Bright Lights Film Journal

Of Perfect Plans and Acts of Creation: Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing

“His plan mirrors Johnny’s, that is, pieces of the plan are known to one person: Johnny and Stanley; and not until the end do we see most of their pieces come into place.

1. It Ain’t Necessarily Noir

Many books and articles about film noir mention The Killing (1956) as representing the noir style in its last stages, as unable to hold up the noir conventions any longer because they had been played out. Yet Stanley Kubrick’s handling of the genre or style suggests that he wasn’t making a noir movie but only using its parts, the conventions of the genre. Further, he uses those conventions less to criticize or critique noir than to make a larger statement about the nature of his cinematic art.

I say above that noir is a style or genre. This aspect of a group of films between 1940 and 1958, and later with neo-noirs of the 1970s to the present, has been debated relentlessly. Not until the mid-1950s did the term “film noir” itself migrate from France into the Hollywood consciousness. The Killing is most noted and justly remembered for its overlapping and repetitive structure as it follows the heist in a non-chronological fashion. Kubrick uses this structure not only to distinguish The Killing from other heist films — most notably The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Armored Car Robbery (1950), and Kansas City Confidential (1952) — but also to meld content and narrative strategy to the film’s statement on the nature of art and creativity.

Regardless of how Kubrick perceived the noir style/genre in 1956 when he made The Killing, he was aware of something endemic to them and expressed this awareness through the casting of the characters from Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the lead, to the uncredited cops who approach him at the airport. Some of the cast, like Hayden, in The Asphalt Jungle, and Coleen Gray, in Kansas City Confidential, directly connect to a heist film and classic film noir. Colleen Gray’s role, Fay, in The Killing emulates her passive, docile wife in Kiss of Death (1947). Many of the gang Johnny collects to aid him in the heist are also veterans of some of the most prominent crime films of the previous decade: Jay C. Flippen appeared in Brute Force (1947) and They Live by Night (1948); Ted De Corsia in The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Naked City (1948) and The Big Combo (1953); Elisha Cook, Jr. in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Phantom Lady (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946); Joe Sawyer in Gilda. In smaller Killing roles, still more noir character actors come to the surface, if only for a moment: Jay Adler (Leo, the loan shark putting the squeeze on Randy), was in The Big Combo; Tito Vuolo (Joe, who rents the room to Johnny), was in Kiss of Death, T-Men (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and The Racket (1951); Dorothy Adams (Mike’s sick wife), was in Laura (1944) and He Walked by Night (1948). Even the two plainclothes cops at the airport, whom we see approaching Johnny, Charles Cain — The Dark Corner (1946), Dead Reckoning (1947) — and Robert Williams — Lady in the Lake (1947), T-Men, Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) — have noir pedigrees.

Yet the most blatant film noir element, the femme fatale, Kubrick applies as heavily as Sherry Peatty applies makeup. Marie Windsor, as Sherry, also recalls famous noirs, Force of Evil (1948) and The Narrow Margin (1952) but outdoes all of her characters combined for a scathing portrait of the ball-cutting bitch. Kubrick leaves nothing to equivocation regarding her portrayal. Those who try to make a case for Kubrick’s misogyny delight in using this film as a prime example. So fast does she betray her husband and his friends, it would be ludicrous to believe we should take her seriously, least of all as a portrait of women (or, as Sherry’s lover Val, played by Vince Edwards, might correct me, woman). The shallowness of her character is so obvious, the femme in her is so fatale, that her credibility as a character exists only abstractly: she represents all the bad females who have graced film since Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. Unsurprisingly, Kubrick ensures the disruption of the perfect plan leads squarely back to Sherry. Yet, while it is not easy to forget that Sherry cost the lives of seven people, including her own, the plan proceeds unhindered until Sebastian bolts onto the tarmac. Johnny can still get away with over a million dollars. It is never entirely clear, either, why George Peatty married Sherry. He is not, in Sherry’s words, “a handsome brute of a man.” Nor is there a question of his controlling her. Worse, he has let his wife, Sherry, know that he’s meeting some men and is apparently on to something big. In a sense, a parallel plan starts after she tells her lover, Val, about George’s secret meeting at Marv’s. Val plans to take the entire heist from Johnny and his gang, and this ghost plan will fall into greater disrepair than Johnny’s for the same reason Johnny’s plan faltered: George Peatty.

If Sherry’s an abstraction, it does not seem too great a stretch to place the other characters into a similar box. The masochistic “yin” of Sherry’s dominant “yang” is poor George (Elisha Cook Jr.), who is all the weak men who have been destroyed by women in film. In fact, Elisha Cook developed character roles extending from being slapped around in The Maltese Falcon to receiving a pistol whipping in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Weak, even very weak, but nearly always ready to wreak vengeance, he seems never smart enough to turn his back and forget it, as Sherry said he should have done before he shoots her. Referring to their marriage, Sherry mentions how George had big plans to get rich and make her life luxurious, but this does little to assuage our minds to their physical mismatch. Again, Kubrick flaunts impossibility in the form of a noir convention that challenges our “belief” in the film.

In other words, The Killing continually rolls out forms of noir stylistics, and before long we might be brave enough to say that something’s wrong. Unfortunately, critical writers or average viewers might interpret these formal revelations in the film as signs of weakness or flaws. For example, Leonard Maltin faults the film’s Dragnet-like narration, yet the narration deliberately alludes to that television show (started in 1951) and the documentary element found in films like Call Northside 777 (1948), The Naked City, and He Walks by Night. The Killing’s narrator, Art Gilmore, was a familiar voice on the screen in the 1940s and 1950s.

The layers of The Killing have a visible familiarity that undermine the seriousness of the activities we are watching. Kubrick, it seems, bares the genre/style’s visibility flagrantly as if to make the viewer self-conscious of the conventions associated with noir. The resemblance to The Asphalt Jungle cannot be overestimated. The Killing nearly begs for comparison or, at least, creates in the viewer’s mind a ready-made comparison.

Ultimately, when discussing weakness, planning, and fate in film noir, we should be aware of The Asphalt Jungle, the original methodic caper movie. It too shows a meticulously planned heist gone bad primarily through the personal weakness of the characters. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who financed the heist, betrays the gang because of crippling debts from gambling, his wife’s illness, and a mistress. The fate of another man, Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), is pinned precisely on his attraction to a few teenage girls at a diner whom he wanted to see dance. He played an extra song and, in those few extra minutes, the police arrived and arrested him. John Huston’s film wants Doc’s demise to rest on both a significant and innocuous element simultaneously, but we still understand the connection between Doc’s weakness and his capture.

By the end of The Killing, Kubrick has all but eliminated the factors (noir and others) for Johnny’s downfall. Yes indeed, it is a much crueler ironic twist than in The Asphalt Jungle, but The Killing must be set apart, the meaning of Johnny’s capture must be set apart, from earlier noirs.

Like many other film noir capers and characters, The Killing has the aura of doom represented best by human weakness and its iconography of the dead ends of desire. When Johnny Clay and his gang of amateur crooks sit around the table in Marv’s apartment, there is the hint of the inevitability of doom without our consciously understanding why these men are doomed. Darkness, blacker than the background should be, shrouds the five men as they work out the details of the robbery. Hints of Johnny’s loss of control start immediately.

Yet Kubrick subsumes the film’s own noir consciousness by creating a drama that is both unique and fascinating. Few viewers can resist being absorbed by the action, to the point of ignoring an obvious element like Sherry’s betrayal. We get caught up in the conventions of the genre, something Kubrick continued to do to his audiences until his last film. For instance, in Paths of Glory (1957), we worry about the fate of the three soldiers condemned to the firing squad. Along with the film’s hero, Colonel Dax, we want to save them and watch the generals responsible get theirs. In Dr. Strangelove (1964), we hold out hope that the world can be saved from itself (and the Generals). In 2001, within the wrappings of science fiction, we wait for the unfolding of no less than the meaning of existence. Barry Lyndon (1975) seems to promise a reworking of Tom Jones (1963); The Shining (1980), in which the horror is the banality of family life; Full Metal Jacket (1987), a “statement” about U.S. involvement in Vietnam; and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the ultimate erotica in a mainstream film. The anticipation for one aspect of a film’s meaning or purpose obscures or blinds us to the real machinations. Occasionally, the disappointments attendant to cheated expectations, as it would seem Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut did, caused many filmgoers, including some of the so-called leading critics, to abandon all hope for the films and write them off.

One way or another, Kubrick succeeds in deflecting our vision (mental and physical). For some of his films, this meant that his highly pessimistic vision of life transformed into great box office, cult status, and, ultimately, inordinate independence from the Studios. Thank God for that success! I’ve marveled at his films’ successes relative to the demands they make on the audience. For some, like Joseph Gelmis in Film Directors as Superstar (Doubleday, 1970), Kubrick’s success was grounds for suspicion, as he seemingly betrayed his artistic integrity. Whereas what happened was that despite one of the most rigorous aesthetics in the art of film (an aesthetic that does and does not have something to do with his desire for dozens of takes for scenes), he reached a wide audience. Kubrick’s aesthetic strategy in The Killing became the paradigm for all his future films. I would also argue that the absence of aesthetic motivation becomes the predominant cause for Johnny Clay’s failure to flee with the money.

2. Gangster and Artist

Many of Kubrick’s characters have been associated with literature, art, and language. Colonel Dax quotes Samuel Johnson and demonstrates verbal dexterity in the beginning of Paths of Glory. Lolita’s Humbert is a journal writer, poet, professor of Literature, and Poe devotee. Alex in A Clockwork Orange reaches orgasmic and violent heights listening to Beethoven and Rossini. Barry Lyndon buys the latest “pictures” with his wife’s wealth. Jack Torrence in The Shining writes a novel during his winter at the Overlook. Full Metal Jacket’s Private Joker is a “combat correspondent.”

Johnny Clay is directly linked to the artist when his friend Maurice speaks to him at the chess club: “[T]he gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They are admired and hero-worshiped. But there is always present an underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.”

For “masses” we can read “moviegoers,” because Maurice describes better the reality of the person watching a crime thriller, be it Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), or The Godfather (1972), as opposed to someone tuning in to the Kefauver hearings in the early fifties. Maurice prefaces his remarks noting that the mediocrity of society (the law and middle class) cannot stand to see the individual artist or a criminal succeed. From this, we can infer Kubrick’s own anticipation of the audiences who cannot tolerate an individual artist’s vision. This vision represents the artist’s caper. Yet Maurice’s remarks should not be taken at face value. Kubrick has always established some distance between himself and his protagonists, and the racetrack heist in The Killing portrays a dichotomy between the perfect planning by the criminal and an act of creation by the film director that will produce two distinct codes of action. Secondly, I doubt that very few viewers feel morally relieved when the money spins in the wind tunnel of the airplane’s engine. But that’s an essay I do not want to write now.

We could stretch the point and say that Johnny Clay resembles a director. He’s got a scenario, dreamed up in Alcatraz (maybe the original idea was Patsy’s, Joe Piano’s kid — Joe who rented the room to Johnny). Just released, Johnny immediately finds a producer, Marv Unger, who would do anything for Johnny and supplies the cash to hire a cast and extras to pull off the heist. Johnny himself hires two specialists, men who will perform certain definite duties and not be in on the grand plan. In fact, Kubrick’s career after The Killing is predicated on covering every contingency during a shooting. Miles of film and tens of thousands of takes. In 2001, the actors would know their specialized parts without knowing the overall scheme. Or he will simply have the longest continuous shooting schedule in movie history (Eyes Wide Shut). And, like Johnny, he chooses good and marginal players to execute the scenario. Controversial choices for lead characters: James Mason as Humbert; Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson for Barry and Lady Lyndon; Tom Cruise to create psychological depth in Eyes. Even here, this strategy might be part of a larger plan. Who, indeed, would suspect Marvin Unger, Mike O’Reilly, and George Peatty to pull off a two-million-dollar robbery? You might react, as Val did, and say “It’s never been done,” euphemistically meaning “You don’t do it.” The flaws embedded in casting roles might not be apparent soon enough. When Sherry Peatty gets caught listening outside Marvin’s apartment, Johnny lives with the mistake and vainly reasons with Sherry to keep her mouth shut. Maybe Eyes Wide Shut’s fourteen-month shooting schedule resulted from Kubrick trying to cajole a performance out of Tom Cruise that never comes, all the time Kubrick believing he will be able to find one and ignoring the reality.

A further point about Maurice’s remarks. The importance of his words is inversely proportional to their audibility for the masses watching the film initially. Kola Kwariani’s Russian accent and fast line recital resist any chance to comprehend what is being said. I do not know anyone, including myself, who understands him at first hearing. A 1956 audience would have had only one shot to understand him, so feebly did United Artists distribute the film. Consistent with Kubrick’s near inarticulate “artistic” statement and perhaps precocious artistic reflexivity, earlier in the film, during the first race, the name of a horse, Stanley K., is mentioned three times. We cannot hear it clearly amid the roar of the crowd and the opening narration, and that same 1956 audience would not have noticed who was the director of The Killing. This and Maurice’s words are verbal equivalents to Kubrick’s manipulation of the noir style through a heavy veil of reflexive noir references to plot and character.

As if he does not want anyone to see what he’s really doing!

This accounts for the relevance of the film’s structure, that is, the doing away with a straight chronological account. The “time” device becomes an aesthetic trump card over the crime drama and noir style/genre patterns: the director’s way of mastering or overcoming a rundown cycle of films. Ultimately, this differentiates Johnny Clay: criminal, organizer, executor, from Stanley Kubrick: artist, organizer, executor.

These small-scale audience frustrations illustrate Kubrick’s innovative playing with sound as much as with time. While Robert Altman’s use of overlapping sound offers ironic commentaries on the plot and actions of his films, Kubrick’s use of overlap creates crucial elements of suspense and tension. When Johnny proceeds into the locker room to get the gun, mask, and sack for the job, he also listens to the track announcer during the seventh race. When Red Lightning falls, the announcer’s account reaffirms the plan. Nikki (Timothy Carey) has accomplished his role. The elements of the plan are coming together: Maurice’s fight in the bar to draw the attention of the security guards; George Peatty’s nerve to unlock the door that gives Johnny access to the money room; and Nikki’s prowess with the rifle. All have given Johnny so much confidence that he will blindly throw two million dollars out a window and “know” it will land at Randy’s feet, unseen by anyone. Johnny just as confidently knows that the same sack will be standing tall on the bed in Joe Piano’s ten-dollar-a-week shack. This same confidence or belief in everything (hypothesis, implementation) resembles scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey when several space vehicle operators on the moon and the space station depend on the geometric flight patterns on the screens of their cockpits. They do not see where they land, just as Johnny does not see where the sack lands, but they land safely. Their confidence has been justified.

On the one hand, the “Stanley K.” reference implicates Kubrick in the racetrack heist. Like Clay and the high-tech engineers and astronauts of 2001, he meticulously plans for the operation to succeed. The plans are carried along by a belief in being able to calculate a successful resolution to their actions. Johnny pulls the unthinkable robbery; scientific engineers conquer nature and space; Kubrick makes an exceptionally fine and exciting motion picture. However, all of these successes become qualified. Kubrick’s film failed at the box office, seemingly for similar reasons that Johnny had failed; namely, they were done in by forces outside the plan. As for the scientist engineers, their greatest creation, infallible HAL, became a mass murderer for reasons (most likely) outside its plan of operation.

We might wonder what is the difference between Kubrick and others with their perfect plans.

3. The Difference

“Come on, Johnny, we’ve got to run.””What’s the difference?”

Why doesn’t Johnny Clay run? Johnny died as soon as the money flew from his suitcase. The whirlwind of bills above the tarmac was the remainder of Johnny’s life force. His illusion of being alive and free has been closed off. Viewers of The Killing also “die” with Johnny outside the airport. The attraction to film noir, our easy identification with the noir protagonists, is never more intense than for us watching this film. Too late to escape from identifying with Johnny’s desire to take the money and live the good life, meeting important people.

Consistent with other hidden elements — Maurice’s speech, the horse Stanley K. — the meaninglessness of Johnny Clay’s heist is obscured because we have completely identified with his desires and their subsequent frustration, all of which is ready-made by the genre demands of film noir. The unconventional mode of the narrative intensifies our interest in the success of the heist, further obscuring the true nature of what we are watching. It is as if Kubrick discovers the overwhelming power of cinema in The Killing, its manipulative power, its power to seduce the audience into a moral complicity with the surface actions of the drama. As a director with the creative power to handle what we see, it becomes Kubrick’s moral project to draw his audience into a greater complicity with him and not the drama. This film becomes the foundation for the remainder of his work. His intentions here are as great and demanding as in his subsequent films. Only he has hidden them within two sets of plans: Johnny’s racetrack heist and his own manipulation of the temporal narrative. His plan mirrors Johnny’s, that is, pieces of the plan are known to one person: Johnny and Stanley; and not until the end do we see most of their pieces come into place.

The substantial difference in their plans is that Johnny’s fails. At the last moment. Because of Sebastian, the runaway poodle.

Initially, it would appear Kubrick’s plan also failed. The movie flopped at the box office; indeed, it was unevenly distributed by United Artists. However, what little life passed out of Johnny when he chose not to run, that little breath of life remained in the film. The Killing created a significant niche for itself in the noir canon. It is currently rated the 163rd favorite film at the Internet Movie Data base. On Tom Dirks’ “Greatest Films” site, it is among the third greatest hundred batch of films. More, The Killing fundamentally sustained the career of one of the greatest film directors.

That is the difference between Johnny Clay and Stanley Kubrick.