Movie Reviews by Walter Albert

THE KILLING. United Artists, 1956. Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Ted DeCorsia, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Joe Sawyer, James Edwards, Timothy Carey, Kola Kwariani, Jay Adler. Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, with dialogue by Jim Thompson, based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White. Director: Stanley Kubrick.

THE KILLING Stanley Kubrick

   Stanley Kubrick has been one of the most admired and respected film directors for at least twenty years, with a record that few contemporary filmmakers can match.

   His first major critical breakthrough was the striking anti-war film, The Paths of Glory (1957), which can be honorably compared to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1931) and Jean Renoir’s Grande lllusion (1937), but his acceptance by both critics and audiences probably dates from 1963 and his savagely funny Dr. Strangelove. or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

   This success was comfirmed with one of the most innovative and influential films of the period, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a success that has not been matched for the critics or the public by any of the three films he has directed since then: A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), or The Shining (1980).

   Indeed the massive failure of Barry Lyndon to find an audience in this country and the critical disapproval that greeted his filming of Stephen King’s book, The Shining have appeared to provoke a reassessment of his work by many critics that can probably be best summed up by the observation that there may be less in his films than meets the eye.

   Barry Lyndon was generally thought to be a beautiful but vapid film with an eccentric casting of Ryan O’Neal as the ambitious, doomed Barry, a performance that, according to a similar critical opinion, was perhaps equaled in its inappropriateness by Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

   I don’t intend to devote this column to a defense of Kubrick’s recent films — although I will say that I think Barry Lyndon is one of the most underrated films of the past decade — but rather to turn to his third feature-length film, The Killing (1956).

   The Killing is a black-and-white film (does anyone remember that black-and-white used to be the preferred medium for films?) based on Lionel White’s caper novel, Clean Break, with a script by Kubrick and additional dialogue by writer Jim Thompson.

   After a series of short documentaries growing out of his work as a photographer for Look magazine, Kubrick filmed a claustrophobic war drama (Fear and Desire, 1953), of which there seem to be no prints for public viewing, and Killer’s Kiss (1955), a melodrama of a “girl … kidnapped by the sadistic owner of a dance hall and rescued … by a gallant young boxer.”

THE KILLING Stanley Kubrick

   However, The Killing seems to be the earliest film that Kubrick is willing to acknowledge as his own, and, coming at the end of the great period of films noir which preceded Hollywood’s capitulation to the seductions of color, it is one of the best of the post-war “B” films and, in its bold dislocation of chronology, a film that, at moments, has some of the freshness and excitement of the New Wave French films of the late fifties and early sixties.

   The French renaissance was in large part due to the influence of the post-war American “B” films that were a revelation to the directors, and The Killing is clearly, in its conventions and style, related to the work of other American directors of the period.

   The Killing is the story of a meticulously planned impossible robbery: of the office of a race-track whose security is thought to be unassailable.

THE KILLING Stanley Kubrick

   While The Killing is a well-crafted caper film that might appear to be limited in conception and execution (a usual criticism of genre films), the boldness of the planning and accomplishing of the robbery are not unlike the risks that Kubrick has taken in film after film: the slave whose vagabond army challenges the legions of Rome (Spartacus); the filming of Nabokov’s perverse and witty Lolita, whose subject was hardly the kind to be approved by the Legion of Decency or the United Mothers of America; the unsettling blend of beauty and violence in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining; the anarchistic comedy of Dr. Strangelove and the Olympian, epic canvas of Barry Lyndon; and, of course, the imaginative rehabilitation of the science-fiction film in 2001.

   All of these films, so stylistically diverse and so difficult for an auteur-oriented criticism to assimilate, are so many challenges to the established and the conventional. They may be thought to be self-fulfilling fantasies, but there is a common thread running through these films from the earliest to the most recent in the impossible attempted and failed.

   But with all of his attraction to the difficult and the resistant, Kubrick’s intelligence is not seduced by these visions. There is a lucidity in his recognition of the traps the great projects pose that is reflected in an ironic detachment that seems to enclose his films, even at their most outrageous and troubling, in a harmoniously balanced form. His comedy sense works against comic release; his sense of the horrific almost seems to be devoid of terror and fear.

   The conspirators are led by Sterling Hayden as Johnny Clay, a petty crook whose name is an all to accurate gauge of his prospects. His unimposing gang — Jay C. Flippen, Joe Sawyer, Ted de Corsia, Elisha Cook, Jr. — is perfectly cast from among the character actors who worked in films where their perfect control of an essential character could do much to salvage a film starring Hollywood’s latest vapidly empty romantic team.

   There is not a single flaw in the casting — although the film itself is not without weaknesses — and the most surprising pairing of Elisha Cook, Jr., and Marie Windsor. Cook is a race-track employee whose dream of making it seem to have gone down the same chute as his marriage. Windsor is a posing, mocking bitch who deceives her husband with a small-time hood (Vince Edwards) and betrays the details of the plan her deluded husband reveals to her in an ill-considered moment.

THE KILLING Stanley Kubrick

   Windsor is herself deceived by Edwards, a betrayal she is as aware of, at times, as Cook is of her true feelings for him. But the husband and wife are also wedded to their dreams and the flaw in the concept of the robbery is not in the plan but in human nature and, more distressingly, a bored and vengeful deity, Chance, that a dozen times in the film works against the project and its participants.

   Lovers of a tight narrative in which there are no embarrassing moments of slack will not be happy with The Killing, where Kubrick is not afraid to linger over a sentimental scene (involving Flippen’s sick wife) that is ironically countered, by a Cook-Windsor confrontation; to introduce an overly friendly parking-lot attendant to interfere with one of the carefully timed “events,” or a traffic jam to delay Hayden’s return with the money; and, finally, to use a fat lady and a small, pampered dog to expose Hayden in the final moments of the film when he might be close to escaping with the money.

   These gimmicks don’t always work: the parking-lot attendant is played by black actor James Edwards, whose speedy warming-up to a white mobster (they are both cripples) is unconvincing in the climate of the fifties; and the woman and, dog are too obviously planted and the reversal too clearly telegraphed to the audience.

THE KILLING Stanley Kubrick

   But it might also be argued that these less-than-convincing details are a perfect demonstration of Kubrick’s belief in an almost diabolically conscious fate that takes its pleasure in blatantly countering the human actors’ futile attempts to work out their own destiny. And the most striking shot in the film looks like a still photograph of the conspirators lying dead in a confused jumble, sprawled near the hoods who came to take the money from them.

   At the center of the film is the performance of Sterling Hayden, an earnest, unpretentious master of the game who can bring off the robbery but not carry off the spoils. Hayden does make a killing, but there is also the brutal slaughter, and it is difficult not to see the climax of the film in the room where the bloodied, wounded Elisha Cook, along with the audience, stares in horror at the tangled bodies, rather than in the impersonal, busy air terminal where Hayden’s final moves are checkmated.

   The final shot is brilliant: as Hayden turns to the doors leading to the terminal, he sees two security men approaching. They frame the words THE END superimposed on the shot and they are the final punctuation for the film as surely as they punctuate Hayden’s collapse. In these final minutes we first seem him from the rear, his body sagging, almost without life, and when he turns to the camera and his captors he turns accepting the defeat that has crushed him.

   There is one technique in particular that sets this film apart from other caper films I have seen. Our pleasure in this kind of film is usually in the planning of the caper and in our close attendance upon its execution and the aftermath. We expect to follow the timed and coordinated execution as if we were ourselves participants.

   Kubrick, in an unsettling and exciting denial of those expectations, films the robbery from different points of view, backing up in time to show the different strategies which lead to the robbery. Kubrick has shrugged off any credit for this technique, saying that it was this narrative shifting that had interested him in White’s novel. The technique may be adapted, but that does not lessen its cinematic effectiveness.

   The Killing is a film with so many fine things that only a few can be noted: the performance by Kola Kwariani as Maurice, a bald, bullet-headed chess player who stages a row to distract the police from Hayden’s moves; Coleen Gray’s small but important role as Hayden’s girl friend who is only on screen in the beginning and at the end but who is a perfect frame as her fears, expressed in her first scene, are realized at the conclusion; the marvelous use of interiors, in particular Hayden’s apartment which seems to be a series of interconnecting rooms that in spite of their perfect articulation are only vaguely defined and have something of the inevitability of a labyrinth; the bar at the racetrack that opens out toward the track like a stage on which some of the most important scenes of the film are played; and the frantic speed of the horses with their anonymous riders, always viewed from a distance, their movements described by an announcer with some of that detachment that seems so characteristic of Kubrick.

   Whatever faults The Killers may have, it is, after thirty years, and a generation’s experiences with Kubrick’s films, an exciting and rich work. The Killers, drawing from the past and revelatory of Kubrick’s future, should not be consigned to fragmented late-night showings on TV and to filmographies. Kubrick remains a challenging and demanding filmmaker, and we should, perhaps, study the earlier movies in his game before we try to judge too quickly the newer ones.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 7, No. 4, July-August 1983.