Sunday, 3 May 2015

Blindspot: The Killing (1956)

I've made no secret on my blog of the fact that Stanley Kubrick is one of my all-time favorite directors, but until very recently there were still two of his movies that had eluded me. These were his second and third films: Killer's Kiss and The Killing. Both naturally seemed like logical choices for the 2015 Blindspot Challenge, but ultimately it was The Killing that made it onto the final list. I saw Killer's Kiss last week, so this was the last Kubrick film I had not already seen, at least out of his feature films (I still need to see his early documentary work), and now I can say I've seen them all. So far, the only other director for whom I could make the same claim is David Lynch, who I might know better than Kubrick now as I've not only seen all of his features but also most of his shorts, a large portion of his television work, his paintings, and his various bizarre web shows like Dumbland and Rabbits that sometimes get even weirder than his movies.

The Killing was Kubrick's third feature, after presenting an unusual war story in Fear and Desire and somehow getting away with quite a few violations of the Production Code in Killer's Kiss. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden, who would later work with Kubrick again in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) is a criminal mastermind who has planned a brilliant heist on a local racetrack. He has assembled a crew of tough men, including corrupt cop Randy Kennan (Ted De Corsia). He has an in-depth understanding of how the race track works and has figured out every angle necessary to steal a large amount of money, with every person having a role to play. However, one of the participants, George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) accidentally mentions it to his wife Sherry, who much to his frustration refuses to be submit to him and be a typical 1950's housewife. What George doesn't know is that Sherry is having an affair with another criminal named Val (Vince Edwards), who she informs about the planned heist. The job goes off perfectly, but afterwards complications turn what would have been a successful heist into a bloodbath (and a pretty gory one for 1956).

So how did I feel about seeing this film? I'm not entirely sure. This post has actually proven to be very hard to write since I don't really have a lot of specific comments related to the film. It's okay, but Kubrick would go on to do far better (2001: A Space Odyssey being a standout example). Personally I would say I enjoyed Killer's Kiss a lot more. Sterling Hayden delivers a reasonable performance that makes his character interesting enough, and Sherry makes for a decent femme fatale antagonist. However, the rest of the cast isn't really all that memorable. For one thing, I didn't feel like Marvin's role in the whole operation was very well explained; he was apparently supposed to be financing the heist somehow... but they were planning to steal money so spending money to steal money seems a bit redundant, and I'm not sure why he was helping them either since he seemed to be doing okay for himself.

The actual heist was still fairly well-executed. Kubrick really defied the Studio System this time around by presenting a narrative that jumps back and forth through time (though a voice-over narration helps to establish when everything happens in relation to each other). Taking this approach, he is able to spend time focusing on each individual involved with the crime and illustrate their role in the heist. Once it's done, it makes sense why each person was involved and what they contributed (except Marvin, who I still feel they could have explained better). It also gives time to focus on developing each of the individual characters, and in some cases the problems they encountered (one guy ends up in the awkward situation of having to pretend to be racist to get a parking attendant to leave him alone; this strategy also ends up backfiring in an unexpected way). Still, as interesting as all this was, I can't say I ever felt emotionally invested with anyone in particular.

In addition to that, I think the ending may have been a little contrived. They set up a plot thread with Val, but he only shows up in two scenes. He appears near the beginning when he finds out about the heist and decides to get involved, and then they forget about him until he suddenly shows up again at the very end and there's a shootout that somehow ends up killing everyone. It didn't seem clear from the editing so when everyone suddenly turned up dead it was a bit confusing. There is a bit of comedic value to how Johnny Clay is eventually caught, but even that seemed a little contrived. I get why it ended this way: it wasn't unusual for noir films of the time, especially those centering on criminals, to have a "crime doesn't pay" message at the end (usually involving the deaths of said criminals), I just wonder if there might have been a better way to do it.

The Killing is an interesting experience, and I'm glad I saw it, but I don't think this really strikes me as Kubrick's finest work. Of course, even a great director has to start somewhere, and Kubrick seems to be doing his best with the source material and working under the Production Code, but this is probably a very good example of Kubrick's biggest difficulty in his early career: he always needed complete control over everything, and he probably did not get that here. Still, The Killing does have its merits and it isn't that long a film so I'd say it is still worth looking at if you get the chance.


  1. Some people are of the theory that there's an unrequited homosexual undertone to Marvin's involvement with Johnny Clay. I must admit to completely missing that the first time I watched The Killing.
    Good review!

  2. I liked this film enough. I love that you've seen all of Kubrick's work. I have quite a few directors I can say that about. It's a neat thing to see how a director has evolved over time.

    1. Indeed, just looking at a director's work and comparing it to their later projects can be really interesting. That would probably make a good blogathon: pick a director you know well and discuss their first feature film in relation to their later work. Technically The Killing wasn't Kubrick's first feature, but it was one of his early films made before he'd really established himself as a filmmaker. If I remember correctly it's not until his next film (Paths of Glory) that you really start to see his style emerge. At some point, it might be an interesting exercise now to just do a whole marathon of Kubrick's filmography and then see if I learn anything at the end of it.