Our tour through the surprising darkness lurking under 1950’s Hollywood’s idealized surface continues this week folks. I often see this decade somewhat written off as a collection of Hollywood’s laziest and most homogenized products, which may be true, but little glimmers of brilliance can be found if you look hard enough. Which brings us to my favorite film of 1956, the wonderfully bleak film the Killing. It was a pretty lax competition for the title of my favorite film of 1956, unlike last week’s rough race, and next week’s absolute bloodbath. Nope, this week we had a really easy competition. Not only is it a Kubrick movie, not only is it an amazing heist flick, and not only is it one of the most visually inventive films of the decade, but it frankly towers over everything else that was released this year. Yeah, there are people out there who really enjoy the Ten Commandments, but that movie is an absolute oddity, a representation of everything I dislike about Hollywood from this era. Likewise, I know that people really enjoy Invaders of the Body Snatchers, but I’ve actually never seen this original flick, and have kind of been saving it for a different special project, which unfortunately kept it from competing in this little battle. There’s some weird, almost campy joy to be found from the Bad Seed, but I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable considering it my favorite film of a year. Really, the biggest competition that the Killing had, and the film that I feel like most people would put as the greatest film of 1956, is the Searchers. And I considered it. Because there’s a whole lot to say about the Searchers. I saw it for the first time a few years ago, and decided to revisit it right before writing this article, in case it somehow rose up in my estimations, but it really didn’t. The Searchers is a beautiful film, a true masterpiece of cinematography and a lovingly shot look at the grandeur of the American West done as no one but John Ford could accomplish. But, it’s also a bit of a mess. I know people hold it in some great esteem, and there are people who can forgive the problematic racial elements of the film, but it’s just never worked for me. I think that John Ford was attempting to confront the inherent racism of most Western stories by giving us a John Wayne character who represented everything ugly about our Western heroes, trying to make him the villain of the film. But I just don’t think it goes far enough. And, to this day, I can’t quite decide if this film is trying to be a statement on the racism of the genre, or if people have just put that lens onto it over the years. Either way though, it doesn’t work for me. It’s a pretty film, but the story hold it back from being enjoyable. Unlike the Killing, which is an expertly crafted pocket-watch of a film.
This film isn’t Kubrick’s first, but it is his first with a professional cast, and his first major release. Which is staggering, because this is seriously one of Kubrick’s most impressive films, which is a mind-blowing feat. And it all came about in the most wonderfully ludicrous way possible. This film exists because Stanley Kubrick met producer James B Harris while playing chess in a park, and Harris was so impressed by Kubrick as a person that they created a production company, bought the rights to a book that Kubrick was interested in, and essentially gave him a blank check to create this film however he wanted to. It’s just all so crazy, and yet it worked out. The film was partially self-funded by Harris himself, getting a little bit of money from United Artists, but generally being such a risky prospect that no one had confidence in it. Kubrick had made films before, but nothing like this. He decided to cast it almost exclusively with actors from schlocky noir flicks that Kubrick liked, brought in pulp author Jim Thompson to help write all the dialogue, and he battled with the cinematographer that the cinematography union demanded he have on set. It seemed like a recipe for disaster. And, financially, it was! The movie was a bit of a bomb financially, but it seemed to quickly gain the critical acclaim that would carry the film in the ensuing decades. Critics realized what a strange and important voice Kubrick was, and most contemporary reviews hailed him as a talent to pay attention to. Which makes it a bit of a shame that this film doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. Kubrick is a director that rightfully gets a lot of attention in the world of cinema, and a majority of his films are hailed as masterpieces. But I feel like this film often gets left out of the discussion. And, I really hope that you all give it a shot, because it’s truly a special little film.
The Killing is the story of what is supposed to be a fairly simple heist. It’s masterminded by a recently released criminal named Johnny Clay who has devised a seemingly foot-proof plan to knock over a race-track on a day when they’d be holding around two million dollars. To accomplish this feat, he needs to assemble a team, each with their own specific skills and assets to help pull it off, some of whom aren’t knowing the full scope of the plan. The most important figures for the plan are employees at the track, a bartender named Marvin at the track who is dealing with an ailing wife and a depressed window teller named George who is convinced that getting this money will finally make his wife respect him. But, they also pick up a corrupt cop who needs the money to pay off a mobster that he owes money to, a morally bankrupt sharpshooter to provide a distraction, and a depressed old professional wrestler who will also be providing a distraction. They seemingly have every step of the heist planned out, but there’s one thing that they couldn’t have anticipated. George can’t help but spill the beans to his wife Sherry, who them immediately tells her boyfriend Val about it, planning on screwing over George and taking his share of the money so that they can run away together. And, as time goes on, Val decides that they shouldn’t just screw over George, he should try to steal the entire haul.
The day of the heist then arrives. George and Marvin place a shotgun and a bag for the money inside their lockers, and prepare for the heist. It all begins when the sharpshooter pulls into a parking lot and fires a bullet into the race-track, killing the horse that is presumed the be the most likely winner of the race, causing the track to stop handing out the money while they figure out what to do about the murder of a horse. Then, while everyone is already confused, the wrestler starts a massive brawl at the bar, causing all of the security guards to become occupied while Johnny is able to slip into the back area of the track, putting on a clown costume, retrieving the gun and money-bag, and entering the room where the money is kept. Johnny gets the workers to put all of the money into the bag, then forces them out of the room just in time to throw the money out of the window and into the waiting arms of the corrupt cop, who is able to sneak it off the premises under the guise of searching for the horse murderer. Johnny escapes the track, along with everyone else, except for the sharpshooter, who is shot to death by a security guard he was racist to earlier in the day. But, it seems like the whole thing was a success.
Everyone returns to Johnny’s apartment, waiting for him to arrive so that they can split up the money. Which is when Sherry’s boyfriend Val shows up to rip them all off. A tense standoff begins, and George starts to finally piece together that his wife set this whole thing up, and plans to kill him. Unfortunately, a gun-fight begins, and everyone is killed except for George, who is just mortally wounded. He shambles out of the apartment so he can head home and murder Sherry before succumbing to his wounds, and along the way Johnny sees him. Johnny realizes that everything has fallen apart, and goes to buy the biggest suitcase he can in order to flee with the money. He stuffs the money into the briefcase, and then goes to pick up his girlfriend Fay so they can run away together and get married. But, to do so they need to get on a plane, and it turns out that Johnny bought too big of a suitcase, and the airline insists on checking the bag. He does his best to fight against this decision, but in order to escape the city before the police piece everything together he just goes with it. Which was a huge mistake, because as the bags are being loaded into their plane a slight accident involving a dog occurs, and their suitcase is dropped to the ground, opening up and causing all of the stolen money to be blown into the wind. Johnny and Fay then try to escape, but a staggering amount of money blowing around on an airport tarmac when people recently robbed a horse-track is a little noticeable, and some police arrive to arrest Johnny before he can even get off the airport’s property.
Stanley Kubrick is a fascinating figure in the world of cinema. He’s one of the directors who often gets bandied about as one of the greatest of all time, and his career is absolutely staggering. He seemed to purposefully try his hand at every different genre, showing that he had a shocking amount of skill at all sorts of things, becoming a jack of all trades, and somehow a master of all. And, weirdly, he’s not going to come up a whole lot on this project. I love almost every Kubrick movie I’ve ever seen. But, as luck would have it, there’s almost always other movies that I love more each year he put a movie out. And, it’s really nice that one of the few times I get to talk about the man is this week, with a movie that I do think is one of my favorites of his in general. Kubrick never really made another movie like this, and it’s a damn shame. Because Kubrick really seemed to understand the heist movie. This film is incredibly tight, there’s not a moment in it that doesn’t need to be there, and it all completely works. We have our characters, their plan, the actual heist, and the perverse satisfaction of watching it all fall apart in just over an hour and half. And, to make things even better, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Kurbrick shot this movie like it was an Expressionist film, full of insane shadows, giving us a wonderfully dark movie, even though it’s the story of a heist in the middle of the damn day.
I really love heist flicks. Seeing a group of eccentric criminals, all of whom bring something special to the plan, working together and putting a staggering amount of work and brainpower to just steal something. They often revolve around seeing talented people being good at their job, and watching them rip off some usually faceless or malevolent force to get their money is cathartic. But this film doesn’t really fall into that category. Most times we see a heist we get to see it pulled off successful, often with some hitches, but none that shatter everything. This film ends up objective failure. Everyone is either dead of imprisoned, even though they pulled it all off. And, as with so many things from this era of Hollywood, I assume it has something to do with the Production Code. As we’ve discussed in previous installments of Cinematic Century, the Production Code lead to some very screwy things in movies, often encouraging characters to be brutally murdered on screen because killing them was more acceptable than letting them succeed in crime. And that may be what happened with this movie, but regardless of the reasoning behind it, we’re given a film where a group of criminals account for everything, pull off a masterful heist, and then still fail. They’re still punished, because there was something they didn’t think of. Because no matter how well we think something out, no matter how many options, alternatives, and considerations we make, we can still not think of something, and it can come to bite us in the ass.
The Killing was written and directed by Stanley Kubrick and released by United Artists, 1956.
Categories: Cinematic Century
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