Stanley Kubrick didn’t hit many speedbumps on the road to becoming a cinematic legend but his 1956 noir thriller The Killing was definitely one of them. By then, the 28 year-old director had two films under his belt and while neither of them were big hits, they had certainly turned a few heads. One of those heads belonged to James B. Harris, the producer who would continue to work with Kubrick until Lolita in 1962. The project started smoothly with the pair securing not only rights to the Lionel White novel Clean Break but also a slick re-write by Jim Thompson, the noir crime writer whose novel The Killer Inside Me had just been nominated for a National Book Award. Despite bulging at the seams with talent, the production ran into trouble when the studios decided that leading man Stirling Hayden simply wasn’t a big enough draw. This meant that the project’s funding was cut, the film was denied a proper cinematic release and the production wound up losing money, which seems insane when you consider that The Killing is an almost flawless noir thriller.
The film opens with Hayden’s Johnny looking very concerned as his wonderfully frail and pathetic girlfriend informs him that she simply couldn’t survive having to wait out another one of his prison terms. Johnny promises that her waiting days are over and that the pair of them will soon be able to make a clean break. The spirit of this film makes its presence felt in the gap between the humanity Johnny shows towards his girlfriend and the ruthlessness he displays as part of his professional persona. Yes… this is a film about an intricately planned heist but it is also a film about human weakness.
One major source of weakness is a cashier who works at the racecourse that Johnny is planning to rob. While the heist may not have been possible if it hadn’t been for George’s (Elisha Cook Jr.) bold decision to sell out his employers, his pathetic need to secure the affections of his wayward wife Sherry turns out to be one of the film’s major sources of tension. Marie Windsor plays Sherry as this wonderfully cynical drunk with a young lover and a hunger for money. Every inch the Femme Fatale dominatrix, she showers her husband with sarcasm and distain only to show him just enough attention to secure his continued loyalty and affection. Kubrick reportedly cast Windsor and Cook on the basis of their respective track records in these types of films and watching the pair work Thompson’s dialogue is one of the chief pleasures in a film that is over-flowing with wonderful moments.
For the first half of the film, Kubrick crawls around the personal lives of his characters sniffing out and exposing each of their character flaws and weaknesses. By the time the heist actually starts, we know more about the things that could go wrong than the things that could go right; Will Sherry work George just that little bit too hard and force him to back out of the robbery? Will she fail to keep a lid on her unnervingly violent younger lover? Will Johnny suddenly get wise to the fact that the crooked accountant is completely in love with him? Will the bent copper with a taste for the good stuff decide to turn them in? Johnny’s plan is intricate and the film makes it clear that it is just a question of time before one of the links in the chain decides to snap.
Having developed his characters and used them to build up an oceanic reserve of tension, Kubrick shifts to a non-linear form of storytelling to show us how the complex heist unfolds. Leaping back and forth in time, Kubrick uses the track announcements to situate us in time and keep the tension levels high as Johnny’s plan slowly starts to take shape. The horses are in the paddock. The horses are on the field. They’re under starter’s orders! Tick tock! Tick tock! Each of the resulting vignettes is memorable in its own right but viewed collectively they are nothing short of awesome. Particularly memorable are the scene in which a maimed trigger man accidentally makes a friend and the scene in which the intellectual Russian chess teacher turns himself into a big hairy monster for the sake of creating a diversion. Beautifully written and wonderfully performed, these tiny character beats more than justify the effort that Kubrick puts into character creation during the film’s opening act.
The introduction to this review describes The Killing as ‘almost flawless’ because the film’s conclusion doesn’t really work on an emotional level. The problem is that because the film is only 84-minutes long and because Kubrick devoted a lot of the film’s running time to fleshing out his secondary characters, he didn’t leave himself enough time in which to flesh out the relationship between Johnny and his girlfriend. In fact, we see Johnny’s girlfriend in the film’s opening scenes only for her to disappear until the end of the robbery. Hayden’s Johnny certainly gets a lot of screen time but virtually all of that screen time establishes him as a ruthless fixer rather than the caring individual the film’s conclusion requires him to be. The end of the film contains an image so memorable it has since been re-used in a number of other films but while the image may stick in your mind, the character beat will not and that is a real shame given how beautifully Kubrick and Thompson handle the rest of the characterisation.
Off-kilter ending aside, The Killing is a beautifully written, directed and performed noir thriller that deserves to be considered alongside such classics of the form as The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. The disc comes with some fascinating commentary by the director Ben Wheatley and the film critic Michel Ciment but it must be said that both are somewhat overshadowed by an absolutely magnificent interview with Sterling Hayden conducted by French television in the 1960s. Shot on a barge by the banks of the river Seine, the heavily-bearded (and quite possibly loaded) star of Johnny Guitar, The Asphalt Jungle and Dr. Strangelove wanders around his boat fixing things and talking candidly about Hollywood, American politics and the fact that he learned French while fighting Nazis with a bunch of partisans during World War II. It is tempting to suggest that this awesome interview alone justifies the price of the Blu-ray but Arrow have also included Kubrick’s second film Killer’s Kiss.
Little over an hour long, Killer’s Kiss is widely seen as a lesser film than The Killing. A noir thriller made with less money, less acting talent and a less polished script than the film that would follow it, Killer’s Kiss certainly feels less mature but that immaturity is not without charm or ambition.
The film revolves around a second-rate boxer (Jamie Smith) who is just about to give up on his dream and leave town when he happens to see his beautiful neighbour (Irene Kane) getting beaten-up by a sinister older man (Frank Silvera). The boxer steps in and defends his neighbour leading to the pair falling in love and agreeing to leave town together. However, before the couple can afford their train tickets, the woman needs to confront her boss about the money that he owes her and the boss turns out to be the sinister older man who is so hopelessly in love with the boxer’s neighbour that he will do anything to keep her, including murder.
Given the paucity of its running time, it is not surprising that Killer’s Kiss seems content to tell quite a simple story. However, look beyond the simple narrative and the desperately uneven acting and you will see a young director experimenting with a wide array of cinematic techniques. For example, whereas most Hollywood films of the period shot dialogue scenes with fixed cameras, Kubrick has his cameras move in and around the actors while they deliver their lines resulting in an odd, queasy feeling that feels a lot more subjective than realistic. Also interesting is the way that Kubrick makes the walls of the boxer’s kitchen pitch black except for a window looking onto his neighbour’s apartment creating the impression that the window functions almost like a comic book thought bubble in which the boxer visualises sounds overheard through the walls. This fondness for experimental techniques lends the film a distinctly arty feel that culminates in a frankly bizarre final confrontation in a mannequin factory. Killer’s Kiss is an immature film because its restless experimentalism speaks to the presence of a young director in a hurry but despite the film’s reputation as nothing more than a slice of Kubrickian juvenilia, one could argue that it does a much better job of showing Kubrick’s directorial promise than the more conventional film that followed it.
Arrow deserve a lot of credit for deciding to release Killer’s Kiss alongside The Killing as, taken together, the films provide a fascinating portrait of a cinematic legend who was still in the process of finding his feet and working out what it was he wanted to do as a director. Of the two films included on this disc, The Killing is undeniably the most accomplished and accessible but Killer’s Kiss remains a wonderfully expressionistic little film that evokes Billy Wilder’s drunken odyssey The Lost Weekend. Two great films and a slate of magnificent extras? You’d be a fool not to seek out this disc.