Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Killing: a parable of destructive desire

Coincidentally, this week I've been reading through 1 Timothy while also revisiting Stanley Kubrick's 1956 film The Killing. The latter is just out on Criterion Blu-ray. What a treat! And what a great time to be alive if you're a film buff!

The concluding chapter of 1 Timothy contains the oft-quoted (and mis-quoted) proverbial saying about the love of money being the root of all evil. The love of money verse is preceded by others commending contentment and warning about the desire to be rich.

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Timothy 6:9)

This reads like a proverb of Solomon or a saying from Ecclesiastes. The Apostle Paul is addressing his son in the faith Timothy in the context of his first century Christian community, but Paul's warning has general application beyond that original context. Scripture is sprinkled with similar warnings on the danger of there's that "eye of the needle" thing in the gospels. All of this raises the question of how to define "rich" and where contentment ends and ruinous striving begins, but that's a subject for another day. Stanley Kubrick probably didn't intend it, but with The Killing he provided an exquisite parabolic demonstration of Paul's warning in 1 Timothy. At least that's how it struck me as I watched it again this week as the apostle's words rang in my head. The Killing provided a template for filmmakers of later generations to fashion their own parables of destructive desire. Anyone seen Fargo?

One of the things that makes Kubrick's tale about the planning and execution of an intricate heist so compelling is that it invites us to empathize with these characters' desires to be rich. There's the henpecked and mercilessly belittled husband George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who thinks that with this score he can finally gain the love and respect of the woman he naively is in love with. Then there's faithful caregiver Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer) who needs the cash so he can get the "best doctors" for his bedridden sick wife. There's real tenderness when Mike tells her that soon everything will be alright. Even ringleader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is sympathetic, despite being the only professional thief of the lot. All he wants is to go off, get married, and live happily ever after with his sweet and loyal girlfriend Fay, played by Colleen Gray, who would go on to be a staple of 60s and 70s television.

Clay is the mastermind of the get-rich scheme -- an intricate plan to knock off a racetrack during the running of a high stakes derby. As I said, the other men by and large are law-abiding citizens, but as Clay knowingly quips -- they each have a bit of larceny in their hearts. Each man has a part to play, but only Johnny knows the whole plan. And it's a beautiful plan. Even though I've watched the film multiple times I still found myself rooting for it to succeed. But alas, each time, the plans of mice and men are foiled by human frailty and what in the Kubrickian universe one could call fate. What was supposed to be only a killing in cash descends into killing of a bloodier kind.

The Killing is a virtuosic piece of cinema. Kubrick was 28 when he made it and coming off his second feature Killer's Kiss the year before. Killer's Kiss is included as a bonus on the Criterion disc...and it's not bad. It's a sweet tale of love triumphing against the odds with some wonderful visual flourishes, but it's the work of a filmmaker one would have predicted had gone on to have a respectable career making conventional genre films within the Hollywood system. Kubrick, though, was determined to take a different path, and the jump in originality from his second to third features is like the difference between Beethoven's Second (not a bad little symphony) and Third (the mighty Eroica). Critic Haden Guest writes: "The film’s dark, unrelenting irony and complexly fractured narrative immediately distinguished it from his previous work and revealed the posture of the willfully, often provocatively, 'difficult' director that he would cultivate throughout his career."

What Killer's Kiss lacked was a strong voice, and apparently the young filmmaker realized that writing original stories and dialogue wasn't his strong suit. For The Killing he brought in pulp fiction author Jim Thompson to help him adapt source material from elsewhere (a novel by Lionel White called Clean Break). Thompson gets a dialogue credit, but in actuality was just as responsible for the final screenplay as Kubrick: who gave himself the sole writer's credit. In any case, this pattern of adapting novels in collaboration with accomplished writers would be Stanley Kubrick's standard developmental procedure from then on. To say the least, this model served him well.

Sterling Hayden is fabulous in The Killing. His rugged all-American good looks are one of the reasons you find yourself rooting for Johnny Clay. After all, he's plotting to rob a racetrack -- not the most honest of enterprises -- and his careful plan is calculated to avoid the possibility of any "rough stuff." But in the end he's proven to be just as naive as the pitiful George Peatty. His face and body language register the mounting frustration of seeing a perfect plan unravel, penultimately so on an airport tarmac, as he and Fay wait to board a flight to what they hope is a happy future. The circumstances are tragicomic, involving an officious airline agent and a yapping poodle. In a scene that anyone who's seen the film will never forget, Johnny Clay watches as his riches are blown away like so much chaff. It's painful to watch.

As two plainclothes cops close in with guns drawn Fay urges him to run, but Johnny knows the game is up. "What's the difference?" he bitterly mutters. His riches gone, his hope gone, Johnny's ruin is complete.

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