Monthly Film Bulletin - July 1984 - vol. 51 no. 606 - by Steve Jenkins

The Killing

U.S.A., 1956

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cert-A. dist-BFI. pc-Harris-Kubrick Productions. For United Artists. p-James B. Harris. assoc. p-Alexander Singer. p. sup-Clarence Eurist. asst. d-Milton Carter, Paul Feiner, Howard Joslin. sc- Stanley Kubrick. Based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White. addit. dial-Jim Thompson. ph-Lucien Ballard. process ph-Paul Eagler. camera op-Dick Tower. ph. effects-Jack Rabin, Louis DeWitt. ed- Betty Steinberg. a.d-Ruth Sobotka. set dec-Harry Reif. asst. set dec-Carl Brainard. sp. effrcts-Dave Koehler. rn/m.d-Gerald Fried. m. ed-Gilbert Marchant. wardro be- Jack Masters, (women) Rudy Harrington. make-up-Robert Littlefield. sd-Earl Snyder. sd. effects ed-Rex Lipton. p. assistant-Marguerite Olson. l.p-Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay), Coleen Gray (Fay), Vince Edwards (Val Cannon), Jay C. Flippen (Marvin Unger), Marie Windsor (Sheny Peatty), Ted DeCorsia (Randy Kennan), Elisha Cook (George Peatty), Joe Sawyer (Mike O'Reilly), Timothy Carey (Nikki Arane), Jay Adler (Leo), Kola Kwariani (Maurice Oboukhoff), Joseph Turkel (Tiny), James Edwards (Car-park Attendant), Tito Vuolo, Dorothy Adams, Herbert Ellis, James Griffith, Cecil Elliott, Steve Mitchell, Mary Carroll, William Benedict, Charles R. Cane, Robert B. Williams. 3,025 ft. 84 mins. (16 mm.).

With an apartment and financial support supplied by his friend Marvin Unger, Johnny Clay - just released from prison and reunited with his girlfriend Fay - sets up a two-million-dollar race-track robbery. Johnny has recruited three men for the job: George Peatty, a track cashier despised by his wife Sherry (who is two-timing him with hood Val Cannon); Randy Kennan, a police patrolman with debts; and Mike O'Reilly, a track bartender with a sick wife. The gang meet, but are interrupted by Sherry, who has told Val about the robbery and has now, unknown to the conspirators, led him to them. Johnny questions Sherry alone, which later arouses George's jealous suspicions. Johnny subsequently hires two men to create diversions at the track: Maurice, a wrestler, who will start a fracas in the bar; and Nikki, a marksman, who will shoot the favourite, Red Lightning, during the million-dollar Landsdown stakes. On the day of the robbery, Sherry implies to George that Johnny forced himself on her. Johnny leaves a gun in a bus station luggage locker, from where it is picked up by Mike and taken to the track. While Maurice and Nikki successfully carry out their tasks (although Nikki is then killed by a guard), Johnny is admitted to the cashiers' enclosure by George, retrieves the gun from Mike's locker, and robs the cashiers. He throws the money from a window; it is picked up by Randy, who delivers it to a motel room from where it will be collected by Johnny. While the gang wait for Johnny and the money, they are involved in a shoot-out when Val and his accomplice attempt to relieve them of the haul. George, the only survivor, staggers off to confront Sherry (who he knows has betrayed them), and kills her before dying himself. Having seen the wounded George leave the apartment, Johnny joins Fay at the airport, where he finds he is unable to take the case containing the money on board as hand luggage. The case bursts open when it falls off a baggage truck, the money blows away, and Johnny makes no move as he is approached by two detectives....

The Killing should, in theory, mark a point of neat intersection between auteurist and generic interests. The perfectly planned/timed robbery which goes wrong can obviously be related, for example, to those later technological systems which go awry in Dr. Strangelove and 2001. And the plotting of man's progress in the latter through time and space finds a clear pre-echo in The Killing's jigsaw-puzzle cut-up of the same elements. Simultaneously, with its constant flashbacks, its determinism, its male voice-over, predatory female, and high-contrast lighting, etc., the film can easily be appended to the noir cannon. But, as it turns out, The Killing's considerable interest lies not in how these approaches might dovetail, but rather in a sense of mismatch. Just before she dies, George Peatty's faithless and fatal wife describes what has happened as a "bad joke without a punch-line", and this rhymes perfectly with the sense of inconclusiveness that infects the film's ending. The circumstances leading to the stolen money being consigned to the wind are at once so over-emphatic (the business of the woman and her pampered poodle), and so arbitrary, that Johnny Clay's shrugged response seems the only one possible. The feeling is not so much of fatalistic intervention-which would suit both Kubrick and film noir-as of things having to end somehow, and the film's somewhat schizophrenic progress not actually providing a satisfactory wrap-up.

The film pulls in two directions at once, a tendency most obviously signalled in the juggling of space, time and characters. Rather than exhibiting Kubrick's skill at turning his narrative into a complex, four-dimensional chess game (an analogy suggested by Maurice's playing of that game), this seems to betoken something else: a perverse desire for a limitless excess of plotting, with repetition substituted for suspense and the robbery's development blocked by the very methods used to chart its progress. Concomitantly, the film breaks down into virtually self-sufficient units, with the constant emphasis on specific times serving only to underline the arbitrariness of their sequence (or indeed of their very inclusion). For example, we see Johnny throwing the bag of money from a window, but by the time the reverse angle of the waiting Randy is included (as the gang listen to a radio account of what we have already seen), the shot seems bizarrely 'out of place'. Similarly, certain scenes function almost autonomously, their own mini-narratives effectively unconnected to the larger scheme, which grows more tangled and opaque as it is delineated in ever greater detail. One might cite Randy's strikingly shot encounter with Leo, to whom he owes money, or Johnny's attempted seduction by Sherry, which ought to - but doesn't quite - account for George's later eruption into violence. Strangest of all, perhaps, is the business between Nikki, the hired marksman, and the black car-park attendant, where the latter's strangely embarrassing, insistent attentions are given an edge of racial tension which seems divorced from the suspense involved. The end result is that Johnny is displaced from the centre of his own scheming, not so much by an overriding sense of fate as by a wayward, darkly playful sense of narrative shaping and possibility.

In turn, it becomes apparent that the film's noir-ish elements are also allowed to go their own way. Indeed, the structural openness permits the sudden introduction of one such element-the homosexual im-plications in Unger's abruptly expressed desire to leave with Johnny, to save him from the trap of marriage - which is totally unmotivated, and which is dropped as quickly as it is raised. And the insistent visual stylisation - at times it seems as if every interior includes a harshly shining lamp in the foreground - is, if not purely formalist, at least somewhat adrift from the plot's tangled weave. Where it becomes 'appropriate', in the relationship between George and Sherry, this again works in its own right precisely because it is so archetypal (Elisha Cook, bloodied and dying, gunning down his femme fatale while declaring his love for her). The point is emphasised when George, en route to his death, crosses the path of Johnny's car, but fails to notice him. The characters simply go their separate ways, each plotted out of the others' lives. When elements are noticeably pulled together the result can be disorienting, as with Johnny's introduction: his walk through the apartment is tracked by the camera with, needless to say, a plethora of shadows and foreground objects. But his assumption of the voice-over function as he addresses an (at this point) unseen Fay has a degree of puzzling excess, of an overload that the film must disperse in order, in its own peculiar fashion, to 'progress'. If The Killing, on the surface at least, functions as a hard-boiled mechanism, it also represents the abstract outer limits of an always elusive, shadowy genre.

Copyright - The British Film Institute