When people talk about Stanley Kubrick movies, they usually discuss his post-Spartacus masterpieces, and for understandable reason. The level of ambition and attention to detail are impossible to ignore and in a lot of ways the eight movies that span from Lolita to Eyes Wide Shut act as cinematic road markers, similar to 2001’s monoliths, indicating just how much much a filmmaker could do and say with movie making. But in a lot of ways, I like the smaller Kubrick features, especially the back-to-back combo of Jim Thompson co-written movies Kubrick made in 1956 and ‘57, starting with The Killing and ending with Paths of Glory. You can see traces of the ambitious, icy director that would later demand take after take from his actors, but these movies have much less of a tight grip on them. Later Kubrick movies, marvelous as they can be, sometimes have the feeling of someone slowly letting the air out of the room while simultaneously squeezing your throat. Paths of Glory is downright humanitarian in comparison, and even though The Killing features a bunch of low lives, cuckolds and crooks, you get the sense that Kubrick has tremendous empathy for them all. Empathy is a rare emotion to experience when watching later Kubrick masterpieces.
In a way, the two movies have a lot in common and speak to the importance of methodical, perfectionist planning the latter Kubrick insisted on. The attack on the ant hill in Paths of Glory was a failure because of the way the French generals rushed their men to action, without proper planning, without rest, without a clear battle plan. This is Kubrick’s worst nightmare, but it’s interesting to see an alternative nightmare in the Killing. Hear, iron voiced Sterling Hayden leads a group of crooks and cons to pull off the perfect heist on a race track. The level of detail that goes into pulling off the heists mirrors Kubrick’s own obsession with detail; and the thoughtfulness that goes into pulling the whole thing off forces the audience to root for the crooks. And they actually manage to pull it off, but that doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly. I wonder if the later-period Kubrick ever re-watched this minor masterpiece and reminded himself that all the obsessive planning can’t prevent everything from falling apart. In the end, destruction could come from any unseen angle.
The heist in The Killing ranks among my favorite on screen, and I especially love the way Kubrick and Thompson play with a linear structure, allowing us to view all of the different roles the individual creeps bring to the heist. Kubrick resists the natural impulse to build suspense by cutting back and forth between all of their individual actions, instead making us wonder whether or not they’ll get away with it in the end. My personal favorite side-story involves the rifleman played by Timothy Carey, needing to resort to racism in order to shoot a race horse in time. The symbol signaling Carey’s demise matches up with Hayden’s; in the end, it might as well have been unlucky horseshoes to all of them. All the planning of the world can’t prevent against bad luck, and as Hayden mutters in the finale, which might be the great last line of film noir, “Ehh, what’s the difference?”