And the moral is: don’t shoot horses. Johnny Clay being none too bright doesn’t help matters either, of course, but it’s abundantly clear his ultimate failure is down to the animal kingdom exacting revenge for the wanton destruction of one of their kind. Stanley Kubrick was not, however, an ardent vegetarian (indeed, it seems his preferred dish while making The Shining was – human-rich – Big Macs). The Killing finds the director’s talents coming together, after a couple of very variable try-outs, and it remains a gripping, no-nonsense heist movie, one with a particularly caustic sense of humour.
The animals bit, though. One must retrospectively assume Davey has a happy ending in Killer’s Kiss because he diligently leaves instructions to feed his fish. In The Killing, taking out gee-gee Red Lightning at the race track is intrinsic to the plan (Kubrick apparently demanded so many takes of the horse race that a horse did die. At least he didn’t starve it, I guess, per Gilliam).
The guy Johnny pays to do it (Timothy Carey’s Nikki) is tending a puppy when the former visits, so he presumably doesn’t relish the deed (he does seem somewhat of a loose cannon, though). When doormat husband George (Elisha Cook Jr) finally has at his unconscionably heartless wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), it’s only their parrot who comes out smelling of roses. And when Johnny (“Where’s Johnny?” George asks earlier, perhaps anticipating Jack in The Shining) attempts to board a flight with the cash in an overstuffed suitcase, his plans are foiled by one particularly excitable dog getting in the way of the luggage cart at a crucial moment.
Johnny: Yeah. Like the man said “Life is like a glass of tea”. Huh?
The heist could have been better planned too, of course. As the very likeable Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani, a professional wrestler and chess player, both of which are in evidence here, along with being exceedingly hirsute, all below the neckline) tells Johnny, the latter isn’t too bright. There are so many ducks that need to be in a row in the planning, it’s a miracle the operation goes as smoothly as it does. The whole “shoot the horse from a car pack via a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight” is tenuous enough (the touch of the racial slur delivered at James Edwards’ carpark attendant is a savvy bit of business, but it’s somewhat confounding that Nikki’s action is to be done in broad daylight, with cars all around. It’s no wonder a cop appeared seconds after the act).
Then there’s the sheer number of parties involved, the ones working at the track being particularly suspect. Johnny should have called the whole thing off as soon as he saw George had divulged details to his cheating wife (both Cook Jr and Windsor are perfectly mismatched in juicy roles; the screenplay was adapted by Kubrick from Lionel White’s Clean Break, but Jim Thompson is credited with the hard-boiled dialogue). As for things going south when Sherry’s bit on the side shows up (Vince Edwards’ Val), Johnny now has all the loot and looks like the biggest doofus going for thinking he could get that suitcase in the cabin (perhaps he doesn’t fly much, what with having been inside). Worse still is his method of transferring the cash from the holdall. A little finessing, and the calamity might have been avoided.
And yes, the accident with the case is a kind of cheesy “that’s justice” moment, but it’s Johnny’s supremely resigned “Yeah… what’s the difference?” as Fay (Coleen Gray) urges him to make tracks from the oncoming airport cops that really sells the climax. Crucial to the picture’s true-crime approach is Art Gilmore’s narration, suggesting a dramatised documentary. Of course, if you’ve seen Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, where Sherman McCoy’s life story is accounted for in similar tones, it’s impossible not hear Gilmore as lightly parodying events. Per IMDB’s trivia, the narration was a studio diktat Kubrick hated, and he thus imbued it would much false or mistaken detail…
It’s interesting that the picture was a critical but not commercial hit, this, three movies into the director’s career. It took MGM, rather than the discontented UA to see his potential (UA put up some of the cash; yet again, a family member called on to finance a Kubrick production would go wanting, but this time, it was producer James B Harris’ dad, and it was just a loan). Hollywood rapist Kirk Douglas would secure his services for the instant classic Paths of Glory. Roger Ebert asked (in 2012) “Seeing it without his credit, would you guess it was Kubrick?” and there’s admittedly a no-nonsense approach here that seems about getting a job done and doing so to maximum effect, rather than imbuing the proceedings with pregnant subtext.
The Thompson dialogue is readily evident, with such gems as Johnny threatening Sherry that he won’t kill her, he’ll “just slap that pretty face into hamburger meat, that’s all”. The philosophical exchange (well, more discourse) from Maurice is most resonant, though, and suggests the kind of mission statement surely appreciated by the likes of Scorsese, Coppola and Tarantino when he compares gangsters and artists and says they’re alike in spurning mediocrity: “Individuality is a monster and it must be strangled in its cradle to make our friends feel comfortable”. The reserviced clown mask will later find favour in various vehicles including Point Break and Killing Zoe.
Marvin: Wouldn’t it be great if we could just go away, the two of us… and let the old world take a couple of turns and have a chance to take stock of things? It can be pretty serious and terrible…particularly if it’s not the right person. Getting married, I mean.
Marvin wanting to run away with Johnny (whom he sees as a son!!) is rather odd, to the extent that this is, obviously, a ’50s American movie. One could extend a thematic line to Lolita, if one so wished, or conversely to the way being in the joint changes one per Thompson’s The Getaway (McQueen needs some McGraw to get over whatever prison life did to his essential manliness). Either way, can you imagine such an exchange in a ’90s Tarantino crime flick? I guess Ordell did wax lyrical about how Louis’ “ass used to be beautiful”. At any rate, Marvin appears to respond to Johnny’s gentle rebuff by getting thoroughly pished.
Pauline Kael applauded The Killing’s “fast, incisive cutting; a nervous, edgy style; and furtive little touches of characterisation”. Geoff Andrew, in contrast to Ebert, considered the picture recognisably Kubrickian in its “mechanistic coldness and its vision of human endeavour undone by greed and deceit”. Andrew, somewhat reticent when it comes to Kubrick adulation, considered it heartless – but look at Mike and Ruthie – yet more satisfying than his more acclaimed later work due to the “lack of bombastic pretensions and to the style fitting the subject matter”. Andrew particularly applauds the tricksy, explicatory time structure – something Tarantino obviously took on in his influences, albeit with Pulp Fiction rather than the oft-cited Reservoir Dogs – but it has to be admitted that such elements seem like second nature now.
Judi Kearns, in her encompassing Kubrick analyses, identified “a certain restraint” in the picture that made it less easy to consider within his broader oeuvre (she notes the reference to George as Pagliacci, making much of this in her reading, but the most obvious visual reference is Johnny’s clown mask). She questions the supposed intentionality of narrational errors and notes “Johnny is the star of the film but George and Sherry are the engine that propels it forward”. I’m unconvinced by her summarising observation that Johnny is “frozen by guilt” at the end. My feeling is it’s a case of “Ah, sod it. What’s the use? The fates are against me”. But as she says, it’s really because Maurice is right: Johnny’s simply not too bright. Which means he isn’t bright enough to feel guilt either.
One might suggest The Killing should be filed more appropriately with Spartacus, wherein Kubrick’s personality is rather sublimated to the imprimatur of the picture itself. But if he was a gun for hire with Spartacus, he’s consciously attempting to deliver something he knows will have cachet here. It’s unsurprising someone recognised his flair, even if it wasn’t the studio he was working for at the time.