Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Noir Week Day 1: The Killing

It's… NOIR WEEK! Get out your clown masks and horse feed, we're reviewing The Killing!

Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) has come up with the perfect plan to knock over a racetrack for a huge payout! With the help of his gang of criminals, he's planned everything perfectly. But when the inside man, George (Elisha Cook Jr.), tells his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), things start to go horribly wrong.

This is a great movie to start off Noir Week! Remember last week when I said you could find everything in Asphalt Jungle somewhere else, but better? This is that “somewhere else, but better.” The Killing is everything good about Asphalt Jungle and 1000 times better. Better story, better dialogue, better heist, better cinematography – just a generally better film. Though that's no wonder; it's written and directed by Stanley Kubrick. And that's nothing to scoff at.

The heist in question involves knocking over a racetrack just as a big race is going on, and it's rather elaborate – there are multiple diversions, including inside men and a staged bar fight. It's exciting to see how they plan it all out and how it all goes down. Most of the movie is spent setting up the heist. There is a ton of tension from hoping everything will run smoothly. What's even more interesting is how quickly it all goes to shit. And boy does it go to shit. The ending legitimately had me laughing my ass off at how ridiculous things got out of hand. Also like Asphalt Jungle, it runs the risk of feeling more like a straightforward heist/gangster movie than a noir film, but I think the characters – which include a corrupt cop taking care of a sick wife, a sniveling inside man, and a cheating wife that tries to play her hand to get the money – have enough grey in them to make this feel like a noir.

And, man, are the characters great. Sterling Hayden plays more of a mastermind in this one, and I think this is the cleanest I've ever seen him. You get to see his range – from when he's cold and calculating, to when he's loud and ready to crack heads, to when he's lost all hope. He really pulls out all the stops. Elisha Cook, Jr., is perfect as George, who's a little nobody just wanting to please his wife, and said wife, played by the incredible Marie Windsor, is perfect at playing the sultry yet scheming femme fatale. It helps that the dialogue is sharp as a knives and quip-y as all hell. Some of the best bits are of George and Sherry going back and forth. If only all married couples quibbled this eloquently. Everyone plays their part great; I can't think of anyone who didn't give it their all. I love seeing all the little character moments explaining why they all want their big payout. One needs to settle up debts; another needs to take care of his sick wife; one just wants companionship.
One of the weirdest and most amazing things about this film is that they used the N-word. And I'm strangely… okay with it? Well, let's back up, because probably more amazing is that a black actor has a speaking role in this movie! When does that ever happen in classic noir movies?? Well, there’s Casablana, of course, but we can't all be perfect. Anyway, a black actor has a speaking role, and they use the N-word. Better yet, it's not just thrown out there willy-nilly to make the movie more edgy, or because they think that's the kind of language thugs would use. 

A guy is nice to the black guard so he can get a spot in the parking lot. But when the black guard won't leave him alone, he calls him that to get him to leave. He knows the weight it carries. It's a slur that's used as a narrative device. That's really interesting. It's also a sign of the times - they could get away with that, but they probably wouldn't be allowed to say “fuck” or “shit.” With that said, I completely understand if you wouldn’t want to watch this movie. So, yeah. Wow. That happened. Also, don't worry, they guy who uses it gets killed dead.

The cinematography is really well done. There are tons of slow pans that I'm in love with – like one early on that follows a character smoking a cigarette, then shows two sinister characters. It has a generally moody atmosphere. It also has a narrator telling the details of the heist, as though from the point of a police report or a Dragnet-type cop show, making it feel less like noir. I would have preferred it be narrated by the main character, or maybe have an unreliable narrator, but then perhaps there would be some things we wouldn't get. During the heist, the narrator makes the choice to go back in time, showing how each person does their separate job in the heist, which is interesting. There's a good share of violence and a great bar fight involving a wrestler named Kola Kwariani. Lots of blood and guns and such.

The Killing is a fantastic noir heist movie. It should be a classic for its specific heist mechanics, great cast of characters, witty dialogue and beautifully dynamic cinematography.

THE GOOD: Stanley Kubrick, Great cast, great acting, witty dialogue, dramatic atmosphere and great cinematography, great heist story, hilarious ending, black guy gets a role.

THE BAD: They use the N-word.

THE VERDICT: $$$$$ It's fantastic. One of my new favorites. Go out and get it and stick it in your noir collection!

MOVIES LIKE IT: Asphalt Jungle, The Killers, Gun Crazy, Detour, Double Indemnity, Night and the City, 5 Against the House

ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: Sherry is discovered listening in on their plot to do the heist. There's a great pan through the apartment as the men discover Johnny has slapped her unconscious. They have a bit of a tussle with George as he tries to explain why she's there, then Johnny and her have a private talk where they trade quips and Sherry tries to save her skin with her pretty little words. Johnny can see right through her, but he's afraid George can't.

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