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The Killing: Kubrick’s Clockwork

Celebrated as Stanley Kubrick’s first mature film and made when he was only twenty-eight years old, The Killing (1956) is remarkable for boldly announcing so many of the stylistic and thematic preoccupations that would become important constants of his cinema. The film’s dark, unrelenting irony and complexly fractured narrative immediately distinguished it from his previous work and revealed the posture of the willfully, often provocatively, “difficult” director that he would cultivate throughout his career.

Kubrick’s new direction with The Killing is made clear by its striking contrast with his film from the year before, the youthful and ardently romantic Killer’s Kiss (1955), a tale of two lonely hearts—a boxer and a dancer—rescued by the kind of transformative love and coincidence patently denied in Kubrick’s subsequent films. Kubrick channeled his precocious talents as a commercially successful still photographer into his work as cinematographer on Killer’s Kiss, conjuring a dreamy black-and-white vision of Times Square that captures the neon glow and vernacular fantastic so beloved by contemporary New York School photographers, who were similarly drawn to the sad, gaudy poetry of the city’s movie marquees, late-night coffee shops, and decrepitly archaic burlesque theaters.

The nostalgic and oneiric qualities of Killer’s Kiss were deliberately abandoned in The Killing, which Kubrick intended from the very beginning as a professional calling card for a Hollywood career. In partnership with the talented independent producer James B. Harris, Kubrick set out to make an edgy crime drama, a hard-hitting, stylish film noir of the kind popular at the time, selecting Lionel White’s modernist novel Clean Break for adaptation and deciding to shoot in Los Angeles in order to more easily assemble a studio-trained cast and crew. Prominent among the artists selected by Kubrick and Harris was veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard, whose meticulous choreography of camera movement in this film introduced the self-consciously autonomous camera that would arguably become Kubrick’s greatest star. Equally significant, however, was Ballard’s use of single-source lighting to reduce interiors to starkly abstract theatrical spaces, in marked contrast with the film’s naturally lit Los Angeles–area exteriors. An important early expression of the stylized antirealism increasingly explored in Kubrick’s cinema, Ballard’s diagrammatic hot-spot lighting transforms dingy apartments and hidden back rooms into dramatic extensions of the robbers’ feverishly claustrophobic lives, while also subtly pointing toward the radical fusing of architectural and psychological interiority in such later films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980).

Kubrick’s antirealist intentions are revealed by his pointed use of the newsreel-style horse track footage, announcing an urgent mode of present-tense realism in the film’s opening credit sequence that is then systematically undercut by the stuttered and fragmentary repetition of the same imagery throughout the film. A telling, albeit unintentional, detail in the grainy opening underscores the literal and metaphoric distance quickly established between it and the rest of the film—a clearly legible sign revealing that the race was actually shot at San Francisco’s then popular Bay Meadows track, far from the fictional Lansdowne of the film. The pronounced stylistic mismatch between this documentary material and the interior, studio-set world of the robbery closely anticipates the ironic juxtaposition of hyperrealist handheld combat footage with the mannered, absurdist political theater of the indoor scenes in Dr. Strangelove (1964)—not to mention Kubrick’s most inspired retort to documentary realism: that film’s radical transformation of the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test into a poetically sublime and unsettling Bruce Conner–style structuralist collage.

Provocatively disavowing, then, the realist documentary mode, The Killing instead embraces a kind of ironic quotation that repurposes popular genre conventions and formulas. Take, for example, one of The Killing’s most stingingly cynical moments, the charged scene in which a deranged sniper, played with reptilian charm by Timothy Carey, strikes up an unexpected friendship with an embittered African American war veteran working as a parking attendant, played with smoldering intensity by James Edwards. For a brief moment, the awkward and spontaneous connection between the white and black man almost seems to be directed by the other Stanley of postwar Hollywood—Stanley Kramer, whose trademark brand of overwrought social-problem melodrama would give rise a few years later to The Defiant Ones (1958), a heavy-handed, Oscar-winning allegory of troubled race relations. Yet just as suddenly, Kubrick and über-hard-boiled novelist Jim Thompson’s screenplay subverts and renders ironic the social-problem formula evoked so effectively, with Carey’s demented killer unleashing a viscously casual racist barb that reveals his seemingly enlightened sympathies to be simply a convenient guise, a mocking echo of the clown mask donned by heist ringleader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) during the climactic robbery.

The Killing’s play with traditional genre formulas and expectations is best expressed, however, in its reinvention of the heist film, the briefly popular (and since much-revisited) postwar genre that inspired one of the dominant and most important thematic motifs of Kubrick’s cinema—the idea of a secretly shared yet never fully understood plan, simultaneously motivating and systematically subverting the film’s narrative. Most often, this idea is expressed through characters who are steadily overwhelmed by obscure and at times fantastically intricate designs they have invented and/or are struggling to control—and that nevertheless refuse to be redirected or rationally understood. Just such a pattern is offered by The Killing’s elaborate racetrack robbery, whose abstract complexity and ultimate ineluctability are evocatively described through the extended series of interconnected boxes—lockers, mailboxes, suitcases, musical instrument cases, police call boxes, car trunks—opened and closed, with an almost ritualistic rhythm, throughout its meticulous planning and execution. Mirroring these fluttering boxes is the constant opening and closing of doors, often as match cuts between different scenes and spaces, and at times marking a highly charged entry into danger—such as Clay’s stealth entrance through the forbidden back door leading to the money room, or the surprise arrival of double-crossing bandits Val and Tiny (Vince Edwards and Joseph Turkel), cruel jacks-in-the-box who leap out from behind the door to Clay’s apartment to steal the stolen goods.

The synchronized, semaphorelike movement of doors throughout The Killing suggests some sort of mysteriously vast machine, an intricate apparatus vaguely built around the horse race itself, whose very signal to begin is, after all, the precision opening of the multiple gates that simultaneously release the horses and trigger the robbery. The machine metaphor elaborated throughout The Killing is also closely tied to Ballard’s assertive camera movements and the remarkable extended tracking shots that follow characters with an unsettling fixity, as in the scene introducing Clay. Keeping exact pace with Clay as he ambles toward the anxious embrace of his winsome girlfriend, Fay (Coleen Gray), Ballard’s gliding camera cuts a neat cross section through a series of connected rooms in its path, transforming the apartment interior into a type of controlled tunnel that exactly describes and limits the possibilities of movement—a striking illustration of entrapment that subtly parallels the camera’s and actor’s “tracks” with those of the horse race. Indeed, a comparison between man and horse runs throughout the film, captured cruelly in the whinnying, equine look of Carey’s face as he is shot—after his car tire is punctured by a horseshoe, no less—in a distorted carnival-mirror reflection of the horse he himself has killed just moments before. In addition, during the long execution of the robbery itself, each member of the gang seems to be locked in an extended relay race, tracked by the mobile camera as they move across the screen, their actions closely commented upon by a stentorian voice-over narration echoing that of the horse race announcer.

The Killing’s sustained parallels between actor and animal, heist and race, are part of a larger pattern that establishes the elaborately planned robbery as a rich metaphor for the cinema and, moreover, for the distinct mode of auteurist filmmaking that Kubrick would come to define. Clay at times seems almost a direct stand-in for Kubrick, as in the scene where he assigns parts to the cast carefully chosen for his audacious plan, men whose distinctly lower-working-class professions—bartender, patrolman, bookie, wrestler, cashier—neatly confirm the fringe status of The Killing’s character actors (also including veteran noir players Elisha Cook Jr. and Ted de Corsia) within the strict hierarchy of studio system labor. And the dramatically emphasized and exacting timetable of the robbery echoes The Killing’s own accelerated production schedule and the especially precise clockwork required of tightly budgeted independent film production. The elusive legibility of the film’s design, partially revealed and then mockingly repudiated at the end, speaks to the crucial presence of genres as a type of paradoxical driving force behind many of Kubrick’s major films, from Paths of Glory (1957) to 2001 to The Shining—films that each set out to ambitiously reinvent established thematic and stylistic patterns. Significantly prominent in all of these films are variations of The Killing’s “tracks”—the World War I trenches, the space stations’ sterile passages and tunnels, the endless corridors—and, of course, the imposing maze—of the Overlook Hotel.

The Pyrrhic struggles of characters, in The Killing and these later films, to forge new paths of their own, to break free from the seemingly predetermined course of the labyrinths within them, suggest the struggle of the artist—the director as auteur—to creatively control the complexly mechanized cinematic apparatus and somehow break free of the deep-rooted traditions rigorously enforced by the commercial Hollywood system to which Kubrick remained faithfully bound throughout his long career, despite his proclaimed and geographical status as an outsider. The chaotic demise of the heist offers the defeated Johnny Clay as a poignant symbol of the Hollywood auteur forced to rework established formulas—to follow the predetermined paths embodied in the racetrack. And thus the parodic variations of the horse race—the miniature poodle dashing across the tarmac to release the winning stakes, the empty taxis rushing past the circular drive—stand as cruelly “artistic” reinterpretations that refute and mock Clay’s own invented race against time.

As a first expression of the ironic distancing of genre formulas maintained throughout his career, The Killing also reveals Kubrick’s status as a key transitional figure between Old and New Hollywood. On one level, Kubrick’s bold reworking of studio-era genre traditions points toward their later rediscovery by such seventies New Hollywood directors as Bogdanovich, Coppola, and Scorsese. Yet the extraordinarily diagrammatic shape that Kubrick gives to his reinventions displays an obsessive concern with systems and control that directly links his films to those of two emblematic artists of the studio era—Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, directors whose famously meticulous command over their films’ production also shaped their recurrent themes of fatalistic dark forces controlling both the lives and destinies of their characters and the narratives themselves. Significantly, for all three filmmakers, this ideal of total control—the notion of the director as master of the universe of his films—was also described as a form of madness, with so many of their films converging around stories of radically unstable characters who are either insane or trapped in worlds that systematically fold in on themselves. The connection between Hitchcock and Kubrick in this regard seems particularly strong, especially when one views 2001 as Kubrick’s The Birds (1963)—both abstract, technically inventive, and “insanely” expensive superproductions whose “madness” was not only that of the willfully destructive forces from somewhere above but also the films’ complete and willful refusal of interpretation.

The idea of all-controlling authorship that Kubrick and his films would come to embody is revealingly predicted in the omniscient voice-over narration that plays such a major role in defining The Killing’s tone and design. Giving form to Kubrick’s discovery of a distinct artistic voice, this commentary presents an abstractly omnipotent narrative voice whose clockwork precision, an obsessive marking of the hour and minute of all events in the robbery timetable, almost suggests a mechanical, nonhuman agency at work. The detached quality of the voice-over is underscored by its frequent interchanging with the live racetrack commentary, whose perfunctory recitation of the colorful horse names expresses a flat pseudoexcitement, an automaton irony. An early variation of the all-knowing, wryly observant narrator in Barry Lyndon (1975), the emotionally zero-degree voice-over in The Killing ultimately points, of course, toward the computer-god HAL in 2001, whose emotionless voice gives sinister weight and meaning to its unfeeling, platitudinal language. This increasing abstraction of voice matches a similarly growing distance between Kubrick and his characters, a movement beyond the antirealism of the early works and toward a type of antihumanism. Yet the detachment embodied in The Killing’s narration is also part of the radical modernist spirit embraced by the film, which, with its jagged time structure and doubling back over past events, is like a proto– and pulp Last Year at Marienbad. And it is here that The Killing also predicts the important bridge Kubrick would define between the studio genre picture and the European art film, an interstitial place he would carefully exploit through his status as self-exiled Hollywood insider.

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