Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Killing (1956)

The film noir/heist movie The Killing was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film. That’s if you count Fear and Desire (1953). Kubrick didn’t. He didn’t want it ever to be seen again. So Kubrick would have regarded The Killing as his second real feature, following Killer’s Kiss (1955).

The Killing was based on Lionel White’s excellent noir novel Clean Break which I’ve reviewed elsewhere.

The Killing has been hailed for its innovative approach to narrative but in fact most of the innovations were already present in the novel.

For The Killing Kubrick had an extremely strong cast. Not huge stars, but very fine people perfectly cast.

This is a complex and intricate heist story. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) has been serving five years in prison. Now he’s out and he plans to rob the racetrack. It can’t be done. There’s just too much security. But Johnny thinks he’s found a fool-proof way to do it. And it really is a very clever plan. There’s just one minor weakness. The plan is fiendishly complicated and relies on split-second timing. One small unexpected event could throw the plan into chaos. There’s a reason Johnny was in prison. He’s clever, but not quite as clever as he thinks he is.

Johnny has decided that it’s a mistake to use professional criminals on a job like this. They’re too easy for the police to trace. He’s using amateurs, and he can rely on them because they all want money really really bad. And this robbery could net them two million dollars. Two million dollars in 1956 was an almost inconceivably huge amount of money. Enough to finance a life of ease and luxury for everyone involved.

Cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) is a key player. He’s not a crooked cop but he’s a gambler and he’s heavily in debt. Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) will provide the money needed to set things up. Bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) will be needed for one crucial moment during the robbery, as will racetrack cashier George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.).

George needs the money because without money his wife Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor) will leave him. Sherry is no good but George is crazy about her. He just can’t think straight where Sherry is concerned.

The robbery itself is presented to us from the viewpoint of various characters, with the narrative constantly jumping back and forth in both place and time. That’s more or less how the novel is structured but doing this in a movie in 1956 was very very daring indeed, and the way Kubrick does it seems more radical than the way it’s done in the book.

It’s this unconventional narrative that makes The Killing such an important and striking movie. This was Kubrick, still inexperienced and still in his twenties, serving notice that he was going to start breaking cinematic rules in a big way. In The Killing he manages to break the rules whilst still giving us an exciting heist movie that is perfectly coherent and easy to follow. Kubrick trusted his audience to pick up on what he was doing.

Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook Jr. give what are close to career-best performances. Hayden is very low-key because that’s the kind of guy Johnny is. He’s the kind of criminal who just loves sitting and planning crimes. Johnny should have become a crime writer instead of a criminal. The problem with real crimes is that you have to put them into execution and that’s when your ingenious plans start to go wrong. Johnny never loses his cool. Elisha Cook Jr. is all nervous energy and anxiety and thwarted love. He’s a loser but we feel sorry for him.

Jay C. Flippen is always worth watching. Marie Windsor gives us a memorable femme fatale in Sherry. She’s a schemer and a tramp and she knows it but she still manages to justify it to herself. Vincent Edwards is good as Val. I can’t tell you what part he plays in the story without revealing spoilers.

The heist itself is filmed in an intricate and methodical way as the pieces slowly slot together. We can see lots of things that might go wrong but we don’t know exactly which of those things will go awry.

Kubrick sticks very closely to White’s novel, except for the ending. I don’t think the ending was changed due to censorship problems or even studio interference. I just think Kubrick thought his ending was a bit more cinematic. The endings of both book and movie work extremely well.

Now we have to confront one of the most controversial questions in movie history - the aspect ratios of Kubrick’s movies. It’s a fiendishly complicated subject and people get very heated about it. As far as I can make out Kubrick not only shot but composed most (but not all) his movies in the 1.37:1 ratio, the old “Academy” ratio. When shown in theatres they were usually cropped to make them appear to be in widescreen ratios. Kubrick had no control over this. When it came time to release his films on DVD Kubrick made it very clear that he wanted them to be seen in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio because that was the closest to his original intentions when he made the movies. Kubrick’s wishes were respected.

When his movies started to be released on Blu-Ray his wishes were ignored and most of his movies were cropped to make them fit widescreen aspect ratios.

The Killing
seems to have been shot and composed in 1.37:1. The original DVD releases were in this format. When Criterion released the movie on Blu-Ray they ignored Kubrick’s wishes and cropped it to make it compatible with the 16:9 format. So if you buy the Criterion Blu-Ray you’re not seeing the movie the way Kubrick wanted it seen, you’re seeing it the way the folks at Criterion have decided you’re going to see it. It was presumably a commercial decision - modern audiences prefer the widescreen formats. But that’s not what Kubrick wanted and since he was the director I assume he was in the best position to judge how his movies should be presented. Watching The Killing in 1.37:1 I have to say that it looks right.

But as I said it’s a controversial topic and no-one can claim to have a definitive answer.

The Killing has plenty of film noir credentials. The various members of the gang are mostly vaguely sympathetic, but they’re losers. They’re motivated not just by greed but by wishful thinking, which to me seems very noir. They really think they’re going to get away with it, because if they don’t they’ll have to accept being losers for the rest of their lives.

A brilliant movie by a director who was already confident enough to go his own way, and skilful enough to get away with it. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. It's a wonderfully classy thriller, and a great adaptation of the novel. Almost perfect. Ironically, nowadays, the jumping around the timeline thing is done and overdone so much that it's become irritating, but it really works here.

    Also, at first the narration grates a bit, but becomes pretty much vital in the later stages.