Queuing up today's Criterion release of The Killing on the old Blu-ray player should be sufficient to hush any Stanley Kubrick naysayers out there. "What naysayers?" you ask. Well, my wife for one, who has always associated Kubrick with a certain pace of interminability best exemplified in her mind by 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The Shining notwithstanding, of course, since she finds the horror film much too disquieting to dismiss so easily.) But there is a minority of movie-lovers who refuse to offer any kind of chance to be won over to this director they ascribe a certain lack of emotion to. For these contrarians, this film noir offers everything they would argue he wasn't capable of capturing on film.
Using the repetition of specific shots as the horses line up at the starting gate of the fictional Lansdowne Racetrack, a certain mesmeric rhythm begins to take hold. This effect is bolstered, not interrupted by Kubrick’s non-linear structure, a somewhat out-of-character template taken from the original Lionel White novel on which the film is based, Clean Break. And then there are the tight visual compositions which Kubrick depended on less and less over time. They serve a secondary purpose, deflecting attention away from the cheapness of the sets. This low-budget film was, after all, only Kubrick’s third full-length feature. Effects like the point-of-view shot employed after The Killing’s climactic massacre also betray the young Stanley’s desire to impress viewers with his photographic acumen (he had been a photographer for Look magazine), something that might make the elder Kubrick—a venerated master—chuckle some.
Finally, there’s the usual accusation lobbed at Stanley: emotional frigidity. It is noticeably absent in The Killing. From the gang’s mastermind, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) to the cuckold crook, George (Elisha Cook, Jr.); from George’s treacherous wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) to her other man, Val (Vince Edwards) the overriding emotion driving nearly everyone in the The Killing is desperation. Clay may be as cool as a cucumber in laying out his perfectly planned robbery of a racetrack, but his clipped and fast-paced patter betrays a sense of urgency. In fact, in two instances he lapses into even faster conversation when something trips him up. The first is when Clay interrogates Sherry after the rest of his gang discovers her eavesdropping on their prep meeting. Clay speeds up as he banters with her:
Clay: Alright, sister. That’s a mighty pretty head you got on your shoulders. You wanna keep it there or start carrying it around in your hands?Notably, the second time is with a hired gun played by the deranged-looking Timothy Carey. Carey’s hitman, Nikki Arane, is hired by Clay to shoot Red Lightning, the horse widely expected to be the frontrunner of the seventh race, the $100,000 Added Lansdowne Stakes. When Arane—a sniper used to eliminating people—gets to nosy about assassinating a horse, Clay’s initial response is to speedily inform him that he’s also getting paid not to ask questions. Clay only slows down when he realizes Arane has noticed this nervous tic, allaying his own fears more than Arane’s when he jokes, “You’d be killing a horse. That’s not first degree murder. In fact, it’s not murder at all. In fact, I don’t know what it is.”
Sherry: Maybe we could compromise and put it on your shoulder.
As is made evident by one of the new Criterion release’s extras, a 1984 interview with Hayden, the actor’s natural speech pattern is slow and rambling and quite unlike that of Johnny Clay. This 20-minute interview is perhaps the best special feature I’ve seen on any Blu-ray or DVD this year. A wistful Hayden discusses everything from how he came to work in Hollywood to his regret over naming names during testimony in the House Un-American Activities Committee. The sadness and shame he projects in this interview makes him far more sympathetic than director Elia Kazan (who also named names), whose defiance led him to build a whole movie around the notion of defending snitches (On the Waterfront, a classic, problematic as it is) and made him a pariah in his later years. Hayden’s punishment is self-inflicted, and one gets the impression that moving away from Hollywood in his later years is as much a self-imposed exile as it is due to disdain for showbiz.
Hayden’s performance contributes immeasurably to The Killing. I won’t spoil the ending… too much. But as one can predict with films noir, things are not likely to end with a rosy picture for Johnny Clay. In fact, in the last moments of the film, it is Hayden’s deflated line delivery that always makes the movie for me. As the cops close in on him, Clay’s girlfriend warns him to run; the defeated Clay responds, “Ah, what’s the difference?”