November 2, 2010

Noir-vember: The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)

Noir-vember is a month-long film challenge devised by oldfilmsflicker, who in addition to running one of the best film Tumblrs around, also blogs hereThe premise is simple but daunting: watch every one of IMDb's Top-Rated Film Noir Titles, fifty in all. The first new-to-me film I watched was  #12 White Heat, which you can read about here.

The Killing (#11 on IMDb's list) is a Stanley Kubrick film, so of course it has 25,000+ ratings on IMDb, which, like most of the cinema-based internet, is a hotbed of Kubrick fanboyism. Which isn't to say it's a bad film, just that I should point out this list is skewed by name recognition, be it of actor or director, and the little known films have only a fraction of the votes of the big boys. 

The plot is a simple heist gone wrong. Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Clay, a con man fresh out of jail itching to execute the One Last Score that'll get him out of the game for good so he can settle down with his gal (Coleen Gray). Clay sets about gathering the guys for the job: a couple of inside men like the racetrack bartender (Joe Sawyer) and bookie (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and a couple of outside talent including a crooked cop (Ted de Corsia), an ex-wrestler (Kola Kwariani) and a twitchy marksman (Timothy Carey).  So Clay and the gang set out to steal $2 million from the Lansdowne race track, an audacious sum ten times the budget of The Killing. But, of course, nothing goes exactly as planned. 

The Killing is a satisfying genre picture with all the gritty fatalism you'd expect from a hard-boiled heist picture. I tend to view film noir through the prism of genre studies, which has its pitfalls but I find to be generally the most helpful in trying to analyze what elements of a given film can be called noir. Below, I've listed some of these elements and if they're evident in The Killing.

Film Noir Checklist
  • Femme fatale: Yes! Sherry Peatty (played with icy seduction by Mary Windsor) is the classic conniving blonde. Married to ineffectual George (Cook, Jr.), she manipulates him into telling her the details of the heist and then convinces her lover Val (Vince Edwards) to stick up the gang after they've done all the work. Despite her machinations, Sherry Peatty is a sympathetic character, much to the credit of Ms. Windsor. She's a woman who married a man below her station, possibly for love, but certainly with an expectation of a certain kind of lifestyle. She hasn't gotten it. They live in a small apartment, bare furniture, no excess--and no children. In the world of film noir, everyone gets a bum deal, but it's often the women who suffer the most grievous hardships. Sherry Peatty did all she could to get ahead in life; unfortunately, it cost hers.
  • Doomed male protagonist: In spades. Johnny, played by Sterling Hayden with his trademark gruff resignation, is a man careening towards a singular goal (reunion with his gal is a distant second), with no time to consider the ramifications of failure. Clay's methodical single-mindedness is clearly his downfall. (Incidentally, has there ever been an actor of Hayden's size with such a lack of energy? He seems always to be dragged everywhere unwillingly; every line of Clay's dialogue is delivered with a bitter aftertaste.) Although Johnny is the protagonist, George Peatty gives him a run for his money in the sad sack category. Cook, Jr. made a career of playing weak men in the hard men world of noir (see below), but Peatty has to be one of the most pathetic creatures to ever grace the screen. The first time the camera captures Cook's big, anxious eyes you know he and his crew are doomed to failure.
  • Homosocial/homosexual: Like most heist films, The Killing is high on homosocial bonding. Johnny Clay's girlfriend is incidental at best and forgettable at worst. Sherry Peatty is a man-killer--castration personified--the preferred gender role for women in most films noir. Due to the Production Code, overt references to homosexuality were strictly forbidden, but that didn't stop films noir from subtle implication. In one scene, Johnny checks in on Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), an older member of the gang and a recovering alcoholic, before departing on the day of the heist. Both men are full of repressed energy; Clay is anxious to set the wheels in motion for a robbery and Marvin because he wants to thank Clay for including him. Marvin starts out tentatively, telling Clay he always thought of him as a son. Then, a shock: Marvin asks Johnny to go away with him. They could live in Marvin's ranch. You don't want to get tied up in a marriage commitment, do ya, Johnny? It's clear Clay knows exactly what's being asked but Hayden's face remains stony. Not wanting to offend the old man, Johnny politely overlooks the proposition. See ya at the track, Marvin.
  • Psycho-sexual deviancy: Besides the above mentioned Freudian castration (typical femme fatale stuff) and the moment of homosexuality, there is no emphasis on "deviant" behavior as a catalyst for criminal behavior. Clay and his gang are desperate men looking for a way out of their meek and flavorless existences. Why do they do it? No reason, and every reason.
  • Familiar faces: One of my favorite character actors, Elisha Cook Jr., has an impressive film noir resume (The Maltese Falcon, Phantom Lady, The Big Sleep) in addition to The Killing. A small man with a haunted, faraway look, Cook proved the perfect archetypal cuckold to the wily femme fatale.

  • Urban milieu: Yes, San Francisco. And interiors--grungy apartments, depressing boarding houses for single men that reek of desperation, a racetrack shot like a prison--convey a gritty and unflattering view of city life.

  • Hard-boiled pedigree: The Killing is a fairly standard heist film but what sets it apart is the dialogue. Kubrick adapted the screenplay from the novel "Clean Break" by Lionel White but brought in pulp author Jim Thompson to punch up the dialogue. Thompson, whose own work has been adapted numerous times into such films as The Getaway, The Grifters and recently The Killer Inside Me, brings a much needed stylistic gut punch to the material. The scenes between George and Sherry Peatty--verbal barbs of unparalleled venom--are, for me, the highlight of the picture.
  • Non-linear narrative: Quentin Tarantino cribbed much of The Killing for his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, including the non-linear sequencing. Kubick starts things pretty much at the beginning but as the heist begins to take shape, gives each character his own vignette of their specific job. We see the bartender at home caring for his sick wife, then traveling to the track. We see the crooked cop calling in a phony broken radio to HQ to set up an alibi. We see the marksmen pull into the parking lot, setting up his rifle to pick off the race horse at the exact moment the gang needs panic to set in at the park. We see the burly ex-wrestler meet Johnny at a chess club, come on board, go to the track, clue the bartender in on his presence and then incite a giant bar fight which allows Johnny Clay to slip into the track offices undetected. These narrative threads help reinforce the intricacies of the robbery itself; as planned, it's executed by only one man (Johnny), with no trace of any involvement by any of the inside or outside players.
  • Voice over narration: Kubrick was forced to include an omniscent narrator to guide a 1956 audience through the then-complicated non-linear storytelling technique. Usually, film noir voice over is subjective, the protagonist telling us his own story, typically regretfully. Here though, the V.O. functions more as the "Voice of God," albeit one who more often then not gets the details wrong.
  • Gangsters vs. coppers: The Killing focuses solely on a gang of robbers and no law enforcement arrives until the very end. They're nameless, faceless men of the law, uninterested in Clay's story and uninteresting to us, the viewers.
  • Heist: This is a pure heist picture.
  • Low key lighting: Oh, you bet. This shot of Vince Edwards and Mary Windsor as lovers scheming to rip off the gang could have come from a film noir textbook. The circular, open shade lamp is a staple of film noir decor. It's both a practical choice and an aesthetic one. The lamp provides an idea in-scene light source and a foreground object around which to stage a two-shot, especially one in which two characters are scheming or behaving otherwise unsavorily (as they always are).
  • Criss-cross: Almost every major character is caught in the crosshairs at some point in the film. First three stills: Kubrick shoots the race track like a prison, the teller's box standing in for cell bars, the high windows casting slanted shadows on the men who dream of escaping its confines but never truly do. Last still: Vince Edwards' Val is marked for execution, framed in the doorway and shot from a low angle.

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