The completist and the Kubrick enthusiast in me could never quite figure out why I overlook The Killing when in one glorious week about 5 or 6 years ago I watched every single film Stanley Kubrick had ever made. Yes, even Fear and Desire, but not The Killing. Over the years, I've gone back to most of them several times but this one had always slipped under my radar. Until today that is.
It's a strange experience, watching for the first time a film by a director so widely admired as to be not just familiar to all cinephiles, but almost synonymous with cinema itself; all the more curious for the fact that The Killing came so early in the legendary auteur's career. In retrospect, it can be viewed as an early signifier of everything that came to embody his peculiar artistic vision, but also as a stand-alone piece far removed from the rest of his filmography. Of course, anyone who's familiar with the director's work knows that despite the presence of many threads that sew his work into a uniform oeuvre - the formal rigor, the fastidiously constructed narratives, the music, the all-encompassing conformity to his vision of everyone involved - every single one of his films has an identity fully of its own. He tackled as wide a range of themes and genres as possible within his filmography, but for the most part, his films didn't bend to the rules of those genres. His presence behind the camera dominated everything about each film. But even for a director of his ilk, The Killing is distinct enough to be mistaken for another filmmaker's work. It possesses neither the formal rigidity of his later films nor their impenetrable characters that can be carefully observed but not intimately immersed in.
Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is a criminal who wants to cash in big on one last job before he retires and takes his wife away for good. The target of the heist is the money room at the back of a horse-racing track on the day of the race. To assist him in carrying out the job, Clay hires an array of petty criminals: a corrupt cop, a sharpshooter, a chess-playing wrestler - and Kubrick being Kubrick, he found the only chess-playing wrestler in America, Kola Kwariani, to play that chess-playing wrestler. The crime is executed to perfection but for the fact that George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) lets slip to his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) prior to the event the details of it. Unbeknownst to him, Sherry has been having affair with a younger man whom she lets in on the plot so they can take off with George's share of the heist.
Sherry is the classic femme fatale. Her coquettish demeanor and condescension towards George portend some level of infidelity that later proves to be true both sexually and financially. Windsor portrays this woman superbly, with a false façade of confidence that betrays an undercurrent of nervous insecurity to the audience but not to the men around her. Hayden's performance isn't entirely unlike Windsor's. He is at his most vulnerable and, barring Johnny Guitar, also at his very best. He's a brooding presence, his confidence earned by meticulous planning and an imposing figure. Yet, there's a sadness in his look that makes the audience doubt him as he does himself, as if Johnny Clay knows deep at heart that everything will go awry in the end. This sort of duality between physique and character, almost like damaged masculinity, is a staple of Hayden's best performances and this one is no exception.
Indeed, everything does go wrong just before the finish line, not when Sherry challenges the film's male dominion, but when a small dog uncovers the truth by accident. Johnny's accomplices all take care of each other when Sherry's partner bursts into their hideout and the ensuing shootout obliterates the whole posse. But Johnny arrives late to their post-heist meeting and he survives the whole affair, therefore claiming the entire booty and packing it in a suitcase to take off with his wife. It's in the airport, as the luggage is being carried to the plane, that a small dog runs on the tarmac and sends the carrier adrift. When the suitcase falls on the ground and pops open, 2 million dollars worth of cash dance in the wind right in front of Johnny's eyes, but he appears anything but angered. He's shocked and disheartened but not furious. His look of disappointment confirms the suspicion he subconsciously maintained all along. And for the audience, too, his ever-present disbelief in the heist is confirmed in the penultimate shot of the film, when he surrenders to the law without resistance.
I can't help but view this ending as a reflection on Kubrick's own work ethic and the collaborative nature of filmmaking. Is he trying to reiterate for the audience just how much effort goes into getting his films made under such exhaustive control? Like the central heist, a film can be conscientiously mapped out and executed accordingly, but it can also come apart as easily with an unexpected mishap. Knowingly or otherwise, Kubrick reminds us cheekily that the construct of cinema shares quite a lot with this robbery. Unlike the crime, however, Kubrick never allowed for even one such mishap in a career that spanned nearly five decades.