sound of bouncy Latin music pouring from the radio, providing an ironic counterpoint to the carnage of the scene. George Peatty has enough life left in him to struggle into his car and drive home. He is moving with the determination of a man who knows he must accomplish something before he takes his last breath. Once there, he finds Sherry packing to go away with Val, just as he suspected she would. She tries to mollify him with a prefabricated alibi, but for once in his life George is not to be forestalled by his scheming wife. He blasts away with his pistol, the impotent husband finally penetrating his wife with bullets. As George himself falls forward toward the camera he knocks over a birdcage, symbol of his pitifully narrow existence, which is now at an end.
   Johnny meets Fay at the airport, where they intend to board a plane for the tropics. Johnny and Fay arrive at the departure gate just in time to see the baggage truck drive out onto the windy airfield. They watch in mute horror as the ramshackle case falls off the top of the mountain of luggage onto the tarmac and springs open, flooding the airstrip with stolen bills that blow right at the camera. Fay and Johnny are in a daze. She supports his arms as they walk to the street and hopelessly try to hail a taxi, before the two FBI agents who have been watching them all along can reach them. Fay tells Johnny to make a run for it; but Johnny, resigned to his fate, can only murmur, almost inaudibly, “What’s the difference?” Johnny and Fay had hoped to escape the corrosive atmosphere of the big city by flight to a cleaner climate. Earlier, Marvin had encouraged Johnny to go away and “take stock of things. ” But for Johnny, brutalized by a life of crime, it is already too late.
   When The Killing was released, reviewers applauded it as an expert suspense film with crisp, incisive cutting and in-depth characterizations. Time endorsed Kubrick for having shown “more imagination with dialogue and camera than Hollywood has seen since the obstreperous Orson Welles went riding out of town. ”
   ■ Buscombe, Edward, “The Killing,” in The BFI Companion to Crime, ed. Phil Hardy (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), p. 192;
   ■ Houston, Penelope, Contemporary Cinema (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), pp. 64–68;
   ■ Kakutani, Michiko,“The Only Certainty is Uncertainty,” New York Times, November 5, 2000, sec. 2, pp. 29, 40;
   ■ Lyons,Arthur, Death on the Cheap: Film Noir and the Low Budget Film (New York: Da Capo, 2000), pp. 9–10;
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick:A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1977), pp. 29–38;
   ■ Williams, Tony, “Clean Break,” in The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film, rev. ed. , ed. John C. Tibbetts and James Welsh (New York: Facts On File, 1998), pp. 64–65.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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