Out In The 1950s Crime Noir Night- With Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” In Mind
The Killing, starring Sterling Hayden, Coleen Grey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, United Artists, 1956
As I have mentioned to start other reviews in this crime noir genre sure I am an aficionado, especially those 1940s detective epics like the film adaptations of Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. Nothing like that gritty black and white film, ominous musical background and shadowy moments to stir the imagination. Others in the genre like Gilda, The Lady From Shang-hai, and Out Of The Past rate a nod because in addition to those attributes mentioned above they have classic femme fatales to add a little off-hand spice to the plot line, and, oh yah, they look nice too. Beyond those classics this period (say, roughly from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s produced many black and white film noir set pieces, some good some not so good. For plot line, and plot interest, the film under review, The Killing, is under that latter category.
Okay, okay we know crimes, crimes, large and small do not pay. We got our noses rubbed in that hard fact every where we turned, every almost untoward breathe we took, from almost infancy by parents, churches, and schools. Okay we get it, kind of. Kind of if you were a corner boy, a corner boy in good standing, holding up the brick wall in front of Doc's Drugstore on any given Friday or Saturday night, looking, well looking to break out of the dead-end neighborhood, make a name for yourself and weren't choosy about how you gained that name. Yah, kind of. But in this little grade B crime film noir from the hills of Hollywood we are going to get our noses rubbed in it just one more time, although the way that the plot line sets up at the beginning looks like a sure thing that this time the thing will succeed. Finding some errant corner boys who never grew up, who never made it past Doc's, who were not choosy about their name, are going to win the brass ring, are going to walk with the king, are going to prove the coppers are so much mush and cause us, for a minute, to have second thoughts about our current career paths. At least it had me rooting for the “bad” guys for a minute. And every kid from every misbegotten housing project, from every no dough neighborhood has secretly (or not so secretly) had to have been rooting for the caper to be pulled off too.
See here is the lay of land on the caper. Johnny (if it is not Joe in these crime noirs it's Johnny but we will let that lie, okay), fresh from stir (prison) Johnny (played by Sterling Hayden) wants to go straight, well, wants to live on easy street is more like it. And live on that easy street with neighborhood childhood sweetheart Coleen Grey. And, of course, Johnny had a little time to thing about it up in stir (prison, for those who forgot). So, naturally with that easy street goal in mind (and all that time on his hands) he planned to rob the local race track on the day of the big race for a cool couple of million. Now that might seem like pocket change today but back in those days, that was dough. Hey, I’ll take a cut of that today, no problem.
But also see such a caper requires all kind of help, inside and outside, to pull it off and that is where, even if you are hoping against hope that Johnny scores big, you can see that things might get a little dicey. The cast of characters, black and white-etched film characters, is like a rogue’s gallery of every soft “hard” guy character actor that populated the be-bop 1950s television and movie screen (and at least one from the 1940s, Elisha Cook, Jr. as the insider ticket cashier, going back to Hammett’s Maltese Falcon film days, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade). But we will let that go for now, as well. What is important once the motley crew is gathered is that the thing works like clockwork. And, from Johnny’s end, it does. The idea (a little loony in retrospect, if you thought about it) was to create a diversion to get into the track cash room where all the dough is (Johnny got that part right anyway), said diversion being the shooting of a famous race horse during the race to create the momentary confusion necessary so smart guy Johnny can get in and get all the dough. And, guess what it actually gets pulled off, and fairly easily.
But weren’t you paying attention- crime does not pay, get it. So, just as easily as the caper gets pulled off it starts to unravel. And all, or almost all, because of a two-timing dame. Figures right, figure right in a crime noir anyway. And the dame is no femme fatale like Gilda, no way, but some bar stool blonde wife that insider ticket cashier(Cook)is crazy about and blabbed the whole scene to. And said bar stool blonde tells the guy she is two-timing with and there you have it. See boyfriend is going to knock off the heist (a theme that has been done before, by the way, plenty, too plenty of times) and Ms. Two-timer and he are going to live on easy street. All this does is set up the inevitable all points police manhunt as Johnny (who still has the dough) and his honey try for easy street via the local airport. No dice, not even after such a fool-proof plan. Yah, now that I think about it though I wish Johnny had pulled it off.
Note: I mentioned above that Coleen Grey had a small role here as Johnny’s old neighborhood honey (and future easy street resident). I have now seen her in several of these film noir things starting with Kiss of Death. What I notice is that she is almost always type-cast as the angelic (yes, angelic) working class stick-with-her-guy-through-thick-and-thin-even-if he-is-a-wrong-gee gal, eternally waiting, it seems, for her guy to get out of stir (you know now what that is, right?). Ms. Grey didn’t your mother ever give to the word about wrong guys, wrong corner boy guys. Ya, I know, when you got it bad you’ve got it bad, wrong gee or not.
Labels: the killing