On Viewing The Killing
by Jules N. Binoculas
I just watched Kubrick's The Killing again. I've probably seen it a dozen times but somehow, each viewing makes it seem more effortless and meditative than the last. 'How' we ask, 'he do dat?'
Sterling Hayden's acting is like eating your favorite meal for 2 hours -- or like watching Charles Laughton: you never tire of him, you only need a break between courses.
Until now, I'd attributed the virtuosity of the story-presentation to the hotly-lit, high-contrast studio cinematography, the compelling frame composition, and the near flawless editing. But this time I realized the power of a skillfully contrived script.
Kubrick is credited with the screenplay; with additional dialogue by Jim Thompson. Kubrick and Thompson masterfully attenuate the two-dimensional script by flattening 40's melodrama into charicatured intensity, using solid secondary Hollywood actors like Elisha Cook and Timothy (Paths Of Glory) Carey (certainly one of the screen's most rubbery personas).
The film is never quite comic in tone, yet it's not quite drama; and this uncertainty keeps one's mind off the thinly developed motivations. But the story's true noirish spirit flourishes during the queasy exposition of these weak, hopeless dreamers who follow the pied-piper of logistical genius, Johnny Clay (or Stanley Kubrick).
Only the immigrant chess master Maurice, and Sterling Hayden's Clay, who seems to live in a bubble of abstract faith and total dedication to his metaphysical cause -- has a viable philosophy of life: commit the perfect crime and get rich doing it: the ultimate metaphysical orgasm.
Not wanting to leave his main theme unstated, Kubrick has the chess master state explicitly to Johnny: the gangster is an allegory for the dedicated, beleagured artist -- brought down in his prime, by an envious, vengeful, and negligently incompetant mass of mediocre humanity.
But Johnny's excessive planning, methodology, and thoroughness of common sense is clearly admired by Kubrick; and while nothing happens perfectly in his perfect crime, by the last few minutes of the film, Clay still has a shot at keeping two million dollars and outwitting everyone.
My question is:
Why didn't the script have a scene where he buys a reliable suitcase in advance -- instead of being forced to scramble in the midst of his contingency plan and buy a faulty receptacle from a ratty pawn shop?
Paradoxically, everything goes right and wrong at the same time -- including an alternate escape plan -- where the money is to be taken by whoever has it, with no questions asked; to be divided later.
Certainly, clay would've bought himself a new suitcase in case he ended up with the money -- as he did. And probably, he would've made sure each member of the team had access to one in case of unforseen disaster.
I could easily imagine a scene where some unctuous salesman touts a new suitcase to the ruthlessly expedient master-mind. Then, rather than the contrivance of the dog gimmick at the airport -- instead, the top-of-the-line suitcase could get accidentally switched with another identical suitcase belonging to someone else.
Then, the other passenger, with the identical high-quality suitcase, somehow opens it to retrieve something -- and the money blows everywhere, forcing Johnny to high-tail it out before being caught -- in flagrante delicto.
It didn't seem Kubrickean that a cheap, quickly-acquired suitcase would be the Achilles Heel to upturn the ultra-rational Johnny's plan. I thought it might've been better if, consistent with his thoroughness, Clay got the most reliable device available, in advance.
Then it would be his hubris alone -- his pride in workmanship -- which causes his downfall, rather than bad planning and arbitrary coincidence.
The film is saved by his demoralization at the end -- beautifully portrayed in a limited time. His wife tries to help him escape, but he's like a little boy who's watched his loyal hunting dog drown in a lake. The air is out of his spirit-balloon. To run from failure would be a worthless admission of ineptitude.
The film explores, with economy and patience, Kubrick's theme of perfect reason destroying the thinker because reason alone cannot anticipate every error in the cosmic labyrinth of fate.
Kubrick's heroes are outsiders on a limb: Johnny Clay commits the impossible crime; Colonel Dax defends men accused of cowardice, alex risks freedom by spending his nights in mischievous, ecstatic, Dionysian ultra-violence; and by volunteering for the mission, Dave Bowman risks going to Jupiter and losing all human contact -- which is exactly what happens.
It doesn't make intuitive sense that Johnny Clay gets snake-bitten by bad contigency planning, faulty equipment, and coincidence -- all at the same moment.
Yet, although it risks dramatic contrivance, somehow The Killing is inspiring in its faithfulness to the concept of exhaustive reason and pure method as man's best defense against the caprice of an indifferent universe.
Kubrick, in a way Johnny Clay would have understood, obviously lived for the sole satisfaction of accomplishing the (nearly impossible task) of making perfect films -- and being well-paid for it.