The Killing

Lawrence Russell

The Killing (1956) writ. and dir. Stanley Kubrick (from the novel Clean Break by Lionel White) cine. Lucien Ballard (horse race footage by Singer) edt. Betty Steinberg music Gerald Fried star. Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay), Vince Edwards (Val), Marie Windsor (Sherri Peatty), Elisha Cook (George Peatty), Jay C. Flippen, Ted DeCorsica, Joe Sawyer, Timothy Carey, James Edwards, Kola Kwarian

United Artists/ MGM

movie deja vu: the Hollywood remake

The KillingThe narrator in this one sounds like a spokesman for God -- the deep theatrical tones of the righteous describing death by human greed and stupidity. It's the voice of propaganda, the institutional warning to the children of the State that crime does not pay. Omniscient, it lacks the sardonic worldliness of the robocop reports in Dragnet, yet is as essential to the non-linear narrative as a surgeon's log is to reconstructive surgery.

The uniqueness of The Killing isn't so much in its setting at a racetrack as it is in its method of telling -- a reconstruction of the events leading to the robbery -- lifted faithfully by Kubrick from Lionel White's novel Clean Break... and subsequently appropriated by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs. The Killing is a cipher from the Hollywood past -- technique by Citizen Kane, plot by The Asphalt Jungle. Exposed like this, you might think this movie is a mere remake, part of the chain of plagiarisms that Hollywood uses like a spiritual tradition... but no, it's more than that. Coming at the end of the black and white era, the monochromatic claustrophobia of shadow and light is opened up by the anamorphic view, the widening of the world and what you see.

The Killing: George Peatty The Killing Sherri and lover

It starts at the track where you see Stopwatch dueling it out with Lucky Arrow and Purple Shadow as they take the final curve into the home stretch. The credits roll... then you see the first of the conspirators, Marvin Unger -- an older man with no interest in horse racing or gambling -- place a bet , then make his way to the track bar. As he did with the betting clerk, Unger passes on an address and a time to the barman -- thus establishing that the heist will be an inside job.

Like The Asphalt Jungle you meet the various gang members in a sequence of tight scenes that reveal character, circumstance, and motivation. Patrolman Randy Kenan, a corrupt cop with a gambling debt, tells his Bookie, "I'll take care of myself, mister -- that's my specialty" but no sooner is he out of uniform and ready to collect, and he's dead. Mike O'Reilly, the track barman, has an invalid wife, but the flowers he buys for her remain in his locker, a corsage for his grave. George Peatty (Elisha Cook), the betting clerk, has a dissatisfied vixen for a wife (Marie Windsor) who reveals the robbery plan to her lover (Vince Edwards) in a double-cross that costs them all. And the leader, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) with his devoted girlfriend who has remained loyal during his five years in prison, her sacrifice so pure it makes you believe he's Robin Hood, not a cheap hustler too lazy to get a job and pay taxes.

Like The Asphalt Jungle there are two "specialists", men paid up front for their "special" talents. There is Maurice, the Russian chess-player and wrestler, who starts a fight in the the track bar in order to draw away the track police. This is some fight. It has the raw brutality of the Bogart barfight in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, not a stylized choreography from Bolshoi. Maurice is bald and shirtless, a roaring plinth of meat, discarding his assailants like pieces of useless furniture. It takes all the track cops to subdue him, and by then Johnny Clay is inside the money room with his 12 gauge watching the bookies fill his duffle bag with the two million.

Nicky the shooter The Killing

Nicky is the other "specialist". You first see him pump three silhouette targets full of lead, then stand fondling his puppy as Johnny commissions him to shoot a horse. Of all the hoods, he's clearly the most homicidal, like some twisted hipster jumped on amphetamines. When the time comes, he's a good shot -- he takes out Red Lightning in the 7th at exactly the moment when Johnny makes his entrance into the money room wearing his rubber clown mask. But Nicky is the first to die -- he never makes it out of the parking lot.

Nonetheless, the robbery goes as planned... until the gang assembles at the room on Olive St. to wait for Johnny and the loot. This is where Sherri Peatty's treachery is their undoing. Her lover and an accomplice arrive, hold the gang at gunpoint, expecting Johnny Clay to arrive at any moment. When Val reveals that Sherri tipped him off, her husband emerges from an adjacent room, starts shooting. The action is sudden and lethal, a brief gunbattle that leaves them all dead. This scene is reblocked and adapted to his own needs by Tarantino in his postmodern gun-drama Reservoir Dogs.

And George? Badly wounded, he survives the shoot-out long enough to stagger home and shoot his cheating redolent wife before collapsing beside the bed, dead at her feet.

the Master Scene: past, present, and the predictive future

The use of flashbacks to interrupt the linear, forward-moving narrative was a source of concern for many people -- including Sterling Hayden's agent -- and United Artists were slow in releasing The Killing. But it's this very technique that marks the film as different from its predecessors. While the technique is common today -- especially in television drama, where the Master Scene often involves cutaways to a parallel present or the past -- it was perceived as confusing, and anti-dramatic.

But it's a completely logical narrative form, just like the reconstruction of a crime by various witnesses at a trial. It's really just a variation of the frame narrative, popular in nineteenth century literature and used quite successfully in Siodmak's 1949 crime drama Criss Cross.

Kubrick uses it to establish the principals and their common purpose, then repeats the technique during the execution of the robbery. Far from betraying the moments of dramatic significance, it in fact sets you up for unexpected drama and irony. While you anticipate the shooting of the horse, you don't anticipate the shooter's swift death. While you anticipate the intervention of Val, you don't expect the sudden deaths of the gang. Thus the narrative continues to be omniscient, the replays part of the bigger game, like the tracking shots that ignore the walls that separate the characters, the action, and the notion of linear Time.

As a film, The Killing is a technical masterpiece that set a new standard for editing while using familiar characters in an exotic setting. Is robbing a racetrack a crime? In a society where crime is often a political definition, it somehow seems like justice.

You want Johnny and Faye to beat the odds, escape on that plane to Boston with that over-stuffed suitcase bought in a hurry from a pawnshop. The closing sequence would make a good ad for Samsonite luggage -- don't go cheap when you can afford to go rich.

They made a killing, alright....

© LR 14/7/99


reviews | noir files | e-mail LR | culture court

Film Court | copyright 2000 | Lawrence Russell