The Herd & Self-Reflexiveness

by David Gerrard

In most critical analyses of Kubrick, The Killing is usually referred to as "Kubrick's first mature work," but discussed no further. This, in my opinion, is unjust; The Killing deserves recognition as an artistic work in and of itself. It is not among Kubrick's best films -- it lacks the socio-political edge that makes many of his later films so timeless -- but it is nevertheless a deep work. The character of Maurice, whom I will establish as a link to Kubrick's ideology, is particulary valuable as he is almost unique in Kubrick's oeuvre. Unfortunately, the actor who plays Maurice has a thick, almost impenetrable Russian accent, and therefore the monologue is often overlooked for the mere reason that it is not aurally understood. I've written this in the hopes that it will engender some serious discussion of the film:

Maurice: You have not yet learned that in life you have to be like everyone else. The perfect mediocrity; no better, no worse. Individuality is a monster and it must be strangled in its cradle to make our friends feel confident. You know, I have often thought that gangsters and artists are the same in the eyes of the masses. They are admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present an underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.

This monologue, a third of the way through The Killing, is the key to the film. Maurice here describes its two major themes:
1) Conformity in this subculture, and
2) The film's self-reflexive examination of the audience itself.
Furthermore, the similarity between the second part of Maurice's discourse and Kubrick's famous comparison of artists and criminals, as well as the fact that Maurice hangs out in a chess hall (Kubrick, of course, has a well-documented predeliction for chess) and that he, like a movie director, commands the players but doesn't participate, suggests that he is the film-maker's ideological stand-in.

"Individuality is a monster..."

Dealing with this notion deeply informs all of Kubrick's later work; everyone from Barry Lyndon and the employers of the Ludovico treatment to Jack Torrance and Floyd/Bowman/Poole implicitly subscribe to it. In Kubrick's work, this leads simultaneously to social ascendence and karmic degradation. In The Shining, Jack terrorizes his family in order to prove his virility to apparitions (I'm deliberately being reductionist here); in Barry Lyndon, Barry deliberately forfeits, or at least subjugates, his individuality in favor of social status; etc. Both Kubrick's and Maurice's attitudes are ambivalent towards this to say the least. They recognize the material near-necessity of denying the individual, but also (this is evident in Maurice's inflection) the genuine personal (and, in the final analysis, societal) catastrophe inherent in such a bargain. In The Killing, Faustian denials of the individual abound. Most dynamically, they manifest themselves in the gang members' attempts to prove their virility to each other. Like many Kubrick films, The Killing opens with a symbol of copulation; sun rays "penetrate" the glass and the riders are "ejaculated" from the stables. This serves as a double metaphor, as the horses running in a pack is shorthand for the Herd mentality itself. From here on, we see the first glimpses of what will, in later films, become archetypal Kubrickean males, desperately trying to lose themselves in the Herd. Johnny, for instance, who we see to be generally benign, jokes off-handedly about brutal violence against women when he is in the Herd/co-conspirators presence ("We don't have to kill her, I'll just beat her face into hamburger meat"). The other gang members are equally desperate to put on pathetic displays of masculinity in order to become a faceless member of the Herd/co-conspirators.

Of course, this reaches a boiling point in the pitiable figure played by Elisha Cook Jr. Unlike the other members of the heist, who partake in it because of various financial problems, Cook's motivation is purely to prove his masculinity to his wife and to himself. This entirely entraps him; he is often shot through metaphors for imprisonment; behind the bars at the cash register where he works, through the bars of a bed, next to a railing, etc. It is interesting to compare the relationship between Cook and Marie Windsor with Jack and Wendy in The Shining. The two relationships seem to be the antitheses of each other, with Windsor/Jack and Cook/Wendy seeming congruent. Certainly, Windsor and Jack are both being manipulated by someone (in Windsor's case, her lover, in Jack's the former caretaker) into manipulating their spouses. However, the comparison falls with Cook/Wendy. Wendy, unlike Cook, is not weak so much as passive, and the ending puts Cook closer to Jack than one would have thought. Cook's extremely bloody cartharsis at the finale, is the horrible end result of the constrictive Herd mentality.

"Gangsters and artists are the same in the eyes of the masses..."

There is a shot in The Killing which shows Johnny opening a door and walking down a hallway. Suddenly, the camera zooms back to reveal that the viewer has been watching this through a mirror, a disorienting revelation, and one obviously designed to call attention to the film's artifice. Kubrick thus gives the first indication of his film's self-reflexiveness. While The Killing is not a film about film in the formal sense that Godard's early work is, Maurice's comments bestow an air of the audience-questioning which would later become de rigeur for Kubrick whenever he worked in a specific genre. As Maurice notes, the audience identifies with and roots for the gang, yet takes delight in its destruction. This is undercut in the last several shots, however. Throughout the film, prison is a profoundly negative semantic construct, worsened, perhaps, through Johnny's memory. Finally, Johnny passively accepts the brutal descent back to this negative construct. Here, the similarity in the mannerisms of Sterling Hayden and Keir Dullea is worth noting. Johnny can be seen as the negative-Bowman; Bowman passively progresses, even trangresses, while Johnny passively regresses.