The Killing (1956)

The Killing (1956) by Stanley Kubrick is like a graduation class for many of the best stars and tropes of the classic film noir style.

As well as a cast including many of the styles favourites, from Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook Jnr, through Marie Windsor and Jay C. Flippen, to Ted de Corsia and Joe Sawyer, The Killing is a kind of celebration of the style like no other.

It was in fact possible by 1956 to make almost consciously film noir pictures. The themes of robbery, lust and anti-social activity are there, and like some truly epic expressions of the style, there are no good people to talk of in here.

In fact possibly the only good character is the wife of one of the villains, portrayed as unwell and blind, and the reason for this man's turning to crime.

Without messing around, The Killing floats the film noir boat high on the tide of the style, and ticks boxes in all areas. The Killing is very much a movie of implicit sex and violence, straining against the Production Code with a pile of bodies at one point, and plenty semi-nude scenes of criminals in domestic settings.

Coleen Gray and Sterling Hayden in
The Killing (1956)

As in The Asphalt Jungle there is a strong thread of love and sex throughout The Killing, as we see many domestic scenes - - these are domestic scenes in criminal households though. Coleen Gray and Sterling Hayden live a fond life, but it is a life of crime - - note the wonderful beer and underwear combination that American men should only dream of. 

Elisha Cook Jnr and Marie Windsor in The Killing (1956)

For Elisha Cook Jnr and Marie Windsor's characters, there is a domestic hell from the off. It's kind of the opposite of the old 1940s trope, wherein a women is held hostage in a marriage by a man. Here the hostage is clearly the man, and it's perfectly acted out and presented with all the sex allowed and a little bit more, perhaps.

Across the board and yet keenly visible in classic film noir, women seem to be able to express much more as actors than can the men. The range of communication that takes place from second to second is astounding when broken down and considered. Looking at Marie Windsor and Vince Edwards in a short scene, it's possible to see this range in action. These are only three of the messages that Marie Windsor communicates in a short scenes in which dozens of lines of dialogue are done away with, by means of her facial expressions. It's some seriously superior femme noir from actor Marie Windsor.

Marie Windsor with Vince Edwards in The Killing (1956)

Here, actor Vince Edwards is virtually a prop in comparison. The men of course get tough in their smoke filled rooms, again reminiscent of The Asphalt Jungle, although the great trick here with noir, was always to create as much as possible with as little as possible. The expressive faces of these actors however cannot be played down, as everything here leans into their creation of this plot.

Sterling Hayden, Ted de Corsia, Elisah Cook Jnr, Jay C. Flippen in
The Killing (1956)

Jay C. Flippen was another film noir character actor and graduate of They Live by Night (1948), Intrigue (1947) and Brute Force (1947).

Jay C. Flippen in The Killing (1956)

Film noir will remain famous for all time for its dark and shadowy lighting, which creates a sense of foreboding and tension. The Killing employs this technique in many scenes, particularly those set at night.

Film noir is equally known for its non-linear narrative techniques. Film noir often employs a non-linear narrative structure, and The Killing is no exception. The film tells its story through a series of flashbacks and multiple perspectives, which adds to the suspense and confusion. Unsurprisingly The Killing was a huge influence Reservoir Dogs, which swims in the same waters, telling the story in a clever series of flashes back and forward.

Jay Adler in The Killing (1956)

Film noir is also known to make a perpetual study of criminality. Classic film noir often features criminal characters and criminal activity, and The Killing hones in on a group of men planning and executing a heist. This is a classic film noir theme not just because of the criminality, which is of obvious fascination to the genre. But this is the dark side of society, where crime is a business, and a way of life, and very much the antithesis of what the ideologies of the 1950s were seeking to achieve.

Timothy Carey and Sterling Hayden in The Killing (1956)
Note: give the psycho a puppy

Film noir also does feature that fatal figure the Femme Fatale. A key element of film noir is the presence of a seductive and manipulative woman who often leads the male protagonist astray. This may not be an attack solely on the female as an overview of the medium might suggest, but reflects the bad woman using what is at her disposal, often good looks — as verily as a male character may use violence. In The Killing, this role is filled by Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor) the girlfriend of one of the heist's organizers.

The eternal sap - - Elisha Cook Jnr in
The Killing (1956)

The eternal Italian - - Tito Vuolo greets Sterling Hayden in
The Killing (1956)

Who do you want to win? Kola Kwariani in
The Killing (1956)

Film noir at its best also presents morally ambiguous characters. You have to ask yourself who you want to win?

If Elisha Cook Jnr is a sap turning to crime at the mercy of a bitter femme fatale, should we not want this virtually harmless heel to come through? If we are looking at the heist from the viewpoint of a rational and likeable, even loving and caring criminal, then should they not get away with it? And when the antics are so brilliant and entertaining, should we not see the fact of crime paying, for what it is worth?

Noir characters are often morally ambiguous, neither entirely good nor entirely bad. The Killing is no exception, with each member of the heist team displaying their own flaws and motivations. These are indeed great rounded criminal characters, doing what it takes in the cold universe they now inhabit, a world which has turned its back on the moral and virtuous growth of civic society, and made instead a life of crime.

Film noir also specialises in fate and irony, both of which are devilishly displayed in The Killing, and throughout. Film noir often explores themes of fate and irony, with characters often meeting tragic ends. The Killing is no exception, with the heist ultimately failing due to a series of unforeseen circumstances, which are ironic, minor and drag its morally ambiguous characters to a tragic ending.

What viewers love about this late period noir is its raw and nervous style. The many small touches, like the grotesque clown mask that Sterling Hayden uses during the robbery, are fascinating and grab the attention. 

Joe Sawyer in The Killing (1956)

SPOLIER ALERT - - if you travel any further down this page you'll see the end caption to this movie, so beware. Time is manipulated and The Killing appears as if in bits and pieces, a montage of street and domestic crumminess, visiting many interesting locations and always with fascinating characters. Once a character is established, The Killing leaps backwards and picks up on another story, and ye this playing with time gets even better.

Ted de Corsia in The Killing (1956)

In fact it might never have been done before 1956, but The Killing introduces a unique way of showing several things happening at the same time. This is achieved by cutting back and fore from the start of the race, and cut with this we then see each of the gang members carrying out their own part of the heist.

This is added to with a voiceover, which brings everything together giving The Killing the odd taste of the procedural  —  in this case obviously the crime procedural. The voiceover does hold this time-jumping classic film noir together, creating the effect of being read a story as well as explaining in the authoritative tones of 1950s America, what is going on and when. Time stamps are crucially important to this narration, just as they are to the plot.  

Ted de Corsia, Joe Swayer and Jay C. Flippen
Graduation class of Film Noir 1956

This being Stanley Kubrick, there is film lore and myth aplenty surrounding The Killing. Also, this being Stanley Kubrick, the film is technically brilliant and enjoyable and just about everybody can enjoy it. 

Be warned that there is some racial language in the film that is quite surprising, and although the racist language user is killed, although not directly in punishment, it is still a shock, even though quite normalised in many locales for 1956. 

Violence and the production code - - a stack of bodies in 
The Killing (1956)

The Hollywood cinematographers' union told Kubrick that he could not be both director and cinematographer, so veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard was hired to shoot the picture. He and Kubrick often clashed during filming. On one occasion Kubrick favored a long tracking shot, with the camera close to the actors with a 25mm wide-angle lens to provide slight distortion of the image, but Ballard moved it further away and began using a 50mm lens. Kubrick sternly ordered him to put the camera back or he would be fired.

Sex and the production code - - Marie Windsor in 
The Killing (1956)

Voiceover in film noir provides exposition and background information that may not be immediately apparent in the visuals. This is often done through the use of a "hard-boiled" narrator, typically the main character, who delivers terse, laconic lines in a gritty, world-weary tone. 

In The Killing the voiceover is an authoritative news-reader style of voice, suggestive of a documentary style which does not emerge in the film itself. Through the use of voiceover, the narrator can offer insights into the motivations and inner workings of the characters, and can provide context for the events that unfold on screen.

Feeling sorry for the criminal? Sex and Violence for Elisha Cook Jnr in
The Killing (1956)

Here in The Killing, the voiceover is not used to create a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty, but used to fix certainty, regarding timing and events.

Often in classic film noir, the narrator's account of events is at odds with what is actually shown on screen, or the narrator may withhold information that is essential to understanding the story. This creates a sense of tension and suspense, and keeps the audience guessing as to what will happen next. In The Killing we are a party to a detached voice that may be the police, it may be the news, and it may by the criminals.

Coleen Gray in The Killing (1956)

There is an unexplored avenue regarding the domestic relationship between Collen Gray and Sterling Hayden in The Killing (1956). Theirs is a healthy enough relationship, premised on love, not sex, not crime and not abuse. And yet we cannot root for them, no matter how demure Coleen Gray appears to be. Theirs is still a crime family and their must be the fate of all criminals in a da movies. As the first couple of demure and positive crime, they do make an interesting pair.

Voiceover in film noir is often used to comment on the themes and ideas that the movie is exploring. Through the use of metaphors, symbols, and allegories, the narrator can provide a critical commentary on the social and political issues of the day, and can offer a bleak and pessimistic view of the human condition.

Humour in The Killing (1956)

The final shot of The Killing and the title card announcing THE END is a great joke, and worth the wait. And this in a film that contains many jokes about crime, about the American Dream, about movies, about the production codes of the time, as well as jokes about sex, and violence and the direction of cinema itself.

Voiceover narration is an essential technique in film noir, used to provide exposition, create ambiguity and tension, and comment on the themes and ideas that the movie is exploring. Through the use of a hard-boiled narrator, film noir directors are able to create a distinctive style and tone that is both gritty and poetic, and that offers an insight into political and even artistic trends in America at the time.

The Killing (1956) at Wikipedia 

No comments:

Post a Comment