Kubrick: The Killing (1956)

Stanley Kubrick’s third film is still one of the greatest heist films ever made – a tightly and tautly plotted study of a group of men, led by Johnny Clay, played by Sterling Hayden, who set out to rob a racetrack in an unnamed American town. The first stage in the heist involves Nikki Arane, a sharpshooter played by Timothy Carey, shooting a horse in a major race. Then Maurice Oboukhoff, a professional wrestler played by Kola Kwariani, will start a fight at the bar, causing a second source of distraction as Mike O’Reilly, a track bartender played by Joe Sawyer, and George Peatty, a track teller played by Elisha Cook Jr., get access to the area where the money is stored. At the same time, however, Peatty’s wife Sherry, played by Marie Windsor, learns about the heist, and plans to perform a second heist of her own, arranging with her lover Val Cannon, played by Vince Edwards, to lay in wait for the men when they return. Throughout it all, Johnny stays in regular contact with his lover Fay, played by Colleen Gray, since the two of them are planning to leave the country when the heist is completed.

For the most part, however, The Killing isn’t driven by character or even narrative, but by pace, as the dialogue effectively moves at a screwball speed, accelerating through one breakneck exchange after another, typically scored to back-to-back jazz that intensifies into a ticking clock as the heist approaches. Interestingly, the screenplay was credited to Kubrick, but the dialogue to Jim Thompson, and the two do indeed start to dissociate as the heist approaches, as Kubrick resorts more and more to voiceovers, or else pairs Thompson’s script back to a bare minimum, as the pace of the film starts to overtake the rate of regular human speech. Just as the first stage in the heist involves shooting a speeding horse, so Kubrick starts with a supersonic tracking-shot of a horse race, and then deflects this energy into the pace of the film as a whole. This constant movement is needed to orchestrate the moving pieces of the heist, since the money is distributed across the racetrack for most of the day, only converging on a single room for a brief period before it is collected by armoured car. Organising the heist around that moment means navigating the first of many self-contained cerebral spaces in Kubrick’s career, turning the racetrack into the most distant ancestor of the war room of Dr. Strangelove, the spaceship in 2001, and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

Treating the heist as a study in pace allows Kubrick to introduce a new formalism into his directorial repertoire, using the logistics of the heist to test his own logistical powers as director, and treating his characters like the games played at the Academy of Chess and Checkers, where some of the critical early connections between heist participants unfold. Rather than start from character or story, Kubrick folds them in as he goes, evoking a late noir sensibility in which the isolated perspective of the private eye is no longer sufficient to encompass the city, no matter how mobile or perceptive it might be. Instead, the more dispersed urban spaces of The Killing – an amorphous exurbia somewhere between city and suburb – require a more elastic collective to process them, albeit a collective that, like the private eye, exists right at the shifting margins of the law. As a result, the crew here include both career criminals and men employed in various ways to protect the stadium from career criminals. Together, they ensure that there is nothing in the film apart from the heist – or conversely, that every moment we see is ultimately woven back into the fabric of the heist. 

To that end, Kubruck fuses the centrifugal first act and centripetal third act of more conventional heist films, starting with the key coordinates of the heist and then moving backwards and forwards between them, until all the characters seem to be occupying a standing wave, caught between their preparations for the heist and their projections of how they will live and feel after it. Accordingly, Kubrick favours a distinctive camera swivel pan that typically follows a character to one side of the screen, and then moves back with them as they retrace their steps, much as the film as a whole hangs in the balance between the hours before and after the heist. This tendency only intensifies as the heist “arrives,” since the last stages of preparation see all the characters repeating each others’ trajectories, both real and projected, until the heist seems, in some very real sense, to have already taken place.

The result is a compressed temporality that stands in for regular emotional connection – enhanced by the increasingly frantic voicover, which quickly resembles a news broadcast that has been ripped from the headlines, as if Kubrick were trying to invest his film with the urgency and immediacy of the newsreels that preceded it. When we do finally get to the heist, this voiceover is conflated with the voice coming out of the microphones at the racetrack, which are themselves used as the main anchoring shots as Kubruck moves between scenes at the racetrack and scenes on its periphery, and scenes that are clearly shot on location and scenes that are clearly shot on sound stages. Deflected into the omniscient voiceover, and then to the panoptic speakers at the racetrack, this intensified temporality is offered to us as the only way to render the dispersed flow of cash across the racetrack visible, tangible and acquirable. In fact, the heist participants seem assured that making the flow of cash visible will automatically make it acquirable, making the heist a perceptual project above all else.

Critically, this perceptual augmentation is only available to the heist members as a group, and only available to Kubrick’s camera insofar as it identifies with this group, moving restlessly from character to character, and not even dwelling too emphatically on Johnny. By the time we arrive at the heist, the pace has accelerated so dramatically, and the scenes shrunk so drastically, that the remainder of the film plays out as a montage sequence – an even more remarkable gesture in that the first part of the heist never comes off, throwing this montage sequence into an even more breakneck speed as the participants all try to compensate for it. In order for everything to go to plan, Nikki, the sharpshooter, has to follow Kubrick’s opening tracking-shot of the speeding horses by also “shooting” the lead runner. For a moment, he occupies his role well, settling into a conversation with an unnamed black parking attendant, played by James Edwards – the only unnamed character in the film – that is far more naturalistic than was common in Hollywood at this time. However, at the very moment where the parking attendant seems set to reveal his name, Nikki no longer needs him to legitimize his presence by the side of the track, and so disparagingly refers to him as a “n—-r,’ at which point the man parodically reverts to Hollywood “black” lexicon and retreats back to his post.

Before he does so, however, the parking attendant forgets to pick up a horseshoe that he left Nikki for good luck – and it is this horseshoe that sends everything else in the film awry. No surprise, then, that Kubrick returns multiple times to this split-second before Nikki misses the shot, as if coginisant that even the most intensified temporality, and even the most totalizing flow of capital across the racetrack and beyond, is impotent when the camera’s omniscience is defined by excluding people on the basis of race. You might say that the heist is undone by its own whiteness, or its characterisation of perceptual omniscience as a white attribute – and that the film itself comes undone in the kinetic disarray and acceleration of the third act. By returning, time and again, to the moment before Nikki misses the horse, Kubrick suggests a literal blind spot in his own ability to “shoot” the heist into fruition, ultimately using the heist to evoke a fissure in the supposedly seamless mediation of the Hollywood studio system.  

Rather than simply depict a heist, then, The Killing performs the constitutive incompletion and insatiable iterability of the heist genre itself, setting a challenge that even the most experimental of American heist films has never quite addressed since. In the incredible finale, Kubrick’s to-and-fro swivel pans balloon out into an entire sequence, as Johnny and Fay arrive at the airport, but are forced to leave again, after almost missing their plane in an attempt to waive baggage regulations and carry their suitcase of cash on the flight. That to-and-fro over the luggage only delays the necessity of storing it in the hold – a delay that causes it to topple off the baggage cart and burst open due to a wayward dog that wouldn’t have proven a problem if the couple had just booked it through sooner. As the cash spills onto the tarmac, and is spun out by the plane propeller, we’re returned to the chaotic capital that the heist was designed to contain and forestall – or returned even further back, to a vortical capitalist state that no heist can ever hope to assuage so long as it remains indebted to the fantasies of omniscience that the film has demolished. Caught in that liminal space, all Kubrick can do is occupy his own swivel-pan, which he does by following the couple as they try to hail a pair of cabs that curve away from them, stranding us on the very cusp of the airport, between fight and flight, as the final credit comes up before this swivelling to-and-fro can settle or stabilise.

About Billy Stevenson (929 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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