Friday, 12 April 2019

Kubism, Part 3:
The Killing (1956)

Hallelujah and thank fuck for that you guys, Stanley Kubrick has finally made a great film and we can stop kidding ourselves that everything before now had any artistic merit just because it has his name on it! Seriously, go back to The Seafarers, there is A LOT of analytical stretching going on to justify putting yourself through that.

Predictably, it turns out that all The Brick needed to turn out a decent movie was that old chestnut: a fucktonne of cash. Hooking up with savvy (and conveniently loaded) producer James Harris, who footed a hundred grand while United Artists stumped up double that, Kubrick found himself with a budget over four times that of Killer's Kiss. That meant sets instead of locations, an existing property to adapt and decent actors to perform it, all of which meant a giant leap for Stankind.

The Killing wouldn't be the film to put Kubrick on the map, but it's impossible to see it as anything but a turning point in his career. It's a heist movie, and heists traditionally involve thorough planning, lengthy rehearsal, precision execution and ultimate control: your basic elements for almost every future Kubrick project. It's as if he decided to live the rest of his life by the rules the masterminds of heist films set, but never quite follow to the letter. The Killing's heist might not have gone according to plan, but Stan would ensure that if his most audacious jobs ever failed, it would never be due to a total lack of control over their execution.
Without any faffing about, we're straight into the guts of the story. In the first ten minutes we're introduced to the five key players and are fully clued up about their motivation for ripping off the Lansdowne Park racetrack: Johnny the ex-con and mastermind wants that big score; Mike the bartender needs dough for his sick wife's healthcare; Randy the bent cop is in hock to the mob; George the cashier needs to impress his gold-digging wife, and Marvin, well, his motivation comes out later. But this is an immediately fascinating and complex set of moving parts, brought to sleazy life by a cast who know exactly what's required of them.
Of course the problem with complex sets of moving parts is that one of them will inevitably blab to his wife, who will blab to her lover, and before you know it there's a rogue part moving in the opposite direction to all the other moving parts, threatening the very stability of this extended metaphor. Add to that a structure that hops back and forth in time (some 35 years before a dweeby video store clerk made it fashionable with his own heist flick), and the result is a layered and unpredictable treat. You could argue that all the temporal pinballing is a gimmick, but it undeniably enriches the story: Kubrick and Harris, worried it would detriment their project, recut it chronologically only to find they hated it, and promptly reshuffled it again.

Unsurprisingly the plan goes tits up in a big way, but the sport with these things is never the direction of the tits as much as how the tits get there. Helping The Killing's tits to their final, elevated destination are a couple of crazy secondary characters (a hairy Russian brawler who looks like a wet ball of dough rolled across a barbershop floor, and a clearly mad, puppy-loving horse-killer who speaks through clenched teeth), lip-smacking, hard-boiled dialogue from pulp fiction author Jim Thompson, and last-minute Hitchcockian mischief courtesy of some recognisably hair-tearing airport baggage regulations and a nervous doggo.
There's plenty to chew on in The Killing as a standalone film, but it's as the next step in Kubrick's evolution that it takes on added value. The visual storytelling for which Stan would become famous comes of age before our eyes here: there are motifs and repeated imagery that are infinitely more efficient than the reams of impenetrable dialogue that bogged down Fear And Desire. And while Kubrick was forced by union regulations to work with a cinematographer for the first time in his career, his collaboration with Lucien Ballard resulted in some exquisite compositions. The camera is more mobile than ever before, and the tracking shots that propel the film through its most crucial moments are meticulously shot, lit and blocked.

We also get a little closer to the themes that would preoccupy Kubrick throughout much of his future output. Johnny's futile attempt to regain total control over a situation loaded with variables offers a taste of Stan's somewhat pessimistic world view, in which man is a puny opponent of the indifferent machinations of the cosmos. The destructive power of hubris is also front and centre, and that lip-smacking sense of the absurd is right there in the actions of an incongruous but hugely significant poodle.
For the third time in as many features, Kubrick uses voiceover as a crutch, as if he still doesn't quite trust his instincts to tell a story with pictures. The Killing's incessant narration - sounding like a comically earnest newsreader - grates after a while, but its function mirrors that of the racetrack commentator, lending it a neat formal parallel. That aside, there's little else to gripe about. Setups and payoffs abound, there's barely a wasted scene and there's a depth to the characters' relationships that often goes literally unspoken but metaphorically screamed: George's marriage is fascinating, for example, and Marvin's loyalty to Johnny comes from a place the Production Code simply wouldn't allow to be mentioned out loud.

It's tempting to see the film's quintet of over-the-hill crooks as representative of the old guard of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with Val (the aforementioned lover of the aforementioned wife of the aforementioned George) as Stanley Kubrick, the precocious young buck muscling in on the game. Stan was 28 when he made The Killing, and the disruption he would cause to the status quo would be as far-reaching in the industry as Val's actions were to Johnny and his cronies. Kubrick would get a longer innings than Val, but both men could have gone on to do so much more if fate hadn't had other ideas.
Join me next time for Paths Of Glory, in which Kirk Douglas lays a glorious path down his back garden. Lovely marble slabs with a gravel border and everything.

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