January 29, 2023

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Sterling Hayden as Johnny Clay in Kubrick’s The Killing [by John Harbourne]

For more pictures by John Harbourne, visit this page:
Copyright (c) 2022 by John Harbourne

Epitaph for a Genre: About Kubrick’s “The Killing” [by David Lehman]

Adapted by Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson from the pulp novel by Lionel White, The Killing is a classic noir. The plot revolves around an expertly planned racetrack heist that goes spectacularly awry when the weak link in the Confederate chain is married to a doubly infirm partner. A cast of noir stars directed by Kubrick brings this story to life. Later Kubrick films like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange are more ambitious endeavors, but many of us with noir in our bones have a particular fondness for The Killing, a taut black-and-white portrayal of futility and failure.

Fresh out of prison, Johnny Clay is tall, tough, taciturn, and about as decent a guy as a thief could be – a role Sterling Hayden was born to play. He planned the robbery with the precision of a chess player. An inside job that requires the contributions of a pay window cashier named George (Elisha Cook Jr.) and a track bartender. Johnny has also recruited Randy (Ted de Corsia), a corrupt cop who drives his squad car alone; Nikki, a sniper (played with great viciousness by Timothy Carey); and Maurice, a muscle man (Kola Kvariani, a Georgian wrestler with whom Kubrick played chess).

Nikki must shoot Black Lightning, the favorite in the day’s high stakes race, just before the stallion reaches the back of the course. At the same time, Maurice will start a fight at the bar. It takes 10 men to hold Maurice down, so in the chaos no one notices the cashier as he unlocks the door marked NO ENTRY, behind which the men count and store the day’s takings. The distractions give Johnny enough time to go inside, put on a mask, wield a submachine gun, and collect the dough in a duffel bag, which he then tosses out the window…for Randy to pick it up and drive away in his squad car. A perfect crime.

Kubrick begins and restarts the story, switching angles and each time returning to calling the track announcer of the $100,000 added Lansdowne Stakes. The Gunman’s Story features a terrifying scene between Nikki and a black racetrack worker, played by James Edwards. The continuous narrative is driven by voiceover, a sober male voice of authority, emphasizing the tension.

The criteria of masculinity are presented and questioned in the film. Elisha Cook, Jr., so memorable as the humiliated gunslinger in The Maltese Falcon and as the plucky, lovesick Harry Jones in The Big Sleep, is superb as George the Cashier, a man described in Lionel White’s novel as “insane” about his woman”, but “not completely blind to her character”. He also knows that “he failed himself as a husband and as a man.”

In short, he’s the archetypal noir loser married to Sherry (Marie Windsor), who is unhappy, fickle, frustrated and doomed. A real Chingona, as perhaps only Marie Windsor could portray it! When George confides in her that he will have plenty of money in the next few days, she says with practiced cruelty, “Did you write the correct address on the envelope when you sent it to the North Pole?” reveal gang.

All is going well until the boys gather to split the proceeds. Sherry has told her handsome boyfriend Val (Vince Edwards) everything. Val and a henchman rush in to steal the dough, and the ensuing gunfight kills everyone except George, who is badly wounded but still has enough vitality to stumble home and shoot Sherry before he dies. “It’s not fair,” she says, making the best of the moment. “I never had anyone but you, no real husband, not even a man.”

After transferring the loot into the largest suitcase he could buy, Johnny Clay arrives at the scene 15 minutes late. Seeing George stumble down the front steps, Johnny puts two and two together and drives away, sirens screaming in his ears. He and his girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray) rush to the airport.

The Killing ends with the biggest money scoop in the movies, and its closest rival is the love spree bestowed upon James Stewart on Christmas Eve at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life. At the airport, Johnny and Fay are about to board a flight to Boston and freedom. He doesn’t want to let go of the suitcase, but it’s too big for the overhead compartment, so he reluctantly gives it up. He and Fay watch as the suitcase sways on top of the checked baggage in the trolley that takes it from the terminal to the plane. When a spectator’s dog runs into the cart’s path, the driver swerves and the suitcase falls. It jumps up and the money flies around like snow in a swirling wind.

The set-up is perfectly executed, and yet due to a stray event, a tiny coincidence, it’s all for naught – all the blood spilled, all the careful calculation.

Johnny Clay does not survive in the novel on which The Killing is based, Lionel White’s clean break. On the final page, two bullets from George’s gun make a “strange thumping noise” as they enter Johnny’s stomach. A folded newspaper with the headline “Race Track Bandit / Makes Clean Break / With Two Million” rests under his elbow.

The ending of the movie is even better. Two million dollars in small bills go up, and not only has the bandit lost the cash, but he’s exposed himself as the culprit. Dazed and helpless, Johnny and Fay back off and try to hail a cab. They are standing in front of the airport entrance doors when two armed police officers in plain clothes approach them threateningly. Sterling Hayden’s facial expression is unforgettable.

Fay: “Johnny, you have to run.”

Johnny: “Ah… what’s the difference?”

This exchange, which ends the film, could stand as an epitaph for all of noir.

Written and posted by The American Scholar on April 1, 2020.