NOIR IN THE KEY OF KUBRICK: The Killing and Killer’s Kiss

Stanley Kubrick is an auteur who can irk me no end. There is always beauty in his formalistic layout of shots, but there can be coldness, too. He was also the slowest of the classic directors, sometimes taking years to put a film together. His career spanned roughly the same amount of time as that of my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock, and yet while Hitchcock managed to direct fifty-four feature length films and conquer television, Kubrick made thirteen movies, the first two of which are each about an hour long. 

Unlike Hitchcock, who was dubbed the Master of Suspense with good reason, Kubrick jumped from genre to genre. He made several anti-war films, (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket) that count among his best work; he also made Kubrick’s Version of horror (The Shining), a sword and sandals epic (Spartacus), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange) and historical drama (Barry Lyndon). 2001, The Shining and Barry Lyndon are hypnotically beautiful but very, very slow. A Clockwork Orange is beautifully ugly, manic, and brilliant. It’s also a film I can’t watch very often. 

The stately coldness of mature Kubrick had not taken hold when he made two examples of film noir; both possess a raw energy that melds beautifully with Kubrick’s eye for a picture (he started out as a photographer for Look magazine) and the visual requirements of the genre. As I watched The Killing (1956) for the first time the other night, I couldn’t help but think about all those charming heist flicks that have popped up in my viewing, from The Pink Panther to Ocean’s Eleven, full of charming, attractive people who pull off staggering con jobs with nary a hitch, making away with millions and making fools out of those nasty gangsters and lunkheaded lawmakers. The Killing may, in its way, be as stylized and fantastical as these comedies, but given its visuals, its hard-hitting script (by the great pulp crime author Jim Thompson and based on the 1955 novel Clean Break by Lionel White) and an absolutely stunning cast, I’ll take its downbeat antics over all those hot guys robbing a casino any day. 

Don’t let the Dragnet-like staccato narration that charts the heist from inception to downfall fool you: this is as much an ensemble drama as it is a movie about a crime. And what an ensemble we have, led by the great Sterling Hayden as ex-con Johnny Clay, a man loaded with almost enough charm and bravado to nearly mask the fact that he’s a born loser (although when he does don a mask, it’s fittingly that of a clown). He has come home to an adoring girlfriend named Fay (Coleen Gray, with whom we fell in love in Nightmare Alley). Early in the film, Fay gives a halting speech about how much she suffered while Johnny was inside and how another stint in prison would end her, but Johnny blithely ignores her fears and hints that he has found the perfect way to make a killing! He and his partners will rob a race track and make away with a clean two million at least. 

As we meet these partners in crime, you might start asking yourself how Johnny would ever have risked his freedom on such a plan. Kubrick and Thompson lay out these men’s lives and their desperation, no more effectively than with racetrack cashier George Peatty (the great Elisha Cook, Jr.), a milquetoast of a man who is frantic to keep hold of his luscious, oversexed wife Sherry (Marie Windsor, dripping evil like diamonds). She has hooked up with a sleazy two-bit hustler named Val (Vince Edwards, looking better than he ever did in Ben Casey) in a triangle that has overtones of the Fritz Lang classic Scarlet Street. It’s George who makes the first mistake in the plan, and from there let the chips fall where they may. 

Then there’s crooked cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia, who just a couple of weeks ago menaced poor Gene Nelson in Crime Wave), Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) who needs the money to help his dying wife, and Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen, who we saw in our 40’s noir class in Brute Force and They Live by Night), who has set up the heist for Johnny and acts as his surrogate father. George, Randy, Mike and Marvin stand to split whatever proceeds they nab from the track, while Johnny has hired two old “friends” from prison to provide some strategic services to the plot. Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani, aka Nick the Wrestler) will stage a barfight to end all  barfights to provide one distraction, while and Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey, one of the great scary oddballs of film) will, well, he will provide another distraction that is best discovered without a spoiler. (Carey would go on to play a pivotal role in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, where his disruptive behavior -including staging his own kidnapping to garner personal publicity – nearly sidelined his career.)

A plan this big – and, to be honest, I’m not sure I understand why the plan had to be this big, but it’s fun to watch – is bound to have some weak links. George’s big mouth and Nikki’s  incendiary personality turn the plan sideways almost immediately. Carey shines in a powerful scene where he befriends a black parking lot attendant (James Edwards, amazing in The Set-Up and Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet) in order to nab a strategic space for his car, and then must un-befriend him in the ugliest way. 

Thus, the carefully laid plans of Johnny and Company fall apart in a combination of bad luck and human failing. For one brief moment, it looks like Johnny may get what he wants. But this is noir, and the final moments of the film play like an ironic comedy that seals the man’s fate. “Johnny, you’ve got to run,” his loving Fay says to him, to which Johnny replies, “Eh . . . what’s the difference?” For guys like Johnny, trapped in a noir world, there’s nowhere to run.  But his stifled journey, under Kubrick’s guidance and filmed by the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard (The House on Telegraph Hill, A Kiss Before Dying and the first film I ever saw: Disney’s The Parent Trap), is well worth following.

*     *     *     *     *

Made one year earlier for one-fifth the budget of The KillingKiller’s Kiss looks cheap and feels disjointed – and, ironically, provides an even more stunning preview of the stylized director Kubrick will become. It also happens to fall under the noir genre, although Kubrick was forced to shoot a happy ending before releasing it, which undercuts some of the film’s power. The film clocks in at just over an hour and alternates powerful visual ideas with textual moments that are clumsy and/or silly. The sound is its weakest link: when the location sound failed to work, Kubrick had to post-dub the whole movie, and it shows. 

What the film does so well, as referenced by its title, is showcase the juxtaposition in film noir between sex and violence in the graphic style of late 50’s noir. The plot revolves around a triangle between a has-been boxer named Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith), a taxi-dancer named Gloria Price, and Gloria’s boss, Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera). Davey and Gloria live across from each other in what amounts to a pair of Hell’s Kitchen slum dwellings. Gloria doesn’t want to go to work, and Davey definitely doesn’t want to get into the ring against Kid Rodriguez, a younger, fitter, better fighter. As both of these sad people pace about their ratty studios, they steal longing looks at each other – but never at the same time. 

Rapallo is obsessed enough with his employee to pick her up each evening and drive her to work, where he claims he loves her and then makes crude passes at her. When he sees Davey come out of the building at the same time as Gloria, his jealousy kicks in. What follows is one of the best scenes in the film: Kubrick crosscuts between Davey’s fight and Vincent and Gloria in his upstairs office , where he forces her to watch her neighbor get pummeled on TV. The match is an intimate rout in close-up, all skin on skin, fists and sweat flying, while Vincent uses the fight as foreplay in his attempt to seduce Gloria. 

Ultimately, Davey and Gloria will meet, fall in love all too quickly, and have to tangle with Rapello and his goons. The whole thing is told in flashback by Davey as he waits for a train (at the actual old Penn Station), and you don’t want to think too closely about it because Davey relates scenes that he couldn’t possibly have witnessed or know anything about. The film is jammed with imagery that shows Kubrick in a much more experimental mode than he will allow himself the following year. Some of his ideas, like a climactic chase across the urban landscape that ends in a battle in a warehouse full of nude female mannequins, are inspired, while others, like Gloria’s flashback to her youth (a flashback within a flashback!) that consists of her narrating her tragic tale while a ballerina (played by Kubrick’s then-wife) dances an endless solo, are just weird. 

Killer’s Kiss is definitely worth seeing for some great imagery and for how it acts as a harbinger of things to come. But The Killing, which came out a mere eight months later, shows a stunning mastery already in place. With its fatalistic story and magnificent cast, it is a film to place on your must-watch list of noir

*     *     *     *     *

So, for that matter, is our bonus film of the week, 1950’s D.O.A.. This was supposed to start our film class, but Elliot couldn’t find an appropriate link to give us. That link was finally made available – although I own the film – and I have to say that, watching this after the last three weeks of ramped-up sex and violence, including Kiss Me Deadly, which had the same cinematographer as D.O.A., Ernest Laszlo –  the 1950 film seems almost quaint. 

And that’s what it most assuredly is not. D.O.A. has one of the best hooks in any genre: over the credits, a man named Frank Bigelow (Edmund O’Brien, whom we saw in The Hitchhiker) walks down a long hallway to the police station. He wants to report a murder – his own!

Frank is an innocent, an accountant who makes the mistake of vacationing in the big city (San Francisco) where he goes to a bar for a drink and ends up swallowing a slow-acting poison. Now he’s racing against time to figure out who killed him and why. 

Once Frank sets off on his search, the film becomes a little more plodding, but it’s helped along by Laszlo’s cinematography and the direction of Rudolph Mate, himself a brilliant cameraman. O’Brien is so likable and is helped along by Pamela Britton as his shocked girlfriend that you keep waiting for some escape – a last-minute antidote or something – to appear. To the film’s credit, this never happens. From the first moment, Frank Bigelow is one of the walking dead, but in his case, his fate is decided at the start, and it frees him to become a braver, more interesting person than he was at the start. It makes that final, hopeless moment all the harder to take – and that’s a hallmark of great film noir

4 thoughts on “NOIR IN THE KEY OF KUBRICK: The Killing and Killer’s Kiss

  1. THE KILLNG is a superb film, especially the sections dealing with Windsor and Cook, who are just sensational. The tricky time scale (taken from the book it’s worth noting) was a terrific innovation (and was a huge influence on Tarantino). KILLER’S KISS is very entertaining, looks great and feels surprisingly romantic. I have always found the 1950 version of DOA a bit disappointing – the premise is amazing and O’Brien was a great actor but the actual storyline is remarkably dull in my opinion. I much prefer the 1988 version starring Dennis Quaid that makes much better use of the premise so that it feels like it should – the kind of fatalistic tale that Cornell Woolwich would have spun. A great triple bill Brad!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the fantastic detailed summary! Somewhere over the years I missed both of these films. I enjoyed The Killing, but not so much Killer’sKiss , which I could have done without.
    Once again the “girlfriend “ in DOA was more than I could listen to!! Perfect nag! Good job.


  3. You didn’t name Irene Kane, who played Gloria, but she wrote about the experience of shooting Killer’s Kiss. It’s a chapter in her informal autobiography How To Be a Movie Star, written under her married name Chris Chase. Offhand, the bit I remember best is the pressure, which she resisted, to re-shoot a scene topless for the “European version,” because “they’re broad-minded.” (To which she replied that that might be true, but she wasn’t.)


  4. Hi Brad, We’ve spent the last two 1/2 months moving across country. We have been without internet for over a month. Looking at the front page, I have a lot of catching up to do!


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