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Contemplating Kubrick

Noir Essentials host Alex Weinstein discusses THE KILLING

Poster for Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING; Noir Essentials host Alex Weinstein

Photo courtesy of Noir Essentials


The Noir Essentials series screens Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece, The Killing, at 7:30 p.m. on June 20 at the Dipson Eastern Hills. Here, host Alex Weinstein discusses what makes the 1956 film so important to Kubrick’s later career.


As an early Kubrick entry, The Killing isn't as well-known as 2001, The Shining, etc. How do you think it fits in the Kubrick canon?

AW: Part of what makes Stanley Kubrick’s body of work so unique is its variety. It’s really quite diverse. You have swords-and-sandals epics (Spartacus, 1960), supernatural horror (The Shining, 1980), period-piece character studies (Barry Lyndon, 1975) and, um, whatever the hell Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is, and for the most part they’re all high benchmarks of their respective genres. The Killing (1956) is no different. It is as confident and well-crafted a film noir as you will find. So on quality alone, I think it fits right in.


Thematically, it’s there too. While unmistakably a piece of tough-talking, hardboiled noir, the film is also guided by the same preoccupations that would define Kubrick’s later works. Like the fates of Barry Lyndon and the passengers of the Discovery One, the story of Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) and his band of thieves is, ultimately, an extension of the director’s icy view of human endeavor. The real difference is that it clocks in at a perfectly-digestible eighty-four minutes. 


What is unique about his approach to the noir genre?

AW: By the time he had begun filming The Killing, he already had some experience with the genre. His previous feature, the self-produced Killer’s Kiss (1955), was released just a year before and revealed a great eye for grit. While flawed and undoubtedly minor in his catalog, it had a sense of location and character that would bleed into this next project. 


But what makes The Killing stand out, though, is its inventive structure. After some tight and controlled plotting, we finally get to the movie’s centerpiece—a horse racetrack robbery where events are shown from multiple angles, overlapping. Compared to the more linear Asphalt Jungle (1950) or Kansas City Confidential (1952), this is really exciting stuff (though those are great as well). This approach has proven to be pretty influential, and you can see echoes of it in plenty of modern films, including those by Christopher Nolan.


Additionally, it’s in his casting. He and producer James B. Harris didn’t have a whole lot of money to work with when making the picture, so they rounded out the ensemble with B-character players of the time. Luckily, Kubrick knew exactly who to cast for each role, and even the smallest parts are memorable. The lack of star power adds an air of authenticity to the narrative.


And what makes The Killing stand out as Kubrick's first major work?

AW: This was his third feature, following Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss, and while those first two were often visually intriguing, they were really just little experiments — they are best seen as independent exercises of a filmmaker playing with the craft. The Killing, howeverwas Kubrick’s first full-bodied studio production. He had an actual crew, a great producer, and more resources than before (despite a small budget). And even though the film made little money at the time of its release, it brought him enough attention to allow the funding of his next projects (including 1957’s Paths of Glory). So for this reason alone, The Killing’s importance is immeasurable.


Read this month's Coming Attractions for all the area screenings and more insight from Chris.


Christopher Schobert is a film critic whose worked has appeared in the Buffalo News and numerous other outlets.


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