The Killing, 1956

Very entertaining late film noir. There’s plenty of good performances, snappy pacing and dialogue, and some very effective cinematography. Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor are especially memorable. The Killing has the palpable noir atmosphere of troubled characters in a hostile world. I just wish that Kubrick hadn’t chopped up his exposition with the non-linear plot.

I didn’t mind the narrator, but the effect of the multiple points-of-view is a lot of repetitious scenes. The start of the crucial seventh race was shown three times, and the fight scene twice. The result just looks like poor editing. It might be interesting to see different characters’ perspectives on the same incidents, but we’re not really getting that, other than some different camera angles. It would’ve been better to use foreshadowing. Maybe start with the gunman in the parking lot, and the actual shooting of the horse; then start at the beginning. Better yet, start with the haunting scene of the dying Elisha Cook returning home to a frosty reception, then go back to Stirling Hayden plotting the heist.

The plot distracts from the characters and their interaction. Each of the criminals has something hanging over his head; the cop hunted by the loan shark, the bartender trying to care for his invalid wife, Cook’s character George dealing with his loose-cannon wife (Marie Windsor’s Sherry), Johnny (Hayden) wanting to make his wife happy…As other reviewers have pointed out, there’s an abiding existential fear.

The heist is anticipated as a desperate throw of the dice that simultaneously has the power to ruin or uplift. George is by far the most compromised, and therefore the most anxious. His wife’s betrayal ultimately dooms them all; she’s represents the superficial hedonism that underlies the criminal mentality. Her counterpoint is Colleen Gray’s Fay, Johnny’s innocent, devoted wife. She almost doesn’t belong with this host of unsavory characters. Maurice (Kola Kwarain) is just a plain odd-ball, but he’s supposed to be a distraction, and, somewhat comically, he succeeds very well. His bit stands as a juxtaposition to the overall dismal backdrop.

We see Sherry and Val planning their double-crossing in a creepy scene with their faces illuminated by the open top of the lampshade, while the rest of the space is shrouded in darkness. The actual heist plotting is in another dimly lit room, closing the guys into a confined space. Easily the best scene is at George’s place after he barely escapes from the shootout. Noir merges into straight horror, as his bullet-riddled body stumbles in, zombie-like, ghastly in the darkness. His alienation is complete, Sherry treating him like an intruding cockroach. In his only assertive act, he manages to shoot her before collapsing.

Realistically, the heist doesn’t come off without a lot of distractions: the gunman is distracted by the well-meaning lot attendant, the cop by a lady pleading for help, Johnny is delayed by traffic, etc. The role of chance is inescapable; by trying to fit the world into a scheme that can be controlled, they leave themselves wide-open. The ending most vividly points this out. That a silly little dog can trigger a chain reaction leading to Johnny and Fay’s fortune disappearing–in a whirlwind on a runway–dramatically caps off a story about the futility of gambling on a sure-thing.

It’s entirely fitting that the heist targets a gambling enterprise. There’s a bit too much focusing on that overloaded suitcase though. Why doesn’t Johnny get a decent one with good locks? And why argue with the airline staff about taking it as a carry-on? He could have put the loot into two or more smaller bags, at least one of which would’ve been ok to take into the cabin. All he succeeds in doing is drawing attention to himself and the huge suitcase.

Uniquely for this genre, the very end is quiet; Johnny just gives up. He realizes he’s lost his gamble with fate; it’s not worth it to sacrifice himself, and endanger Fay needlessly. It’s a tragic moment, but at least it’s not the pathetic end the others face. Thanks to the quick pacing, we’re spared the mundane details explaining how the police tracked Johnny to the airport. It’s interesting that no ‘outsiders’ (police or citizens) get seriously hurt. It’s as though the criminals remain in their own world; try as they might, they can’t break out. 8/10.

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