Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Killing

When most people think of Stanley Kubrick, they usually think of his later works, like 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining.  That's fair enough, I suppose; by that point in his career, Kubrick was acknowledged as a film genius and was allowed to get genuinely weird.  While not as inventive or visually interesting as those films, The Killing is very important in Kubrick's career.  While it wasn't very successful, this was the first time Kubrick worked with a professional cast and crew.  This film also attracted the attention of Kirk Douglas and MGM, and those partnerships lead to his breakthrough films, Paths of Glory and Spartacus.  Of course, you don't have to care about the film in its historical context.  It's a nice film noir, either way.

After being released from prison, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) was a man with a plan.  As much as he would have liked to live the quiet life with his fiancee (Coleen Gray), he wants to pull one last job --- a high risk, high reward robbery --- before they marry.  He plans to do the impossible and rob a racetrack, despite the armed policemen, employees, high security, and thousands of witnesses.  To pull off the job, he needs a police officer (Ted de Corsia), a racetrack bartender (Joe Sawyer), a racetrack bookkeeper (Jay C. Flippen), and a racetrack cashier (Elisha Cook, Jr.); these are the men that are need-to-know, and they need to know each other and their roles in the overall plan.  Clay also hires two other men, on a strictly no-need-to-know basis; they are a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey) and an enormously burly chess aficionado (Kola Kwariani).  The plan (which I won't detail for you) is flawless.  However, even the best plans can be foiled by small mistakes.

Before I get into the things I liked about The Killing, I have to get a couple of things off my chest first.  The narration in this movie is godawful.  It is on par with Harrison Ford's intentionally bad narration for the theatrical cut of Blade Runner.  It makes the movie feel like an episode of Dragnet, only without any idea who the narrator is or how he came by his information.  According to film lore, the narration was tacked on by  the movie studio, and this was one of the final straws before Kubrick would start demanding complete control over his films.  In the long run, I guess things turned out okay, but it's still really terrible.  The score is pretty bombastic, too.  It would have been better used in a gladiator fight instead of scenes showing anonymous characters placing horse racing bets.  And the bit with the dog, towards the end, is a little too cutesy for this movie, I think.

The first thing you're going to notice about The Killing is that it is not told in chronological order.  It's not as disjointed as Pulp Fiction (which it influenced), but many key scenes are told and retold from the perspective of another character.  The camera work isn't as flashy as it is in other Kubrick movies, but it is one of the film's strong points.  Normally, filmmakers use a quick establishing shot to tell the audience where the scene is taking place, and then it will cut to mid-shots and close-ups of the actors in the scene.  Kubrick holds his establishing shots longer than usual in this film, allowing the audience to feel like more of an actual observer.  The pace is brisk and the tone is brutal.  This is classic film noir, complete with a tough "hero" in Clay, a femme fatale (Marie Windsor), and a tough as nails ending.  The ending is a fantastic cap to a good movie, complete with a great last line of dialogue: "Eh, what's the difference?"  It might not sound like much, but it fits the movie perfectly.

Sterling Hayden was good in the lead role, matching the tone of the film with his tone of voice.  The movie doesn't spend much time developing characters, so most of the supporting cast was just doing their job.  Elisha Cook, Jr. (who I love in Bogart movies) did a great job as the brow-beaten and pathetic cashier.  His final stand is one of the best parts of the film.  His wife, played by Marie Windsor, is one of the foulest femme fatales I have seen so far.  Most of the time, there's some ambiguity with how good or bad they are, but she is rotten to the core.  Oddly enough, the two no-need-to-know guys that stuck out for me.  I thought that Timothy Carey did a very good job with the limited time he was given, although I wish his downfall didn't directly connect to his racist remarks.  I also liked the use of real-life professional wrestler and chess fanatic, Kola Kwariani; he was disgustingly hairy, and his accent was almost too thick to understand, but he is the most believable thug I have seen in a 1950s film.

Do you like crime movies?  Do you like noir?  Do you like tough guys in movies?  If so, check this movie out.  It's not flawless, but the crime is well-executed and the film itself has no remorse for any of the characters.  They might have made a killing with this heist, but that's not where the killing ends.

No comments:

Post a Comment