Thursday, February 7, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.3: Stanley Kubrick's The Killing

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 94 (A)

When Stanley Kubrick met aspiring producer James B. Harris, he had two often striking but problematic films under his belt and no money to show for it. But Harris thought Kubrick was the smartest guy he ever met, and together the two formed Harris-Kubrick Productions. For their first film together, Kubrick decided for the first time to adapt rather create an original story, selecting the heist novel Clean Break by Lionel White.

With the help of Harris, who stuck by Kubrick after United Artists requested a more experienced director, Kubrick made The Killing, a financially unsuccessful but highly original and influential noir. The film started more than a couple of trends for Kubrick, not the least of which is his reputation as an exacting perfectionist- he reportedly clashed with DP Lucien Ballard when the experienced cinematographer tried to shoot a scene in a way that would have completely changed the perspective Kubrick wanted. But that perfectionism shows a director who knows damn well what he wants and what he’s doing, and the proof is all here. The Killing is the first Kubrick film where everything comes together. It’s the first real Stanley Kubrick Film.

Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) just got out of prison, but he’s not staying clean for long. Johnny has a plan to rob a racetrack, and if he succeeds he’ll be set up for life.. His accomplices are not fellow crooks, but average men: Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), a corrupt, down-on-his-luck cop who needs to pay off a loan shark; Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), a father figure of sorts to Johnny; Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer), a racetrack bartender with an ailing wife; and George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a meek racetrack window teller. Johnny has planned everything perfectly, but he didn’t count on one element: Sherry (Marie Windsor), George’s cold, bitter wife, who plans to steal the money with the help of her lover Val (Vince Edwards).

Kubrick showed advancement as a filmmaker with Killer’s Kiss, but The Killing shows the first real evidence that he was one of the greatest filmmaking talents of his generation. The film plays like a perfect soup of some of cinema’s greatest stylists mixed together. Like Orson Welles before him, Kubrick mixes the a mood of dread and doom from German Expressionism with the frantic editing of Eisenstein. From Welles and Max Ophuls, Kubrick takes a tendency to use gorgeous, fluid dolly and crane shots. Kubrick mixes this sense of formalism with Elia Kazan’s sense of realism, his unnamed city brimming with life whenever our heroes bust out of the cramped, isolated spaces. The film’s use of multiple perspectives, meanwhile, shows a young director influenced by Kurosawa’s Rashomon. And yet, for all the highfalutin influences, Kubrick also brings in John Huston’s sense of cool, roughness, and irony, not to mention his diamond-sharp sense of structure. Simply put, the film plays like the work of a talented young storyteller drunk off of cinema, ready to show how all of these influences go together perfectly, regardless of their differences.

The Killing shows all of Kubrick’s favorite technical tricks meshing together successfully for the first time. The film moves along rather quickly, but there’s still a meditative pace as Kubrick methodically sets up all the pieces. He uses expressionistic lighting to sell both the entrapment of the characters- Johnny and his girlfriend Fay trying to break out for a better life, Randy backed up against the wall by a loan he can’t pay off, George desperately trying to fix a loveless marriage- and the moral depravity at hand. The director’s tone towards the material is a mix of disgust and fascination at the characters, and his detachment plays like someone who feels the need to document every in and out of the plan, so as to best contemplate exactly what everyone is doing and why they’re doing it…and how it’s all going to go terribly wrong.

When Kubrick uses a dolly shot, it’s because he needs the audience to pay very close attention to every tiny detail of the heist. When he uses deep focus, he needs you to pay attention to Sherry’s domination of George (she’s always in the foreground, he in the background). When he edits between scenes, he makes good use of fades to establish a fluid sense of time, which connects the men together before the big event. When he uses a symmetrical shot, it brings an incredible focus to the center of the scene. When he uses a reverse tracking shot with Johnny, it implies his dominance over the situation.

Dominance might be too light a word: Sterling Hayden, surely one of the toughest tough guys who ever graced the big screen, is perfect as Johnny, a man whose brute strength is matched by his perfectionist attention to detail (Kubrick surrogate, anyone?), magnetic charisma, and motormouth delivery of pulp novelist Jim Thompson’s tough-guy dialogue. The rest of the cast kills, too, particularly Cook as the almost impossibly pathetic milquetoast George and Windsor as his ice queen wife, who hilariously seems irritated at George’s very existence. Kubrick shares John Huston’s gift for casting: everyone here fits in the world perfectly, all stained with sin, be they hard as they come or weak-willed as hell.

Kubrick’s obsession with theatrical violence started on Killer’s Kiss, but he really lets it rip here with The Killing’s dynamite heist sequence. For the heist to work, Johnny needs to set up two distractions, and he goes all-out on theatrics: one involves a barrel-chested friend starting a fight at the track bar to get the police, and another involves an ill-fated sharpshooter killing the favorite horse to distract the crowd. It’s all smoke and mirrors for Johnny to burst into the back room, cloaked in shadows, sporting a disturbing clown mask for intimidation. In this case, it’s all for show, a big diversion to make sure everyone can get away without anyone, innocents and cops included, getting hurt.

But while Kubrick shares Johnny’s meticulous attention to detail, he’s also deeply skeptical about seemingly perfect plans. It’s a case where everything has to go exactly right or else everyone will die. Johnny plans everything out well enough that the heist itself goes perfect, but it only takes one weak link for the chain to break. And when it all goes wrong, it goes disastrously wrong in a shocking moment of carnage and now very realistic violence that leaves nearly all the schemers- George and the other accomplices, Sherry and her lover- in a bloody mess. Kubrick would show a greater example of total disaster in Dr. Strangelove, among other films, but here’s his first real look at humanity’s inevitable failure.

Kubrick also takes his first major look at dehumanization. Sleazy sharpshooter Nicky (Timothy Carey) makes a connection to an overeager track parking attendant, only to call him “nigger” when he gets too close to spoiling his plan. It’s a painful moment, but it’s got nothing on George, whose every moment in the film is one of humiliation. His wife is clearly cheating on him, and her hatred for him is so clear that she barely even tries to hide her lies.  She mocks any sense of humanity in her husband. When she shows up unexpected at the crooks’ meeting, the other accomplices take it out on George more than anything else. And of course there’s the fact that the man spends the final moments of his life realizing that his wife set him up, and any sense of decency in him completely falls away as he decides to take her to hell with him. Her last words? “It isn’t fair!”

That’s a great moment of bitter irony there, and that feeling reverberates throughout the film- the sleazy sharpshooter gets killed because the lucky horseshoe the parking attendant gave him poked through his car’s tire. But Kubrick saves his greatest coup for the film’s final sequence, where the eternally meticulous Johnny, the guy with a handle on everything, finally relinquishes some control to an airline that’s clearly going to fuck up his getaway. In a moment that echoes Huston’s masterful ending to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, all that cash he fought so hard for blows away in the wind, and he can’t even run away from the cops. He knows he’s fucked. “What’s the difference?”

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