The Dumb Watchmaker: The Killing (1956)

Posted by Charles Reece, August 21, 2011 10:44pm | Post a Comment
killing criterion interior art

Stanley Kubrick's The Killing just came out on blu-ray from Criterion. In addition to being the best looking version I've seen on home video, containing a hilarious interview with Sterling Hayden on the meretricious qualities of being a film actor and a barely promoted new high-def transfer of Kubrick's second feature, Killer's Kiss, there's an excellent essay from Haden Guest analyzing the formal virtues of what is undoubtedly one of the top 5 greatest film noirs (or heist films) ever made. For example:

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.

Rather than seeing Kubrick as some cold, art-for-art's-sake formalist, Guest elaborates on the way form and content inform and determine each other in the film. The style expresses a metaphysics: in one film after another, man's attempt to dominate through rational planning is thwarted by a world filled with what appears as contingency to finite beings. In the present example, the real makes itself known in the form of a poodle. Hayden draws the parallel between Kubrick's characters and the director's own struggle to make art in the racetracks of genre and Hollywood money. Kubrick was a pessimist, but he clearly thought there was more than hubris in our attempt to find/construct order in the world around us. When receiving the D.W. Griffith Award from the Director's Guild, he said, "I've never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, 'don't try to fly too high,' or whether it might also be thought of as 'forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.'" [p. 23-4, James Naremore, On Kubrick] There's something human about rationalizing monoliths and starbabies, axe-wielding husbands who talk to ghosts, and poodles. There's a love for humanity in his work.

If I have a problem with his essay, it's in giving cinematographer Lucien Ballard probably too much credit for the Kubrickian style. The director was already using single-source, natural lighting in his previous films, as well as in his photographic journalism, and his admiration for the camera movements of Max Ophüls was well established by 1956. It's been pretty well documented that Ballard fought Kubrick over the style of the film (what lenses to use, etc.), with the former not appreciating being strong-armed by some upstart (there's a bit of this in the included interview with producer James Harris and even more in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures). There's some irony here given how Kubrick fucked over Jim Thompson with an "additional dialogue" credit, which is discussed by Robert Polito in his included appreciation of the hardboiled writer.

Is there a better director than Kubrick? I don't think so. For every film genre he tried, he made one of the best examples of what the genre has to offer (well, maybe not family drama). 

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Haden Guest (1), Stanley Kubrick (4), The Killing (1)