Film Review: "The Killing"

City Paper

The Killing

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Playing Aug. 16, 18, and 21 aT The
Charles theater

Stanley Kubrick was always infatuated with human clockwork, both in terms of what makes each of us tick and how we choreograph our lives, deaths, and sins. “The Killing,” his big heist movie, suits this obsession perfectly. It is often considered, and rightly, his first masterpiece.

This particular crime of the century takes place at the races. Johnny Clay, a quietly charismatic ex-con played by Sterling Hayden, assembles the usual crew of seasoned mobsters, queasy insiders, and crooked cops (although in 1956, before “Ocean’s 11” and “The Sting,” this premise was less automatic) in order to relieve Lansdowne Stakes of its millions. Johnny has it all timed down to the whinny. His elaborate plot unfolds with the help of stilted, “Dragnet”-style voice-over and Kubrick’s much-more-expert camera. Meanwhile in a series of domestic scenes we learn about the pressures driving each conspirator, whether financial, erotic, or (generally) both. From one such scene, the unhappy home of a meek racetrack cashier named George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr., also the hapless gunsel Wilmer in “The Maltese Falcon”), emerges the femme fatale, Sherry, played very well if almost with detached amusement by Marie Windsor. Sherry gets George talking. Scheming and trouble ensue. The gears can’t help but slip—but the expected twists always feel more surprising than contrived. 

In telling this story, Kubrick abides almost comically by the rules of film noir, right down to the tommy gun in the violin case. At the same time he stretches the genre into his own weird shape. Some of his innovations, most famously his use of non-linear storytelling, directly influenced the witty, edgy crime films of Quentin Tarantino. But the atmosphere of “The Killing” remains unique. It slips effortlessly between generic scenery-chewing, gorgeous passages of camerawork (particularly tracing the horses around the track), and sudden, ridiculous eruptions of ’50s camp, as when the hirsute Maurice Oboukoff (played by Kola Kwariani, Kubrick’s real-life chess buddy) starts a bar fight that ends as a carnival wrestling clinic. 

This is perhaps the film’s weakest aspect—it never takes itself very seriously. Its virtuosity can feel somewhat smug. But something quite unsettling also rises out of this manner of playing with the rules. Kubrick uses the noir genre as a winch into the unconscious. He finds the abyss behind the cliché. His scenes don’t evoke emotion so much as they inspire an unease that creeps in from the toes up. This is particularly evident in the brief but haunting appearance of Timothy Carey’s Nikki Arcane, a droopy beatnik psychopath who mushes all his lines. Nikki makes madness seem both lazy and seductive. Kubrick doesn’t dwell long in this seductive madness as he would in later films, but he still gives us enough of it to stick.

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