How The Killing Set Up Stanley Kubrick
While not his first feature, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) served the rudimentary glimpses of the directorial trademarks that would blossom throughout his career. Received to critical acclaim but a poor box office, it lies at a pivotal moment in Kubrick’s timeline. It was his third feature; prior works Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955) received tepid responses. It also preceded the film that made him a household name: Paths of Glory (1957). Orson Welles was so taken with the film that he declared Kubrick could do no wrong.
The Killing follows an audacious plan to carry out a $2 million race-track robbery. It is told in a non-linear manner. This was typical of noirs, of which The Killing is included, but the execution is cutting edge. We are guided by a voiceover, (once again, noir-ish), who details the plan in relation to time. A dramatic event will unfold and commotion will ensue. Suddenly, we cut to twenty minutes prior. Now, we are following another character and things seem relatively peaceful. It’s no wonder Welles was such a fan.
The Killing is unique in its ability to bring together a posse of non-criminals. The Hays Code was adamant about displaying criminals as relatively generic. They were gangsters; easily recognisable, far from the likes of this band that include a cop, a wrestler and a timid betting teller. The film was admired for its documentary-like style, but it is the normality of its characters that enhance the etchings of realism.
The malefactors meet for planning.
Equally attached to the film's core are the idiosyncrasies that would define Kubrick and his “difficulty” in the years to come. Most will gleefully point to Paths of Glory where these elements were in full effect, even though, in their infancy, they are just as evident in this little thriller.
In Kubrick’s thirteen film career he explored the tropes of dystopia, science fiction, historical epics, horror and frequently the nature of war. All that from a man whose first breakthrough hit was a film noir. Erase the memory of those succeeding films and imagine an eager filmgoer curious to see Kubrick’s next noir. There’s a humour in the retrospect of it all. Through his gruelling perfectionism he became an expert at handling respective genres. All under the guise of a man who had been doing it his entire life.
For his gliding cinematography, Kubrick would become known as a master of the Steadicam, somewhat to the disservice of the actual cinematographers he often pushed aside. This motion is pushed to surrealism in A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, though it takes on stark beauty in Paths of Glory. In The Killing, Lucien Ballard’s camera works in symmetry with the on-screen motion. If they run, so does the camera. If they pace, so do we. There are plenty of filmed horse race excerpts, though those pale in comparison to the frantic documentarian command of Ballard’s hand. The camera loosens during a bar fight, as if it were literally spilling over the action, echoing the times it swung around during moments of conflict in Clockwork and Barry Lyndon. During high school film analysis, you were told that camera angles always insinuate meaning. It certainly does in The Killing, even if it undermines the set of characters.
The racetrack-like narration that leads the film was a result of the studio’s insistence, and although Kubrick hated the idea, it becomes a fundamental character in its own right. Its ubiquitous nature is as encompassing as its unreliability. Perhaps Kubrick came around to the idea, considering most of his following works would feature narration. It’s also possible that The Killing was when he understood the power of adaptation. His first two films were original stories, with The Killing based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break. Every following film, save 2001, was also adapted from a novel.
Time served as a common thread that weaved itself into Kubrick’s entire filmography. It communicates the plot, whether it be non-linear in The Killing, or guided by the days of the week in The Shining. Its presence guides the deliberation of every scene. These parallels come to a head during the heist’s execution. The pacing is always relative to the manoeuvres on screen. Editing is deliberately scarce; if the incident ratchets to a point, it directly stems from the steps of the cast. In Barry Lyndon time halts to an 18th-century pace, and in Eyes Wide Shut, it glides with elongated dread.
Now, an opportunity to turn that mirror of analysis unto the cast in The Killing for they perfectly represent the broken complexity of Kubrick’s character trove. Although there are no “Kubrick stares” on display, the company represents Kubrick’s favoured emotional dissonance. There are George (Elisha Cook Jr.) and Sherry (Marie Windsor), the bitter couple who resent each other and lay the groundwork for Bill and Alice in Eyes Wide Shut. Sherry belittles her husband and upon hearing news of the robbery signals a scheme to topple his plans. George, like Bill, enters his own type of underworld and criminal misbehaviour. They are joined by a corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia), a precursor to the deviance in A Clockwork Orange and are led by Johnny (Sterling Hayden). They are far from cookie-cutter villains. Their moral ambiguity is arresting. Johnny’s fiancée Fay (Coleen Gray) is blinded by loyalty. The track’s bartender Mike (Joe Sawyer) is involved and plans to spend the loot for his ailed wife’s (Dorothy Adams) medical treatments. The claustrophobic, Labyrinthine settings where the crew mediate and deliberate forebear the winding hallways of the Overlook Hotel. With no discernible exits in sight, Kubrick has hindered the fate of his pitiful cast before they even have the chance to realise so.
Sherry (Marie Windsor), connives with her lover Val (Vince Edwards)
As European art cinema shaped Kubrick, his films would influence the directors of New Hollywood and those in the present day. The Killing made its mark on Christopher Nolan, who included a very similar clown mask (from the one seen in the cover) for a similarly taut heist in The Dark Knight. Quentin Tarantino was inspired by the flashback-driven narrative when writing Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The former closely follows a botched robbery. With The Killing, Kubrick, either intentionally or not, set the stage for his career and like all notable directors managed to implement his filmography into successors of the craft. While this trend, that is to say, the trend of recognising traits in artists’ early works can be drawn back to almost every filmmaker, it is noteworthy that The Killing manages to exemplify Kubrick’s blend of Old and New Hollywood cinema in an enduring career-long timelessness.