As The Killing is released on Blu-ray, Yasmeen Khan reflects on Kubrick’s relationship to the genres he worked in.
One of the more obvious observations about Stanley Kubrick’s career is that he hopped from genre to genre – war, horror, science fiction, period drama, but his films’ complex relationships to their genres also make it one of the more interesting ways to approach them. It’s often said that it’s hard to find connections in his career, as if people are looking for some kind of essence of Kubrickness and not finding it. Instead, as perhaps a payoff for this perceived lack of personal auterish stamp, his films feel to us now like perfect examples of their genres – as if ‘war film’ or ‘science fiction’ are stronger categories than ‘Kubrick’. But that’s also because their existence contributes so much to how we now define said genres. The Shining (1980) may not have been a ‘typical’ horror film at the time, but its contribution to what we think constitutes ‘horror’ is now seen as enormous. It became both typical and archetypal, even when creating a new archetype. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) took science fiction, a B-movie genre, and made it epic and serious. When it was released, by all accounts, people were more bemused than impressed, but now, it’s seen as genre-redefining in the most important way. The epic scale and naturally-lit cinematography of Barry Lyndon (1975) are now part of what we think period literary adaptations are. Certainly, this doesn’t always apply – what is 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut? – but as a framework for thinking about Kubrick, it’s a useful starting place.
And Kubrick’s own starting place? His 1953 war film Fear and Desire was his first feature, following a career in photography and a few short documentary films – characteristically, he genre-hopped from the beginning – and he moved on to film noir with Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956). Both of these are included on this new Blu-ray disc from Arrow. Like his later films, they both inhabit their genre, and also redefine its terms within themselves – perhaps not to the extent of The Shining or 2001, but even at this early stage Kubrick’s film-making was concerned with both convention and innovation. He returned to war after The Killing with Paths of Glory in 1957, and never made another conventionally noir film – although, of course, you could argue that war films and film noir share common threads – themes of conflict, codes of masculinity and honour – and indeed, that these themes remained prominent throughout Kubrick’s career. Perhaps genre is incidental, rather than fundamental to what makes a Kubrick.
The Killing, based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break, tells a classic story of a heist that goes wrong. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) puts together a plan to rob the money room at a racetrack, hoping to net $2 million to share with the crew of low-level criminals and corrupt employees he recruits. The tight plot follows the conspirators through the planning and botched execution of the robbery, as character and circumstance contrive to undermine even Johnny’s exhaustively detailed scheme. We follow each characters’ story separately, and the film jumps back and forth in time to allow us to do that, retreating when needed so we can see how two characters’ journeys collide from both sides. There’s a narrator, who’s impersonal but not omniscient, whose function is to tell us where we are in these overlapping narratives. To a modern audience, the narration feels old-fashioned, perhaps unnecessary, even – its job would be done today by captions, if at all. But the dispassionate voice, describing events and setting up mysteries, is a very noir thing, and its slight unreliability is intriguing – it’s a delicate balance between plain exposition and another layer to the plot. The narration uses metaphors – jigsaw puzzle pieces, threads in fabric – to heighten the sense of complexity in what’s actually a fairly straightforward plan. Then again, it’s not just talking about the plan – it’s talking about the characters, their relationships, it’s talking about the film itself.
Indeed, what keeps you watching The Killing is the characters and their relationships. These are noir archetypes, for sure – the corrupt cop who needs money to pay his loan shark, the downtrodden husband, the seductress, the violent gunman, the man who just wants to save his sick wife – they’re walking motives wrapped up in codified characterisations. But that’s noir. The women are all classic ‘50s stereotypes, as are their relationships with the men in their lives. There’s Johnny and his impossibly naive, clingy young girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray ) – Fay, who defines herself entirely in relation to Johnny, sees herself as nothing without him, who tells him she “will always go along with whatever you say”. He, of course, seems barely interested in her. Then there’s George (Elisha Cook Junior) and his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), a pair of opposite tropes – George is so in love with Sherry, or his idea of Sherry, at any rate, that he’ll put up with any cruelty she inflicts on him. But even when Sherry is assertive, it’s in terms that are solely about how she relates to men. The way she makes her way through life is by seducing and manipulating men; the way she insults her husband is by suggesting that she can’t be bothered to shop and cook for him. When Johnny threatens to “slap her face into hamburger meat”, the other men are still quite happy to leave her alone with him. Of course, when you watch a film from the ‘50s, you make allowances for the prevailing cultural context of the time, but it’s noticeable how the film’s endemic and fundamental sexism is so normalised, when its one incident of racism is treated as shocking and egregious.
The film certainly looks noir – craggy faces, deep shadows – and The Killing is a remarkably accomplished film for such a new director, but as Michel Ciment points out in a featurette included on the disc, it’s no Citizen Kane. It’s a film people look at as ‘early’, and it’s discussed in terms of Kubrick’s ‘development’, a stage in a learning process, perhaps. Maybe this also has to do with its genre – film noir had arguably already reached its peak in the 1940s, and The Killing didn’t reinvent it the way 2001 did for science fiction. Like a lot of noir, The Killing is like a vaguely nutritious snack – a plotsy, chewy narrative, complex in detail but with a built in simplicity of morals. The noir aesthetic remains recognisable, as if its stability is stronger than artistic innovation, But this is only something we know now, with the benefit of hindsight. The film did distil something of the essence of noir, in its look and its plot, and its non-linear narrative following the paths of the different characters like a web, rather than a straight line, was innovative (Tarantino claims it was an important influence on 1992’s Reservoir Dogs). But how important being ‘film noir’ is to The Killing is an interesting question, even in terms of the film itself rather than its position as an early film by an important director.
This disc also includes Killer’s Kiss, which makes a good companion piece: it’s an atmospheric, moody, dreamy story of a boxer with problems and the woman he wants to rescue. There’s a background of sibling rivalry, jealousy, sickness and broken dreams – it’s a nicely morally ambiguous story, not in terms of plot, necessarily, but of character. The dramatic, atmospheric camerawork makes it a DVD extra worth watching.
Other extras on the disc include interviews with Michel Ciment and Ben Wheatley, and it comes with a nicely illustrated booklet containing a comprehensive history of both films. Overall, it’s a neat little package that any noir fan – or Kubrick fan – will appreciate.
The Killing has been released on Blu-Ray by Arrow Films and is out now.