Criterion peddles Kubrick’s noir cycle: The Killing **** & Killer’s Kiss ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2011)

“I like a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.”

-Stanley Kubrick

To someone unfamiliar with Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre, a cursory glance at his career stats (13 movies over a 46 year span) might prompt some head-scratching as to what all the fuss is about concerning his impact on the medium and influence on countless film makers. But you know the funny thing about great artists? They are defined by the quality of their work, not the quantity (after all, James Dean only starred in 3 feature films).

Indeed, a lot of filmmakers (alive or dead) should be so lucky to have but one entry in their entire catalog that could hold a candle to, say, a Paths of Glory. Or a Spartacus. Or a Lolita. Or Dr. Strangelove. Or something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, or Full Metal Jacket. Even Stanley Kubrick on a relatively “off” day (The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut) handily outclasses any number of titles “now playing at a theater near you” (speaking purely from a technical, artistic, or aesthetic standpoint).

Granted, when compared to his subsequent work, Kubrick’s independently financed 1953 feature debut Fear and Desire, does, I fear, leave much to be desired from a narrative standpoint; but everybody has to start somewhere. That being said, the film (shot, edited and post-synched by Kubrick and scripted by Howard O. Sackler) does feature masterfully composed shots that hint at the then 25 year-old Kubrick’s already highly developed sense of style.

Kubrick did his best to distance himself from the film, suppressing attempts at revivals (allegedly even hunting down prints and having them destroyed). A rare public screening in Los Angeles last fall has created buzz that a restoration and long-awaited DVD could be in the works; in the meantime we’re stuck with (what looks like) a 20th generation videotaped copy somebody posted on YouTube.

Some better news for Kubrick completists arrived earlier this week in the guise of Criterion’s “2-fer” reissue of the director’s second and third films (previously unavailable in Blu-ray editions), Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956). The latter film gets star billing on the package, and the former is “demoted” to one of the supplements on the disc; but it’s still great to see both of these early Kubrick gems receiving Criterion’s traditionally fastidious “clean-up” and supplementation (MGM’s SD issues have been available for several years, but were “bare bones” editions with so-so transfers). These two films also represent Kubrick’s own mini noir cycle.

The most renowned of the pair, The Killing, is considered by many to be the director’s first “proper” film, as it was his first with well-known actors and to reach a sizable audience. This was also Kubrick’s first adaptation from a book (from Lionel White’s Clean Break). Legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson was enlisted to work on the screenplay (according to a supplemental interview on the Criterion disc with poet-author Robert Polito, Thompson never forgave the director for the “screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialog by Jim Thompson” billing in the credits, when it was Thompson who allegedly contributed the lion’s share of original dialog to the script).

The Killing (nicely shot by DP Lucien Ballard, renowned in later years for his work with Sam Peckinpah) is a pulpy, taut 94-minute noir that extrapolates on the “heist gone awry” model pioneered six years earlier in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. Kubrick even nabbed one of the stars from Huston’s film, Sterling Hayden, to be his leading man.

Hayden plays the mastermind, Johnny Clay (fresh out of stir) who hatches an elaborate plan to rob the day’s receipts from a horse track. He enlists a team, including a couple of track employees (Elisha Cook, Jr. and Joe Sawyer), a wrestler (Kola Kwariani), a puppy-loving hit man (oddball character actor Timothy Carey-the John Turturro of his day) and of course, the requisite “bad” cop (Ted de Corsia).

Being a cautious planner, Johnny keeps his accomplices in the dark about any details not specific to their particular assignments. Still, the plan has to go like clockwork; if any one player falters, the gig will collapse like a house of cards. However, as occurs in The Asphalt Jungle, it’s a scourge of human weaknesses (and the femme fatale of the piece, an entertainingly trashy Marie Windsor, as Elisha Cook, Jr.’s belligerent wife) that ultimately unravels the caper.

While certain venerable conventions of the heist film are faithfully adhered to in The Killing, it’s in the way Kubrick structures the narrative that sets it apart from other such genre films of the era. The initial introduction to each of the main characters, and the account of how each man’s part in the heist itself eventually plays out, are presented in a non-linear, Rashomon-style structure. Kubrick also adds a semi-documentary feel by utilizing an omniscient narrator.

Playing with the timeline to build a network narrative-style crime caper may be cliché now, but was groundbreaking in 1956 (Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is the best modern example of liberal “borrowing” from The Killing). I’m also pretty sure that Christopher Nolan was paying homage in his 2008 film The Dark Knight, which featured a heist scene with clown-masked bank robbers (in The Killing, a shotgun-wielding Sterling Hayden hides his face in a clown mask to rob the track’s loot).

It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Kubrick’s 1955 noir Killer’s Kiss as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative.

On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a neophyte at screenwriting at that time (and with hindsight being 20/20, most of his best work was borne of literary adaptations). It could be defined as simplistic (and at a 67 minute running time, plays out its plot points like, say, a weekly episode of a high-production value TV crime drama). But when you consider other elements  that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, I believe that Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s.

The film opens and closes in New York’s Penn Station, with the story’s protagonist, an anxious and furtive young boxer named Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) providing a voiced-over flashback narrative as he recounts a rather eventful and life-changing week or so in his life.

Naturally, there’s a beautiful woman involved (it’s a noir rule), and her name is Gloria (Irene Kane). In this case, she’s not a femme fatale, per se, but the quintessential “nice girl next door”. Okay, she is a private dancer, working at a 10 cents a whirl joint called “Pleasureland”. So she is a “nice girl” in the “what’s a nice girl like you doing working in a place like this?” kind of way. Davey and Gloria’s apartment windows face each other across an alleyway; we see them  checking each other out in a voyeuristic manner in some early scenes; telegraphing to the audience that sooner or later, these two will be hooking up.

It is Gloria’s boss at the nightclub, a creepy, low-rent mobster sleaze named Vincent (Frank Silvera) who brings the dark elements to her life (and to the story). The two are in a relationship, about which the much older Vincent seems more enthused than Gloria. In one particularly sordid scene, Vincent yanks Gloria off the dance floor and makes her watch one of Davey’s boxing matches on TV (he knows that he lives in Gloria’s building). The violence seems to turn Vincent on, and he begins unceremoniously pawing at the reluctant Gloria; thankfully, Kubrick quickly fades to black.

A few nights later, Davey hears a woman screaming. He sees Vincent assaulting Gloria, and dashes over to help her. Vincent also gets a good look at Davey before yanking Gloria’s shade down. By the time Davey gets to Gloria’s pad, Vincent has fled. Davey comforts her, and…you can guess the rest. Vincent’s jealously-fueled rage eventually puts their lives in great danger.

There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (or could indicate how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as an immersive time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955 (much the same way that Jules Dassin’s 1948 documentary-style noir, The Naked City preserves the NYC milieu of the late 1940s). It’s possible that Martin Scorsese may have studied this film before making Raging Bull, as there is an arresting similarity between the boxing scenes in both films, particularly in the highly stylized manner that they are photographed, lit and edited.

Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time. Several scenes are eerily prescient of his future work. A dream sequence, shown in film negative, that features a sped-up tracking shot racing dizzily through Manhattan’s skyscraper canyons, immediately calls to mind the “beyond the infinite” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Then there’s a climactic showdown between Davey and Vincent, set in a storage room full of naked store mannequins, that takes a macabre, comic turn when they start whacking each other with plastic body parts, recalling the final confrontation between Humbert and Quilty amidst the discombobulated contents of the rundown mansion in Lolita, and to some degree, the scene in Clockwork Orange in which the ultra-violent Alex bludgeons one of his hapless victims to death with a comically oversized “sculpture” of a phallus.

It’s a bit tough to follow that last bit of imagery with anything, other than to say that for Kubrick fanatics, Criterion’s new edition of these two gems is the reissue of the year!

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