The sad truth is that there’s an entire cadre of popcorn-munchers out there who believe that Steven Soderbergh and Guy Ritchie invented the heist movie, or that the genre has never before enjoyed such an efflorescence as it has in the past decade. The cannier viewer knows that Gary Gray’s The Italian Job is a retread, but funny how studio marketing fuck-abouts try to freshen up their output by blindsiding us with faux-originality, even as they cash in on the human predisposition for sameness. The attraction of a certain author, director or genre, or the comforting return to a favorite book, all spring partly from our love of the familiar. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with comfort-seeking, or that originality ought to be the sine qua non of markers when it comes to assessing the merit of a creative effort; we can thank Kant, Wordsworth and the late eighteenth-century Romantic movement for thrusting original (a very modern ideal) to the top of the artistic value-ladder. No, my gripe has more to do with the quiet curtaining-off of earlier works by these more recent efforts because they aren’t colorful enough or English-language-y enough for today’s North American audience. I’m being pretty unoriginal myself by publicly grieving over the fact that the films of Jules Dassin and Jean-Pierre Melville aren’t household names on this side of the pond, when so much of what we watch today owes so much to them, and — more importantly — when they’re so goddamned watchilicious in their own right.
Melville arguably owed two bits to Stanley Kubrick (who owed two bits himself to Dassin and Orson Welles … and so it cycles on), whose foray into heist-movie territory was yet another Kubrickian mastering of genre. Pause for a moment and consider how Kubrick’s works frequently stand as paragons of certain types of film; a few individual viewers may not themselves think much of 2001 (SF), The Shining (horror), Spartacus (sword and sandal), Paths of Glory (war), Barry Lyndon (historical costume drama), Dr. Strangelove (satire) or A Clockwork Orange (dystopia), but they’d be hard-pressed to find critical material that doesn’t hold these films up as towering achievements among the best of their genre. Kubrick’s 1956 film noir, The Killing, rests on a similar pedestal as one of the finest heist movies ever made (so goes the general praise). I chose this film in part because of the current popularity of the genre coupled with The Killing’s relative obscurity; in part because Kubrick is more Yankee-friendly than Dassin (and his film easier to find than Rififi — see it, love it, run your juices over it); and in part because I am Kubrick’s bitch and can’t resist a soapbox when I’m offered one (thanks, Pajiba Classics Week!).
Enough whinging — let’s get to the heart of the thing: ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) hasn’t been out of prison for more than a few afternoons’ worth of lovemaking with his sweetheart when he’s already plotting a killer take — an estimated two million from the Lansdowne Racetrack in San Francisco. Such an ambitious plan, of course, needs assistance from the inside. The track’s bartender (Joe Sawyer) and one of its bookies (Elisha Cook Jr.) are enlisted, as are a marksman (Timothy Carey), a funny kind of a cop (Ted de Corsia), and an ex-wrestler (Kola Kwariani, unforgettable in his one and only film role). The Killing benefits from grade-A suspense and Kubrick’s precision camera, as well as rich performances by a host of character actors at their finest. Timothy Carey (the pre-John Turturro Turturro) makes an impact as Nikki Arcane, the sniper Johnny hires to take out a race-horse on heist-day, and Elisha Cook Jr.’s uxorious sad-sack has a face cleaved with confusion that fills the screen with blank stupefaction. Kubrick’s shorthand reveals how Johnny’s abettors jump into the game out of financial desperation (a sick wife, a loan-shark’s interest), or out of sheer, fateful manipulation by outside parties (a harridan wife who believes she’s entitled to furs and champagne her husband can’t afford).
Many hit-parade noir elements are present for those who seek them: shadows so deep they often black out half the screen, obscuring the space behind conniving characters as they keep their true motivations obscured from each other; hard-boiled dialogue (here written by the Jim Thompson, as if the film didn’t already have enough to offer noir fans); a blonde femme fatale, more human in this case than she is appealing (and mad props to Marie Windsor for filling out a depressing wifely stereotype so roundly); claustrophobic framing and tilted camera angles, such as the telling high-angle shot on Cook’s henpecked George Peatty as we look on from behind his wife’s elbow; and a moment of pure, heart-wrenching fatalism, born of an absurd inconsequence that bloats monstrous and jacks the expected outcome off course.
Kubrick also throws in a few novelties unusual for the period, such as the film’s editing, which draws the viewer forward and backwards in time, and which prompted the assistance of voice-over narration to help guide a 1950’s American audience still mostly unused to non-linear narrative styles. This narrator-guide might annoy modern-day viewers until one realizes that, in fact, it’s a perfect reflection of the race-track announcer who calls the action at the Lansdowne; the heist plot itself becomes a sort of a race-event, a gamble, a high-stakes, hold-your-breath enduro. Watch especially how Kubrick shoots the track’s main building like a prison. From the outside, it’s composed of imposing walls and tiny high windows out of which objects are thrust in “escape,” while inside, its bank of teller windows mirrors the typical 1940’s prison design, with its guarded upper walkway and rows of barred cubicles (bars, in fact — as in many noirs — appear metaphorically in countless scenes; the specter of punishment never leaves these characters’ sides). The Killing might also deserve some sort of award for Best Use of a Tanker in the Heist Film Category; Maurice the wrestler’s scene is bloody entertaining, and the brawl he ignites at the ticket counter reinforces Kubrick’s penal theme — the onrush of a dozen guards over a paper-littered floor suggests a prison riot.
In sum: if you can “do” old noir and have never seen The Killing, I guarantee your gut will be wonderfully punched in the film’s dwindling moments as the story’s pay-off hits home, while your eyes are impressed seconds later by one of the most gorgeously composed final shots in film history. No one frames human figures quite like our man K, and his camera manages to snag the essence of the old-style crime drama in one take — pistols, g-men and all. While most of The Killing bears a pseudo-Wellesian aspect, this final shot fuses that stark, near-institutional Kubrickian smoothness we’ve come to recognize with the chiaroscuro palette of the overall genre, and foreshadows the director’s signature cinematic yet-to-be’s. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Classics Week, on August 27, 2007.)