Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—K is For

The Killing

      I apologize to the Tarantino loyalists, but Kill Bill (Vol. 1 or 2) is not my "K" film. I look at it from two angles. For one, I'll make it up to Tarantino when we get to "P." And secondly, if I can neglect both King Kong (1933), which doesn't hold up to modern standards despite its landmark significance, as a stunning example of stop-motion animation, and an influential monster-adventure epic, and The King of Comedy—well, because I've already extensively written about that—then I can shed no contrition for dismissing Tarantino's tremendous two-part action thriller. 
      Instead, I elect Stanley Kubrick's exceptional film noir The Killing, mainly because Kubrick's yet to be represented on my list (though he's got many strong contenders at S, thus like Spielberg and Coppola, he may be a repeat champion). Not to mention the fact that I must make it up to the brilliant auteur, for I sheepishly neglected to include A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon or Full Metal Jacket. These omissions stir up great sadness. Kubrick is truly one of the best, and among my favorite directors of all-time. At least now, the Great Alphabet will recognize his immense talent. The irony behind only his second feature film being the impetus for his first appearance on my alphabetic countdown....well, that's just delightfully apropos.
      The Killing traces the detailed criminal plans of ex-convict Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden aka Capt. McCluskey in The Godfather), as he masterminds a race-track heist. Following in the footsteps of Inception's Cobb and The Town's Doug MacRay (complements of Source Code technology, I kid of course), this plan represents Clay's last big heist.  He confesses these plans to his soon-to-be wife Fay (Colleen Gray). He organizes a gang of accomplices whose job is to help Clay rob $2,000,000 from a race track; the whole risk worth the reward routine, though by today's standards, $2,000,000, in the ignominious words of Mike Tyson, is a paltry sum. Clay, however, doesn't account for all potential hazards. The first real flaw materializes when Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor), the wife of one of the gang members, confides to her boyfriend Val Cannon about the opportune heist. Ultimately, the robbery is completed (you didn't think it got any better than the Ocean gang), and the motley crew of criminals retreats to a hideout. But as the saying goes, it can't be this easy...oh wait, all hell breaks loose. 

      Without expressing any shroud of hyperbole, Stanley Kubrick is a filmmaking genius. And The Killing is arguably, one of his greatest dramatic works. Even at the outset, Kubrick owned the crime genre, masterminding a film that mixed nuanced touches of existentialism, suspense, and adventure together with masterful strokes of a corrupting tone, rhythmic narration, blistering dialogue, and an inventive visual style. Kill Bill may not be my K film, but if Quentin Tarantino was authoring this post, it still wouldn't be. His choice would be The Killing. Why? Well Tarantino cites Kubrick's crime caper as his single greatest influence for his breakthrough film Reservoir Dogs. Reservoir Dogs imitates Kubrick's non-linear narrative structure (retelling the events of the same day), as well as the planning of the robbery (and violent consequences), and the idea of the multiple character perspectives. Both films are masterpieces in their own right, though Kubrick's film is more impressive in my estimation because he introduced these techniques to Tarantino.
       Sterling Hayden gives a strong performance, calling to memory his brilliant work on The Asphalt Jungle. He captains the disposition of a restrained but unyielding leader. His character, Johnny Clay, is all too familiar with the dangers of the criminal world. Elisha Cook gives a sentimental performance, but Marie Windsor's face time is more prominent. As the two-timer, she inherits that tasteless, brassy and decorative demeanor. As far as wretched characters go, she is completely unredeemable. Kolo Kwarian, as a wrestler who aids in the hold-up and Tim Carey, as a demented gunman, contribute realistic characterizations. The rest of the ensemble cast rounds out quite nicely.
      Considered one of the foremost film noirs for its plotting and cinematographic mechanisms (the lighting, shadows, and unconventional camera set ups), The Killing remains one of Kubrick's most important films. If not for its critical success, perhaps MGM doesn't open up its book of properties to the young and hungry director. We'll forever be grateful that they did because Kubrick's next film, Paths of Glory became one of the most refreshingly honest looks at World War much so, that Steven Spielberg names it one of his favorite Kubrick films (keeping that Spielberg theme going strong from I-K). 
      When one evaluates the film legacy of Kubrick, very few tend to remember this great little gem. 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange are forever linked to the name of Kubrick. It's certainly not Kubrick's best film—its a bit campy at times in terms of melodramatics and over-the-top dialogue—but it is one that points to his future legacy as a prodigious auteur. Kubrick may have relinquished a modicum of control on the film, for he was still an unproven commodity, but his deft touches of an unrelenting fascination with the story of life, and his signature widescreen and tracking shots, foreshadowed his brilliance. It brought Kubrick to the eyes of the world, and more importantly, prolific actor Kirk Douglas (who stole the 2011 Oscars with his old man wit). Douglas was so impressed by The Killing that he personally requested to work with him (Paths of Glory and Spartacus). Ultimately, Kubrick would gain final cut (not with The Killing though), and with subsequent films, he would masterfully demonstrate his unique interpretation of life. Soon, he would perfect it.

*Official trailer for the movie that helped inspire Reservoir Dogs, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing


  1. Yep, a great flick. Good review too.
    Moody Writing

  2. Never heard of this film, nor of the actors, but it does seem like your kind of flick :)

  3. Great, great movie. The first time I saw this, I caught it on a late night after I'd gotten back from God only knows where and I couldn't sleep. I was enthralled and found myself talking to the screen, I was that invested in the story. The intensity was off the charts. Yeah, the dialogue was a little cheesy at times, but not so much that it took away from the story.

    Paths to Glory is my favorite Kubrick film and I am so happy you mentioned it. The Killing and Paths so often get overlooked when there's a discussion of the man's epic work.

  4. I saw this back when I was going through my Kubrick phase about ten years ago. Great film, made even more so by the fact that -- though I may be remembering this wrong -- more people get shot in the shootout scene than there are shots fired. Yet another excellent choice.

  5. I've never seen this, but I'll put it on my list. I'll start hitting your site before Roger Ebert's when I need a good review. :)

  6. Am not up on films, but think it's great you're using your thoughts on them for A to Z!

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog.

    Happy reviewing,

  7. Ah, you are a man to be reckoned with! GREAT choice for K, and as usual superb contender films and reasons why they aren't the post. I saw The Killing during one of my annual trips to visit my father, and the fact that I can peg where and when I saw this to that level shows how much it impressed me. Kubrick may have been a perfectionist nutter - I worked with Matthew Modine, and he told me they worked for more than two weeks on the sequence in Full Metal Jacket where they're under fire and move from one piece of cover to another - but the results onscreen are worth it. He was a genius - and what is sometimes viewed as crazy numbers of takes (was it eighty three for Scatman's walk from the Sno-Cat into the Overlook?)but there's obviously magic that only someone like Kubrick can see when every element in a shot comes together perfectly - and we can't begrudge him having it done over and over until he sees that magic. Great post! And a PS - Wow, do I love Timothy Carey! Sinister as all get out here - screamingly funny in his Frankie and Annette Beach movie appearances - one of my favorite character actors of all time! Cheers!

  8. Always knew I would experience a great film with Kubrick. Good post.

  9. @ mooderino

    Thanks! And I appreciate it you stopping by.

    @ Dezmond

    You are missing out my friend! This is an absolute classic. I know it may not be your bread and butter film, but it's still worth your time at some point! You will not be disappointed!

    @ Melissa

    Thank you! The film definitely exudes that Kubrick "intensity." You can't even bear to sneeze for fear of missing something.

    And you reminded me that I needed to see Paths of Glory and I am so glad you did. Friggen unbelievable. Thanks for that!

  10. @ Nate

    Terrific! We all need that "Kubrick Phase." It makes us appreciate film so much more. I don't remember that shootout scene vividly. I'll have to go back and look, but for now, I'll take your word for it. If true, who'd ever think that Kubrick would be the victim of discontinuity. Astounding. He's the ultimate perfectionist!

    @ Lisa

    Awww, that is one of the nicest things I've heard (in this case, written)! Ebert is a figure to be admired in the film criticism world, and someone I deeply respect. I'll hold you to that bold complement! Thanks!

    @ Monti

    You're welcome! Thanks for doing the same. Stop by anytime. I'll always be talking film!

  11. @ Craig

    You are definitely the man of the thoughtful and interesting response. This is another great one!

    I'm jealous of your Modine story. That is a fascinating encounter, and I'm not the least bit surprised by his recollection.

    Not sure how many takes Scatman endured, but that number certainly strikes me as Kubrick-esque! As we know, the editing room is where his turned his endless rolls of film into a cohesive, artistic examination of life. The constant takes were the method to his madness.

    My respect for Kubrick is immense. And Tim Carey ain't too bad either. I love character actors!

    @ Susan

    He's one of the best...EVER! Thanks for the comment!

  12. Haven't seen this film, nor have I heard of it. For me, K is definitely for "Kill Bill". :)

  13. Never watched this film, thanks for the info and review.

  14. Matt, I'm such a movie nerd that I can't believe I'm just now finding you in the blog-O-sphere! (Thanks for stopping by my blog and introducing yourself, btw.)

    Kill Bill would definitely be one of my top K choices. K-PAX would be an interesting choice as well. Now that I've seen it, I'd also have to throw out 'the' King's Speech as one of the best K's of all time.

    Honestly, choosing between movies is like picking favorite children for me; it can't be done without a high level of guilt and remorse!

    Anyway, brilliant idea for A-Z, and it's really nice to meet you. Looking forward to more of your movie choices!


  15. I need to watch more film noir. Perhaps I'll start with this! Great review and thanks for the suggestion ~ :)

  16. @ Nebular

    I figured that. It's a great film. Though, your pick may change if you see this!

    @ Jaccstev

    No problem. I imagine you'll watch it at some point!

    @ E.J.

    Haha! I'm delighted to welcome you to my Movie Universe! It's great to meet another film geek!

    All great choices. And you are exactly right. I struggle with this "guilt" every time I pick a film. Inevitably, I'm leaving out many, many other films that I absolutely adore. What makes it easier for me is if I can enumerate ways as to why "said film" is more "deserving" of "another film." It's a laborious process of critical examination, as far as what I deem is most worthy. But it helps minimize the guilt.

    And you're welcome!

    @ Donea

    That's what I'm saying. There's still a ton of film noir that I've neglected. It's a work in progress. Glad I inspired you though, of sorts!

    You're welcome, and thanks!