August 16, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Killing

by Vadim Rizov

The Killing

Often unfairly dismissed as a minor prelude to Stanley Kubrick's work from his attention-demanding antiwar indictment Paths of Glory onwards, 1956's The Killing finds the master imposing Big Direction on Small Ideas. Instead of the headier themes associated with Kubrick—nuclear war, Vietnam, extraterrestrial monoliths—here is an 84-minute noir, adapted from a Lionel White novel by expert nihilist Jim Thompson, confined to the bare minimum of sets and a few street exteriors. The dialogue has Thompson's characteristic mean-spirited tone: when Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor) tells her lover Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) about her meek husband George's (Elisha Cook Jr.) upcoming involvement in a robbery, he scoffs. "That meatball?" Sherry corrects him: "A meatball with gravy."

George has been recruited by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) for a racetrack robbery timed to the minute; narrator Art Gilmore (a veteran TV/radio announcer and voice-over artist who voiced FDR, among others) gives an ironically scrupulous account of the seedy undertakings. The timeline leading up to the heist is shuffled back and forth, sketching out Johnny and his associates' sad lives, most notably henpecked George's remarkably miserable marriage. A monster of open avarice, Sherry pines that she could be less selfish if only she had more comfortable and expensive surroundings. She's an awful nag, but in one of the film's most painful scenes, she confesses she hasn't been easy to live with, convincingly simulating a decent human being's early-morning guilt and resolving to do better. She's still lying.

The Killing

Two curious personas fill out the team: instead of getting a share of the $2 million payday, they're fulfilling set tasks for a flat fee and asking no questions, creating distractions that start with a racial provocation. One is chess player/wrestler Maurice, an unlikely but real-life combination: Kola Kwariani (in his only screen appearance) was a real Georgian émigré who did both professionally. He's introduced at the "Academy of Chess and Checkers," a nod to Kubrick and Kwariani's time spent hanging out in the same New York chess clubs. His role is to distract the racetrack cops with an epic fight. Launching into the bartender with the words "Hey, how about some service, you stupid-looking Irish pig," Maurice begins throwing guards over his shoulder as if in the ring.

The other contracted player is arms dealer Nikki Arane, played by veteran eye-roller/eyebrow-waggler/general scenery-chewer Timothy Carey. His job is to shoot a horse, creating more chaos. To be in place ahead of schedule, he talks his way into a parking lot run by a black attendant (James Edwards). Nikki treats him as an equal, a fellow combat veteran with a leg injury, and the man keeps returning to express his gratitude. When it's time to kill the steed, the gunman tosses out a racial slur without thinking, the quickest no-consequences way to drive the guard away. In a neat twist on the unwritten movie rule that the black guy is always the first to die, here it's the casual racist who succumbs first.

The Killing

Most of the sets are plywood-cheap and bare; Kubrick and cinematographer Lucien Ballard's camera shrewdly and dizzingly races past the walls, turning them into vertical blips. Characters are often shot from disconcerting angles in harsh black-and-white. Veteran bit player Elisha Cook Jr.'s head looks more freakishly outsized than usual, while Carey is framed from below on a shooting range with two arrow signs on either side of his head, suggesting how crazy he is on top of Carey’s unpredictably tic-ridden performance. (At certain points, the heavy-lidded actor looks like he's either about to explode or slip into a heroin stupor.) It's a showy film that's staggering to watch despite its threadbare appearance, grounded by hypnotically offbeat performances at the margins.

Jim Thompson's novels have often been adapted with various degrees of fidelity, but while The Killing originates from another man's fiction, the beady-eyed dialogue and fatalistic tone convey Thompson nearly undiluted. Just before dying, a character laments her sorry life as "a bad joke without a punch line," which could be true of his novels-turned-films like The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me. Thompson had literary ambitions besides writing excellent crime patter, and Kwariani is granted a lengthy, unprompted speech about how life demands that men act as "the perfect mediocrity," that artists and cancer are the same thing to society at large, and that the masses root for their heroes to be destroyed at their peak: a classic frustrated-writer rant, delivered with the overlay of an immigrant survivor's authority. The film's title refers both to the robbery's haul and the inevitable violent fallout; the final shot's the only gag that doesn't end in a sudden death. (Run, Hayden's girlfriend tells him. He shrugs: "What's the difference?") The devastating ending is the first fully realized in Kubrick's career, and remains no less striking for its smaller scale than for the masterworks it preceded. In the following year's Paths of Glory, a whole platoon of World War I soldiers are sent to their presumable front-line death at the end; here, the same tragic force is delivered in a single man's quiet surrender to the law.

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Posted by ahillis at August 16, 2011 1:17 PM