The Killing (1956)
“It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line…”
Whenever Kubrick’s canon of films is discussed, this quiet little early gem is invariably lost out amidst the mammoths like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971). But very much in the same way the latter films defined cinema of their decades, The Killing (1956) forms a vital film of the 50’s Hollywood.
The Killing follows a group of men who plan to carry out a robbery in a race course booking center. The group includes a cop in financial distress, an ex-convict who dreams of getting away to a remote place with his all-trusting girlfriend, the bumbling cashier at the booking counter, an employee at the course and a couple of other contract hires. They carry out the plan as per the text book alright, but the real trouble begins later, as usual. Things deviate from the schedule and needless to say, go awry. Thus follows a Tarantino-esque proceeding towards an immortal climactic scene.
When viewed today, it is inevitable that one is reminded of films like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and similar movies of the Tarantino age. The ultra-solemn genre of heist films is considered to be resurrected by the wry humour of Reservoir Dogs. But Kubrick had done the same even during the inception of the genre. Consider the scene where Sherry (Marie Windsor) is shot by her husband George (Elisha Cook). She goes down saying “It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line.”. Now which director (but Kubrick) in his right senses would have made such a move in the age of Rififi (1954) and Asphalt Jungle (1950)?
The Killing is perhaps the oldest film with non-linear narration that I have seen. Multiple points of view give rise to different visual segments that overlap temporally and evoke a sense of thrill that is so uncharacteristic of the 50’s. I don’t know how the audience would have reacted then, but when viewed today, the film seems to have grown with time and its potency to enthrall audience has visibly become enhanced, considering the slew of films based on similar structures that flooded the 90’s. The film provides ample scope for a remake, for it seems tailor made for the new audience.
Black comedy, that would go on to become a strong point in many Kubrick films, clearly shows its roots in The Killing. The movie’s intense plot never becomes heavy handed, thanks to the presence of a comic thread throughout, be it in the strained relationship between the Peatty couple or be it in the intriguing arrogance of Nikki Arcane. Though the explicit oral narration becomes irritating at places, the film’s dynamics have enough to overcome that. At a time when film-noir had become a genre and heist films had become a sub-genre, The Killing sought to break away from rigid rules and provide fluidity and hence novelty to the genre.
It is fascinating to see what Kubrick has churned out without the use of even one A-list actor. The Killing was enough to launch Kubrick big time and tell the industry that he had arrived. There was no stopping the master now.