March 20th 2012 02:28
Following Killer’s Kiss in 1955, Stanley Kubrick’s precociousness manifested itself more abundantly in The Killing, a racetrack heist film that’s like the anatomy of an almost-perfect crime. Only, inflections of avarice, stupidity and unflinching affection for a corrupted femme fatale upset the final outcome, a tall tale but true masterminded by Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Clay, an ex-con just out of the slammer.
Meticulously assembling his crew of participants, Johnny’s robbery hinges on clockwork manoeuvring of the chess pieces; foremost amongst these is the accuracy of a hired gunmen who, parked on the outskirts of the racetrack, will take aim and fire at the pack-leading red-hot favourite, ensuing carnage and chaos in its wake.
The Killing reveals the first significant flash of the mastery of the form Kubrick was soon to exhibit. From the tough-as-nails dialogue, co-written with hard-boiled novelist Jim Thompson, to the sleek camera work, often fluidly running parallel to the actors as they flit from room to room in the internal scenes, everything contributes to the sense of inevitability that pervades the clinical preparations. But a persistent, gently percolating idea is Kubrick’s way of inviting the arbiter of truth-telling to the party as spoiler of false ambition: Human nature, you see, poisons even the best laid plans.
Early on the nature of the crime is projected and worked at from every angle; only the execution waits. Then the final day of preparations is viewed - with a calculatingly sparse voiceover narration by Art Gilmore - as each participant goes through the motions of their final arrangements. Amongst them are the corrupt cop, the weak-willed husband, the wily old veterans and the ‘good girl’ who’s waited six years for Johnny, now teasing her with a promise of the payoff of her wildest dreams.
The Killing (1956) is a wonderful film, a cinematic purist’s dream, carnivorously expanding upon a world of perennial losers, pipe-dreamers and short-fused wannabes - each one primed for their share of the take but oblivious to the cruelties of fate, ever alert and ready to deliver them to their makers.
Though a slightly bonkers Timothy Carey as the carefree, eccentric hit man and Marie Windsor as the scheming, betraying Sherry Peatty are memorably cast, it’s the imposing presence of the towering Hayden who strikes the most meaningful chord. There’s an indefinable something about this man that ensures you can never look away once he’s on screen: the voice, the face, the stature, whatever it is, we’re impelled to stay alert to his every word, movement and gesture.
Watch him, for example, awkwardly leaning over the airport counter towards the final scene, all inverted angles and pained grimaces; despite the earlier ease and swagger, this is a man we can all relate to. In the final fatalistic moments its Johnny’s wearied, bedraggled countenance that draws our deepest pity, undeserving but as real as the first mercurial stains of Kubrick’s talent bleeding through the black and white borders of this, his first almost-great film for the world.
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