Film Noir: The Killing

Stanley Kubrick tried almost every genre during his career (except for the Western) and in The Killing he takes on film noir. The resulting film is something of an exercise in style, and though it’s a crackerjack entertainment it has something of a hollow ring to it, as if Kubrick had decided he was going to make a noir from all the pieces typically associated it, without making one organically.

Released in 1956, just as the noir style was dying down, The Killing, based on a novel called Clean Break (the title chosen for the film is indicative of Kubrick’s homage–it could be the title of almost every noir ever made) is a heist movie. I love heist movies, and The Killing gets it all. The lead guy is a career criminal who wants to make one last score before retirement, and each of the team has their own reason for taking part. Of course, there’s also the fatal slip up by the chain’s weakest link.

The target is a race track. Sterling Hayden plays the criminal, who wants to rob the day’s receipts. He has enlisted an accountant (Jay C. Flippen) who provides the money, Elisha Cook as a ticket-window cashier, Joe Sawyer as the race track bartender, Ted de Corsia as a cop in deep to a loan shark, a professional wrestler (Kola Kwariani) and a marksman (Timothy Carey). Everything is planned down to the last second, but when weak-willed Cook blabs the plan to impress his wife (Marie Windsor), she in turn blabs to her love (Vince Edwards).

The Killing is full of noir stylistic flourishes, especially the use of light and shadow. The thieves make their plan at a table lit by a solitary hanging lamp from above, so when Hayden leans back, he’s completely in shadow. Kubrick uses tracking shots often, especially in Hayden’s railroad apartment, so that when a camera moves from room to room the camera follows him, even going through walls.

There’s also a lovely ending, which prefigures the end of such films as Ocean’s 11 and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Hayden’s last line, “Nah, what difference does it make?” is a perfect example of noir ennui. In fact, though the screenplay was written by Kubrick, the dialogue was written by Jim Thompson, who wrote a number of pulp classics. We get a lot of zippy patter, such as when Hayden tells Windsor, “You’ve got a dollar sign where your heart should be.”

The cast, including Hayden, Windsor and Cook, made a lot of noirs over the years. Hayden starred in the best heist movie ever made, The Asphalt Jungle, so to see him here is to remind one of that film. But this film is full of great faces, the kind that seem to be sculpted out of raw meat.

In many of Kubrick’s subsequent exercises in genre, he would transcend the genre and take it a new level. He doesn’t quite do that in The Killing, but it’s an still above average thriller.


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

18 responses »

  1. Did you watch the new Criterion version? Been wanting to get my hands on that. I think Killer’s Kiss is included on the disc, right? Curious about what you think of that, too.

    Otherwise, as for this film … I agree with what you wrote. Just saying.

  2. No, this was the standard version supplied by Netflix. I’ve never seen Killer’s Kiss, which I think, along with Barry Lyndon (inexplicably) are the only two Kubricks I haven’t seen.

  3. I’ve seen The Killing and Killer’s Kiss, but they were so long ago. Going to have to revisit…

  4. Barry Lyndon (inexplicably)

    Wow, that is inexplicable. I’d actually be curious to see your reaction to it – it’s self-evidently brilliant but at the same time so deliberately obtuse. Even more than a lot of Kubrick, even. I don’t even have a prediction for your opinion.

    I’d be surprised if you (or filmman) have seen Fear and Desire. It’s the only one I haven’t seen although it’s been many years since I’ve seen Lolita or Spartacus.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Fear and Desire. Lolita has some lovely moments, but he was hamstrung by censors. Spartacus was underwhelming, and Kubrick wasn’t happy with it, understandably so. The main problem is that it has a hero with no flaws.

  6. Fear and Desire was his first feature film, and he was apparently embarrassed by it to the extent that he tried to buy up all the exisiting prints and destroy them. He failed, so the movie still exists, but it’s not on DVD, probably won’t be soon, and is rarely shown.

    Killer’s Kiss is a not-bad little movie with a really impressive chase and fight scene at the end.

  7. I agree with JS and Brian about The Killing. Thought it was very well done, didn’t have any noticable weaknesses in it but something about made me feel from rating it as a top-class film. I think it just felt like I’d seen all the elements before and what would’ve seemed fresh and exciting back then seemed a bit dull now.

  8. Well, I’m kind of funny with Kubrick. Two of his films, Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, are in my all-time top ten, but others of his that are considered classics, like 2001, I’m not so hot about. But here’s a rough list that I’m putting together before I’ve showered or eaten breakfast:

    Dr. Strangelove
    A Clockwork Orange
    Paths of Glory
    Full Metal Jacket
    2001: A Space Odyssey
    The Killing
    The Shining
    Eyes Wide Shut

    As for The Killing, I think the distinction between early and late noir is that the early directors had no idea they were making “noir.” That’s a term that was applied retrospectively. By the time Kubrick made The Killing, the French critics had already established noir as a type, and I think Kubrick was consciously trying to ape it. Nothing wrong with that, but it may account for the film’s artificial feel.

  9. 2001: A Space Odyssey
    Paths of Glory
    Barry Lyndon
    Dr. Strangelove
    A Clockwork Orange
    Eyes Wide Shut
    The Killing
    The Shining
    Full Metal Jacket
    Killer’s Kiss

    Ranking of the last two subject to revision once I see them again, since my memory of them is quite poor (especially Spartacus). Most of what I remember from Lolita is Peter Sellers’s clowning around, which seemed very odd in the context of the film and which isn’t really my cup of tea anyway. I also think he, or at least the Strangelove character, is the weakest link in Strangelove for what it’s worth.

    The top 3 positions are also mostly interchangeable to me, although I’ve only seen Lyndon once. I need to get my hands on the Blu-ray.

  10. I haven’t seen as many as JS or Brian (still to see Killer’s Kiss, Lolita, Spartacus, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket), but here’s my best to worst anyway (the first four I would consider top-class):

    2001: A Space Odyssey (in my top 5 all-time. Seen it multiple times at cinema)
    The Shining (Loved it, and this is speaking as someone who usually doesn’t care for horror films)
    Dr. Strangelove
    Paths Of Glory (been a long time since I’ve seen this, would love to look at it again)
    The Killing
    Eyes Wide Shut (As I wrote in my review on here, half-excellent, half-failure)
    A Clockwork Orange (Respected it, but wouldn’t want to see it again)

  11. I enjoyed The Killing. I found the bombastic fight scene pretty entertaining. He really went for it with that one. I also quite enjoy the ending.

  12. By all accounts Kubrick was pretty much right about it not being very good. Still, it seems worth seeing just for the novelty value.

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