From my piece in the May issue of Sight & Sound, out on stands now, the ending of Stanley Kubrick's the Killing. Nicely edited for space (yes, I went over word count) my editor kindly allowed me to publish my longer essay here.
Should we start with the final shot? Or the very near final shot? The one with the iconic line? No, let’s start with the suitcase. That cheap suitcase Sterling Hayden (fantastically named Johnny Clay) purchases at a pawnshop and stuffs with money; stuffs with his final getaway; stuffs with this new life. That damn cheap suitcase. Why? Why the used suitcase? You’ve got the dough, take yourself to Sears and splurge on some Samsonite. Oh, but you can’t begrudge him that. Because why would Sterling Hayden go to Sears? He’s too big, he’s too hurried – he’d knock over a few mannequins and chuck some cheap lingerie out of his way to get to the luggage. He’d look suspicious. It’d be a pain in the ass. But then what happens? Well, this movie is so classic and so beloved, and surprisingly, never discussed in this column, that most readers know exactly what happens as a result of that second-hand suitcase. But we won’t go there yet.
So much has been written about Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, (1956) and for good reason, it’s a masterpiece. The young director’s third film (he would discount his first, Fear and Desire) after Killer’s Kiss, The Killing is frequently deemed the pioneering triumph of Kubrick’s career (though it didn’t do well at the box office, it’s peerless and inspirational to other filmmakers) – his first great film. The Killing may seem like an anomaly among his work, but it’s not. A film noir, a heist picture, filled with noir veterans, it could be classified simply within those two genres, but Kubrick always tweaked genres (comedy, horror, war, period piece, science fiction, romance) upturning convention with something harder, funnier, more philosophical, beautiful and ugly.
Dark humor simmers underneath this picture directly alongside the dread during which, like many heist movies, we root for the robbers knowing they’re not gonna make it. It’s absurd – like rooting for the frog jumping on the back of the scorpion. We foresee the demise, but never mind, we tense up along with the characters and drag down further as their ends becomes ever painful. And the ends of The Killing are damn painful, and in many ways, darkly funny.
With narration by Art Gilmore that’s so dead serious it’s actually a bit perverse, a voice of god, “Dragnet” style attempt to organize what will become insanity, The Killing showcases the then 27-year-old filmmaker’s absolute precision with story, dialogue (thanks to Jim Thompson), non-linear plotting and confidence with actors, flaunting some of the greatest mugs since André De Toth’s Crime Wave and Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai. Hayden is so Hayden you feel like you’re watching, not just an icon, but some kind of loser Jesus Christ. As if Kubrick’s idol Weegee were God and Hayden were his son -- J.C. as a deep-voiced, lumbering ex-con with too-short a tie and a pouty lower lip.
Along the way there’s corrupt cop Ted DeCorsia; granite faced Jay C. Flippen; Vince Edwards as we always liked him, sleazy, no Ben Casey in sight; sweetie pie Colleen Gray who’s so ridiculously insecure she actually believes she’s not pretty; Marie Windsor who amps up the double crossing femme fatale into a Shakespeare figure of crooked rot. Elijah Cook, Jr. in his wide-eyed humiliation and powerlessness against wife Windsor (and the world she represents) that it’s almost masochistic just to watch his masochism. You feel a sigh of relief viewing the couple’s counterpoint, Joe Sawyer and his darling bedridden wife (Dorothy Adams), but that’s just another awful scenario too. The world is awful, let’s face it.
Timothy Carey, a man no film (no world?) can contain, brilliantly so, faces it, and in fact, revels in the awfulness, smirking and smiling while petting his puppy – he knows everything’s shit. Fine. And we’re with his psycho intensity, we even like him in some sick way and Kubrick knows it. So the director makes us flinch. When Carey casually drops a racist remark to the agreeable African-American parking attendant (James Edwards), it’s one of the most startlingly nasty moments in the picture. How do you like your psychopath now?
Kubrick takes this Los Angeles racetrack heist and gives the picture both immediacy and a formality, something that likely came from his young days as a photojournalist at LOOK magazine. The lighting, from dark to harshly lit, from organic to lifeless to documentary-looking interiors, the lamps and pools of blackness appear like some of his most powerful snaps (one can’t help think of wrestler and chess player Kola Kwariani harkening back to Kubrick’s photographs of wrestler Gorgeous George in action). It’s no wonder that, reportedly, cinematographer Lucien Ballard was annoyed with the young upstart. But this is Kubrick and even young Kubrick will prove to be a perfectionist – obviously – that photographic detail and rigor stayed with Kubrick his entire career. The Killing is so exceptionally gorgeous and gritty, you see him priming for Dr. Strangelove -- pushing faces and moments and outlandishness into the frame that at times, you feel it could burst wide open. The Killing is old school noir and absolutely modern all at once.
Which leads us back to that goddamn suitcase. “Ten minutes later he bought the largest suitcase he could find,” intones Gilmore. Exit Johnny Clay with that rickety suitcase and shoving it into his car, right next to a poster featuring an icon of the old school melding with the modern, an innovator himself – Lenny Bruce on a Burlesque bill. Hightailing it to the airport to meet up with his girl, Hayden’s almost there.
But… flight 808, the watchful cops, that woman and her wittle poodle who hasn’t seen daddy in such a wong, wong time. Checking in the luggage. Oh God, checking in the luggage and trusting it to baggage handlers and the driver and that obnoxious yapping poodle as nightmarish as the parrot squawking next to Elijah Cook, Jr.’s dead, bloodied face. When the cheap suitcase falls off the luggage truck on the tarmac, Hayden watches, money swirling like some sick green smoke. It’s almost beautiful. Like Werner Herzog’s films of the oil fires in Kuwait, Lessons in Darkness.
Hayden and Grey are still on the go, lamely attempting a taxi outside the airport while the police inch through the double glass doors. So what’s Hayden’s famed response to this spectacular ruin? It’s the resigned, quiet and tough, “Eh, what’s the difference?” That last line is so many things at once – deeply sad, it’s an embracing of nihilism and, yet, weirdly Zen. You’ll never escape Kubrick’s fateful frames, no matter how much Hayden’s big-boned body shoves through doors. Hayden’s trapped but his acceptance is so cool, so calm, so perfect, he almost busts through Kubrick’s maddening maze via pure acknowledgement. If doom could be motivating, Hayden is downright inspirational. Maybe he is Jesus Christ.
Pick up the May issue of Sight & Sound, out on stands since last week, today.