Monday, August 24, 2015

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Killing" by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick was a mere 27 years old when he undertook directing responsibilities for “The Killing,” but his overwhelming sense of perspective was indicative of a natural-born talent reaching the frenzied thrust of possibility. Seldom (at least up to that point) had a relatively new face in the world of film so audaciously risen to the demand of such ambitious challenges; with a small budget and an even tighter shooting schedule (not to mention no personal salary), his endeavors yielded a picture of reputable prowess that declared his impending importance over the coming years. For a time as volatile as the late 50s, that was more profound than it was revelatory. Because Hollywood was fairly impenetrable in the days of dominant personalities like Cecil B. DeMille and Billy Wilder standing behind the camera, how far could a lowly aspiring photographer from New York realistically go? Against all odds and a plethora of obstacles that would have instigated mental collapse in a host of others, here was a man who possessed distinct vision, controlled every element of his composition and orchestrated an end result that was as sharp as it was methodical. In its gorgeous frames rests one of the greatest prophecies of modern cinema: the coming of the most important filmmaker of his generation.

The bulk our knowledge of the Kubrick method is stirred from our experiences with his more famous later pictures – so much so, one might argue, that it acts almost like a jolt of cognizance when a film like this inevitably crosses our path. It was the last of the filmmaker’s feature-length endeavors I had ever seen, which may explain my own enthusiasm for it; after absorbing the fearsome nature of so many of his unrestrained masterworks over the years, arriving here – at the origins of those familiar philosophies – plays like the discovery of the final piece of a fragmented psychological puzzle. He was many things – measured, insightful, endlessly creative and often a madman in the process – but he never actually revealed his core intentions. Speculation over the years has ranged from grandiose proclamations to more simplistic interpretations, but the best way to analyze his way of thinking, I suspect, originates here, in a movie that twists through an elaborate scheme with painstaking detail and still has the incentive to thoroughly reveal the secondary motives of its many questionable characters.

“The Killing” was Kubrick’s third feature-length endeavor, but the first to be produced entirely under the guidance of the Hollywood studio system, a reality that presented distinct changes to the young filmmaker that were not always comforting. The reason: in both of his earlier pictures, miniscule budgets meant limited ability to have a full staff on production, and in both instances he donned other on-the-job responsibilities to compensate (he was both the photographer and editor for his debut “Fear and Desire,” as an example). Film historians cite such circumstances as the foundation of his overpowering neurosis (and by such considerations, Alexandre Astruc might have briefly considered him an archetype in auteur theory). Some of that was apparent throughout the process of making this picture, needless to say; when United Artists forced him to hire his very first cinematographer (the great Lucien Ballard), it was both informative and challenging, and both men has significant disagreements during the course of their 26-day shooting schedule (the most famous story involves the director setting up a shot using a wide angle 50mm lens, and Ballard changing it without his boss’s approval, incurring his inevitable wrath).

It was not just a matter of ego that drove Kubrick here; it was his belief that he and his producer, James Harris, had found the absolute right material for his launch point into the mainstream, and he believed in it wholeheartedly enough to be meticulous with its conception. Not surprisingly, the film also marked a wide array of historical firsts with some of its elements, primary among them a non-linear story told from overlapping perspectives (although the story structure did take a few lessons from Akira Kurosawa, whose own “Rashomon” accomplished similar seven years earlier). The plot itself deals with a single event in the lives of five men who all possess a very dangerous secret: they are about to participate in the perfect robbery at a nearby horse racetrack. The prologue establishes their intentions directly (a revealing voiceover outlines the specifics), though their initial connections are only implied through nods and wordless exchanges. One by one they come to the center of the frame in a sweep of exposition: Randy (Ted DeCorsia), a coarse police officer up to his neck in debt to a loan shark; George (Elisha Cook), an accountant struggling to keep his materialistic wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) interested in him after four years of near-poverty; Mike (Joe Sawyer), a bartender dealing with financial crisis as a result of a dying wife; Johnny (Sterling Hayden), the dominant ringleader of the group; and Marvin (Jay C. Flippen), a kindly sort whose fondness for Johnny clouds him to the logistics of the plot.

In a multi-faceted screenplay co-penned by the insightful Jim Thompson (an author who specialized in psychological studies), the characters are established in a series of circular scenes that clarify their individual motives; each of them is aroused by their wrongful impulses not out of desire, but out of need (however severe or ridiculous). By the time they gather in a smoky apartment to outline the specifics of their plan, they have already sworn allegiance – and secrecy – to a crime that seems laid out with alarming precision; Johnny, the architect, pours over details without the faintest sign of uncertainty, and his gathering of players stare back with a sense of awe that seems curiously circumvented. Are they convinced that what they are undertaking is going to work? They don’t have the hindsight of seasoned moviegoers, sure, but sometimes plans that seem perfect are exactly the ones people place the most doubt in.

Cracks reveal themselves well before the undertaking. The nervous George, distraught by the verbal emasculation of his cynical wife, inadvertently exposes his part in the plot to rob the local track of millions of dollars – perhaps just because he would do anything to hold onto her. She, secretly having an affair with a handsome stranger named Val (Vince Edwards), passes the information to him, inspiring an added facet of greed. And later, when she tries to eavesdrop on the men’s final plan in order to gather additional information, they react with violent distrust towards George, even though he professes no admission of guilt in spilling the beans. What Thompson and Kubrick are establishing here is the necessity of human error in a narrative that seems far too faultless to be reality, because interest in such an idea would come down to whether we expect the culprits to follow through on the plot without succumbing to their own errors. Without that decisive ingredient, “The Killing” wouldn’t be a crime noir it all; it would simply be a calculated exercise of the craft with no moral implications.

While that might have violated an essential principal of the Kubrick doctrine, the glaring specifics fall right in line with his shrewd sense of technical and narrative choreography. The screenplay is sometimes so blatant with its movement that there is nothing left to the imagination; we get specifics right down to the time of day that certain figures are supposed to show up, and even dialogue exchanges between culprits that emphasize their necessity for punctuality (“if we are fifteen seconds later than when the armored car arrives, then we are too late”). Inevitably that also gives way to additional story facets involving the arrival of additional participants: a thug (Kola Kwariani) hired to create a distraction in a nearby bar while Johnny sneaks into the money room, and a creepy sniper (Timothy Carey) assigned to shoot a horse down during the seventh race in order to keep prying eyes off of any suspicious activity (the most obvious one being the tossing of a duffle bag of money out of a nearby window, to be picked up by the cop at that precise moment). Not all of this, mind you, is shown in a straightforward fashion; often the scenes double-back on themselves in order to show the same actions from multiple perspectives, allowing us to notate where key figures are at during the critical moments, and how they play a part in one man’s ascent up a flight of stairs while wearing a mask and carrying a shotgun. Test screenings indicated that the audience detested such an approach, but neither Harris nor Kubrick gave in to the demand for conducting re-edits, and what they released was, in a rare instance for a first-time studio director, an exact representation of one’s uncompromised vision.

The technical values ought to have been coarse and unpolished given the film’s limited budget (the producer had to fund a third of it all on his own), but the reality is that “The Killing” possesses the look of a highly stylized crime noir. Ballard’s cinematography is harmonious with the script’s murky sensibilities, shown in riveting detail in a series of interior shots where light sources seem as if they’re fading into a consuming darkness, highlighting the shadows on anxious faces. The editing, never swift or choppy, bridges the jumps in time with seamless precision, allowing us to always know where the action is occurring and at what point in the story arc it is taking place. The clarity of the black and white is, furthermore, yet another indication of the power of monochromatic photography in a time when studios were won over by the freshness and glamour of color; without the warm tones distracting us from specifics, all the movie leaves us with is a raw account of danger and tragedy, a dreamy emphasis of what drives men to do such terrible things, and how their greed undermines the implicit perfections of their strategy.

Kubrick died in the spring of 1999 – just a few months shy of the release of his last film – but the body of work that remains is a testament to the depth of his skill. Many of those movies, in fact, have gone on to impress a whole new generation of movie enthusiasts and aspiring filmmakers. “The Shining,” his only horror film, is rightfully considered the prototype for the most in-depth psychological thrillers. “A Clockwork Orange” stirs deeply in our guilty conscience because its powerful arguments about violent tendencies are so blatantly decadent. “Full Metal Jacket” ironically inspires discussions about the human war machine when in fact it is about the mindset that inspires it. And “2001” possesses the timelessness of wonder, encompassing the endless array of possibilities of science fiction in the hands of deep and patient thinkers. How could any man accomplish so much in such short order? Over the course of five decades, his filmography consisted of a mere 13 feature films, far beneath the trend of others who worked for the same duration (by comparison, Alfred Hitchcock made double that over that stretch of time). Terrence Malick took just as many pauses over the course of his own directing career, but no other man behind the camera covered so much ground, or with such visceral sincerity.

If there is a sole reason why his pictures resonate so profoundly even today, it is, I think, because they represent the most disciplined of marriages between concept and craftsmanship. They also do not directly reveal their immense secrets, either, and in those frequent moments of silence that populate his pictures, all we are left with is the contemplation of the strange things we have been forced to see. What else is one left with, for instance, in that very uncomfortable moment in “Eyes Wide Shut,” when the Tom Cruise character is being ominously stared down by a party of mask-wearing voyeurs? How else are we to respond to the disturbing look on the face of Private Lawrence before he shoots his drill sergeant down with his rifle? Or the lengthy psychological attack that Jack Torrance throws at his frightened wife as they slowly climb a flight of stairs in the Overlook Hotel? These are moments that strike us deeply because of their piercing austerity. Yet all strokes of perfection must be birthed from experiment. “The Killing” unequivocally represents the genesis of Kubrick’s insightful mindset. It is a living, breathing laboratory of precision and control. And as we watch it knowing full well all that is destined to follow it, our enthusiasm is matched only by our realization that it all amounts to much more than just being a very engrossing crime picture.

Written by DAVID KEYES

"Lessons in Criterion" is a series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which is to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at

"The Killing" is the thirteenth article in this series.

No comments: