Stanley Kubrick described his heist film The Killing as his, “first mature work”, and the film boasts many of the director’s eventual hallmarks. Techniques that appear in Kubrick’s later masterpieces can be seen in a nascent form throughout the film, as if Kubrick is exploring the possibilities of his own voice and style. Specifically, The Killing purposely confuses the viewer through keen story structure choices and twists on the heist genre. The result is a disorientation that forwards a theme that trickery, thievery, and crime – even those which are meticulously planned, are doomed to failure.
All of Kubrick is adaptation. The Killing adopts its non-linear story structure from its source material, the novel “Clean Break” by Lionel White. The structure of the novel was what initially attracted Kubrick and producer James B. Harris to acquire the rights to the source material. The noir and crime thriller aspects of the film are much more than mere setting, too. They contribute a great deal to the theme of the film: that planning, expertise, and intellect and such can get a man a lot of the way, but in the end, it is just too hard to plan for every little wrinkle to get away with thievery.
This structure serves to disorient the audience, and control the pace at which information is revealed, a very common technique in the crime and noir genres. The Killing accomplishes this disorientation and confusion through three basic stylistic techniques: revealing the narrative in a non-linear fashion, shifting the point of view, and relying on rampant repetition.
The opening credits of The Killing show the same race footage that we will see throughout the film, but the initial race in the film is an indication of the bizarre non-linearity of the story. Indeed, the winning horse is named, “Stopwatch”, a hint that The Killing will be all about starting, stopping, and then re-starting the timeline in various fashions to confuse, befuddle, and withhold information from the spectator. This non-linearity is the defining feature of The Killing.
Most of our understanding of the chronology of the narrative comes from a third-person narrator, someone who is merely relating the story to the audience, and has no personal stake in the undertakings. We’ll delve into more detail with the narrator later, but suffice to say that at the beginning of the film, he is most responsible for guiding us through the story so that we understand that things will not play out in a linear fashion.
The first instance of this occurs in the third scene, “Most Important Thread”, where we are introduced to the kingpin of the operation, Johnny Clay. Up until this point, leaps in time have all been forward, so nothing is out of the ordinary. Here, we see Johnny explaining his basic motivations to his girlfriend at 7 p.m., and then telling her that everything is going to be okay. Even in this intimate exchange, we don’t have much of an idea about the complete plan. It will be a continuous struggle to earn that understanding.
In the next scene, we meet up with the track bartender Michael Riley, who we’ve already seen before. The narrator explains to us that it is 6:30 p.m. – a half hour before the scene with Johnny. Though there is no immediate connection between these scenes, there is a clear thematic one: Michael’s justification for committing the heist is evident. His wife is sick, and he hopes that the windfall will help pay for her medical expenses. It is one of the more tender character moments in the film. There is no narrative reason for it to be presented out of order, it simply is. This is Kubrick teaching the audience not to expect this story to be easy. We’ll be given separate threads to pull on, and single jigsaw pieces at a time. It is our job to understand the greater whole, and what it all means.
For the most part, if there isn’t a wild jump in time, the Narrator does not introduce the scene. The linear portions of the film are allowed to play out without commentary, and it is only when something weird is happening that we need to hear from him. In the intervening week between the two race days, we only hear from the Narrator as a means for establishing the day of the week as Johnny Clay hires the Muscle, Maurice, and the Triggerman, Nikki.
But on race day, the Narrator is busy. Here is the timeline of that day, presented in the order we see it in the film (non-chronological order):
5am – Red Lightning is fed,
7am – Johnny begins his day,
7am – Johnny reaches the airport,
8:15am – Johnny is at the hotel,
8:45am – Johnny reaches bus station (notice – the clock shows no time)
9:20am – Mike’s apartment,
11:15am – Mike’s apartment,
11:29am, Mike reaches the bus station (still no time on the clock),
12:10pm, Mike arrives at track,
3:32pm – Officer Randy’s job,
2:30pm – Chess club w/ Maurice,
4:23pm – Police drag Maurice off the track,
11:40am – Nikki leaves farm,
12:30pm – Nikki reaches track,
4:24pm – Nikki dead,
2:15pm – Johnny Clay in city,
No explicit time – the heist occurs,
7:15pm – Everyone waits for Johnny, who is 15 minutes late,
6:25pm – Johnny grabs the money from the motel,
7:29pm – “Still 15 minutes late, Johnny arrives at meeting place”,
7:39pm – Johnny buys large suitcase, linear until the end of the film.
This hopping around is purposely confusing, and that would be true even if there were not mistakes in the timeline from the Narrator. This serves to keep the audience guessing, as we’re not quite sure how all of these events line up in the “normal” way. It strains our comprehension of the actual heist, and puts us in the same position as the characters in the film: we never really see the full picture. Befuddled, the audience begins to feel that the trickery that Johnny Clay is attempting to pull off doesn’t quite fit together, and perhaps that it cannot succeed.
As a piece of evidence that this method of storytelling confused audiences, one need look no further than the initial screenings, where audiences hated the nonlinear structure. In an effort to “fix” this, Kubrick and Harris spent a weekend re-cutting the film to place all sequences in chronological order. After they were about two-thirds of the way through, the story is that they looked at each other and said, “what the hell are we doing?”. It was the bizarre structure of the source novel that initially caught the eyes of the pair. At that point, they figured: if it fails, it fails, but this is how we want it done.
In telling the story this way, the same events must be seen from different points of view, depending on which character’s piece of the scheme we are witnessing. These shifts are most frequent during the Saturday at the racetrack as each chess piece is moved into position in preparation for the actual heist. But, long before that, the perspective for the narrative shifts as we are introduced to each character, learn their respective motivations for participating in the heist, and start to recognize their respective failings (which will affect the overall outcome).
Though Johnny Clay is undoubtedly the main protagonist, there are swathes of screen time where he is absent. Again, splitting time between the various characters makes it more difficult for the audience to construct the entire puzzle at once. Therefore, by hopping between the various characters, The Killing accomplishes the same end result as the non-linear narrative: it obfuscates the details of the heist and makes the actual plan practically unknowable, at least until we actually get to see it.
Then, on the day of the heist, it performs the opposite function, largely due to another stylistic choice: repetition. Each time we see the same portion of the event from a different perspective, we learn more about the heist. In fact, by the third time we are hearing the announcer calling the Seventh Race, we recognize the sequence of events. This allows us to start “timing” the events on screen, as we understand where certain benchmarks are (like, Maurice being taken away at 4:23 and Nikki dying at 4:24). This allows a palpable tension to build up when Johnny is actually holding up the men in the money room – we know that the race is ending, that the policemen have handled Maurice, and we worry that they are on their way back.
Remarkably, Kubrick also takes advantage of repetition as a means to confuse! While it is true that many events are repeated, sometimes the images we see on screen are not the same event we’ve seen before. They are framed and staged to appear similar, but are not the same. The clearest example of this can be found in the shot of the horse race from the very beginning of the film (the one that the horse named Stopwatch wins), compared to the first race on the day of the heist. Initially, it appears as though the footage being used is from the exact same race. The horses are framed on the screen in the exact same way – close-up, so that only three horses can be seen, and the camera follows them closely. But, the numbers on the horses are different, and the announcer calls out different names during the race. It is a wholly different race. Of course it is, why would the #1 race from this weekend be a replay of last week’s #5 race? Our minds know this intuitively, but Kubrick purposely crafts these sequences to be practically identical as a means of confusing us by making us think, at least for a moment, that we’re seeing the exact same race.
At this point, it should be clear that Kubrick derives a great deal of confusion from his structural choices in The Killing, but he also derives thematic and narrative meaning. The non-linear storytelling is used primarily to obfuscate information, and keep us in the shoes of one of Johnny’s hired henchmen – only seeing precisely what we’re meant to see. But the repetition of events accomplishes the opposite effect, especially when seen from differing viewpoints. As we see events again and again, with different contexts, we start to piece together the entire puzzle of the heist. Brilliantly, Kubrick doesn’t always give us “the right” answers – some of the repetition is false, and most of the points-of-view only see a slim portion of the overall plan.
Kubrick fleshes out this skeleton by stretching the sinews of the heist and noir genres over this underlying structure. Kubrick occasionally uses these tropes straight-up, but the director subverts certain techniques to befuddle the audience. Three classic noir tropes in The Killing are used by Kubrick, and sometimes subverted: a third-person Narrator that doles out information, characterization accomplished through snappy, localized dialects, and the inclusion of various “snags” or “wrinkles” in the overall scheme, despite intricate planning. These tropes all inform the overall theme of The Killing, which speaks to the inability to perfectly execute dishonesty, thievery, and crime.
One of the most effective twists that Kubrick uses is found in the “character” of the third-person omniscient Narrator. This is a well-established technique in the noir genre, to have a booming voice accompany the viewer through the twists and turns of the plot. Kubrick’s Narrator, though, is a bit of an idiot. As mentioned above in reference to the non-linear storytelling, the audience relies on the Narrator to establish the timing of events, especially when there are large jumps forward or peculiar jumps backwards. Most of the time this works fine, but like in Kurosawa’s Rashoman, we cannot always trust the information that we are given. Though we may not recognize it explicitly, it eventually becomes clear that we are being confused and kept in the dark by this so-called “omniscient” narrator.
You may have noticed these “narrative failures” before when the timeline of the plot was laid out. There are obvious inconsistencies, all of which occur on the day of the heist. It begins with the Narrator introducing Johnny’s day: “At 7 that morning, Johnny began what might be the last day of his life”. This is false foreshadowing (Johnny doesn’t die), but the timing itself is corroborated by Johnny in the scene, when he says to Marvin, “It’s early yet, it’s only 7”. So, we can be fairly certain that this is an accurate time. In the very next scene, though, the Narrator begins, “It was exactly 7 a.m. when he got to the airport”. This diction is not accidental. “Exactly” is mean to draw attention to inscrutable detail, as though each and every minute is crucial. But, clearly, Johnny could not have arrived at exactly 7 a.m.! It had been established, both by the Narrator and the character Johnny that it was 7 a.m. at the apartment.
The second and third examples are more subtle, but still clear mistakes. After the heist is complete, the participants are waiting for Johnny to appear and George states, “It’s 7:15, he’s supposed to be here at 7”. No one corrects him, so we can be relatively certain that this is the correct time. The scoundrels then break in, a fire fight ensues, and most of the men are killed. Then, switching to Johnny’s thread of the story, the Narrator claims, “40 minutes before at 6:25”, and then goes on to explain that Johnny was 15 minutes behind schedule on account of traffic near the track. But 6:25 is 50 minutes before 7:15, not 40. Again, the Narrator is mistaken, injecting confusion into the story.
This error is compounded in the very next scene. According to the narrator, “Johnny arrived at the meeting place at 7:29, still 15 minutes late.” Fifteen minutes? George stated that the meeting time was 7, not 7:15. Johnny is almost a full half-hour late, and the Narrator has flubbed the maths again.
This untrustworthy narrator can only be checked in these instances where on-screen characters provide us with the “correct” time, but once this kind of doubt is introduced, it is reasonable to question other things the Narrator tells us. It is possible that the times given for Maurice’s arrest and Nikki’s death (4:23 and 4:24, respectively) could be incorrect. By purposely casting doubt on the reliability of the narrator, Kubrick again confuses the audience. Before it was by abusing a non-linear structure, and this time it is by subverting the familiar trope of the “omniscient” Narrator.
It is also clear that Kubrick meant to do this. The initial screenplay did not have a narrator, but the studio insisted Kubrick include one as a means to reduce the audience’s confusion. In a sly subversion of the request, Kubrick chose to use the Narrator sparingly (he is abandoned when the narrative is strictly linear), and make him unreliable, resulting in the exact opposite effect. The Narrator is now another layer to the confusion surrounding the heist. He also helps make concrete that it is incredibly difficult to plan a robbery and to be certain that your actions will lead to the desired result.
With such a failure for a Narrator, we need to look to our characters for truth. The noir genre doesn’t necessarily help us here though, and Kubrick’s twists compound the difficulty. Most of the characterization we get comes in the form of snappy dialogue, written mostly by Jim Thompson, a successful crime paperback writer. Thompson was chosen by Kubrick for his masterful ear for dialect, phrasing, and peculiarity in the dialogue he wrote for his books. But there’s an issue here: though the dialogue is crisp and full of meaning, the fact that many characters are manipulating each other, hiding portions of the plan, or fat-out lying means that the characterization accomplished through dialogue is simply another tool that Kubrick can use to introduce confusion into his film.
This is evident in the overall structure of the scheme, in that Johnny Clay doesn’t reveal the entire operation to anyone else (including the audience), until he is actually in the process of robbing the track. It is clear that Johnny only trusts these men as far as the money incentivizes them to play along, and he even extends this trust to one of the more confusing, bizarre, and tragic relationships in the film – and the one most driven and characterized through dialogue: the relationship between George and Sherry.
The dynamics of this relationship are almost completely communicated through Thompson’s dialogue, with an amazing assist from Kubrick’s camera movement between these two characters – a sign that the director was already discovering the fluid and careful style that he would come back to in later films. The first scene between these two characters, “Pains”, immediately makes clear that Sherry is conniving, manipulative, and cruel. It also establishes that George’s love for her is blind, and that he is nothing more than a tool for her.
The scene opens with the camera focusing on George, and even follows him through the wall to where Sherry is sitting. She is dismissive of him, makes jokes at his expense, and talks over his head at every opportunity. This brief exchange casts George as a fool and Sherry as the one in charge, so when the camera follows George as he fetches a drink for Sherry and himself, it is the last real time he is the focal point of the scene. After he hands Sherry her drink, it is all about her. Her movements through the room dictate where the camera will go, and most of the time she is shown in the foreground of the shot while George is in the mid-ground:
All the while, this brilliant camerawork is matched by a piquant repartee that is well-beyond George’s abilities. In a manner of minutes, Sherry has manipulated and cajoled the basics of the scheme out of George, sufficient to hatch her own plans for stealing the money. Again, Kubrick leans heavily on the tropes of the genre – rapid-fire, manipulative dialogue, and introduces untrustworthy characters with their own ideas to help confuse the audience.
George is a sad-sack, but he isn’t the only weak link in the group. Sherry’s inclusion in the plan is not the only monkey wrench that gets thrown into the heist. In fact, it is a miracle that the plan isn’t completely botched at numerous points by the characters failing to stick to the plan in one way or another. George spilling the beans to Sherry is a gigantic snag, but there are many others.
Marvin is supposed to stay away from the track, but he is found drunk by both the bartender after the first race and Johnny just before the seventh.
Mike barely gets the gun and the flowers in the locker, and he has to insult his co-workers in order to do it.
Nikki arrives too early at the parking lot, and needs to cajole the parking attendant to allow him to park there – and then insult him with an epithet when the attendant oversteps the relationship.
All of these “wrinkles” introduce doubt into the success of the underlying mission. We know that Marvin being drunk at the track probably won’t queer the whole scheme – but it could. Each little deviation from Johnny’s plan makes the audience more nervous, to the point that it is scarcely a surprise when everything goes tits up.
Even very small problems that amount to nothing help detail the fact that Kubrick again means to inject doubt into the proceedings. Johnny Clay himself makes small, careless mistakes.
It is only by quick action that he is able to escape a policeman right after he throws the cash out the window.
Then, when retrieving the money after the heist, he initially goes into the wrong motel room.
After the meeting place is compromised, he buys a cheap suitcase that will be too large to carry on to the airplane, which ultimately dooms him. Here, Kubrick is showing that even the most dedicated and intricate planner of the group is human, capable of making mistakes.
So, what’s the whole point to all this? Why does Kubrick go to such lengths to inject his run-of-the-mill heist film with such confusion? Put simply, The Killing is not a run-of-the-mill heist film. Kubrick challenges the genre to make it about something more than cops and robbers. He twists the tropes of the genre to purposely contort the underlying mechanisms, all as a means to convey the greater message: it is difficult to understand a heist – imagine performing one.
At the fundamental level, thievery involves an act of dishonesty. Men band together in an effort to deprive other men of their earnings. Sometimes, this reality is blunted by having thieves target other thieves, or at least someone who deserves it (think Ocean’s Eleven). But there’s none of that in The Killing. This is just men trying to get away with money that isn’t theirs. Kubrick has their endeavor fail, despite the intricate preparation. Such abject dishonesty is met with justice. In fact, only one character successfully navigates the film, the muscle Maurice, who we can expect was paid his $2500 and got to continue living his life.
Before accepting Johnny’s offer, Maurice has the following to say:
You know, I often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They’re admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.
As the sole surviving character, we have to lend his philosophical views credence. There is a bit of “Tall Poppy” syndrome to his sentiment, in that some people feel jealousy towards those who succeed and want to see them cut down to size. This would apply to both gangsters and famous artists, but why does Kubrick connect the two?
The connection between the gangster and the artist lay in fabrication, but the different lay in intent. The gangster must use his wits to trick others so that he can steal their money – and deny a truth (that the money doesn’t belong to him). The artist similarly relies on wits and tricks, but to craft a piece of fiction (story, film, painting, sculpture, or otherwise) to reveal and support some truth. This connection, and the idea that “the masses” want to see these endeavors fail, is the brilliance of Kubrick in The Killing. Because the specific reasons that failure is desired differ.
“The masses” wish to see the gangster fail because it represents a semblance of justice. It is plenty fun to watch a bad guy get away with a masterful heist, but deep down there is an understanding that their gains are ill-gotten, that they are ignoring justice and reality. By contrast, they wish to see the artist fail because the artist shows them truths which might not be agreeable. The Gangster succeeds by rejecting reality and convincing you his rejection is legitimate. The Artist succeeds by showing you the truth of reality, and holding you up to its standard. Sometimes, “the masses” are not able to meet that standard.
In The Killing, Kubrick places himself at the intersection of these two professions, a manipulative artist obfuscating plot and tweaking genre tropes to his liking in order to portray a seminal truth: cheating reality can look cool, but justice dictates that serious attempts will fail. The Killing may be a lesser-known work of Kubrick, but it is as pregnant with hidden meaning, directorial trickery, and meticulous planning as any of this artist’s great masterpieces, though it receives much less recognition.
Because while The Killing was a reasonable critical success, the studio released it as the second film in a double-feature, and did a poor job of promoting it. The audiences were still confused by the film’s structure, and the film was a flop financially. But, with The Killing Kubrick began trading in a different kind of currency: burgeoning talent. The Killing was widely appreciated by Hollywood insiders looking for the next great director. In fact, it was The Killing that led Kirk Douglas to contact Kubrick to discuss adapting an anti-war film set in the French trenches during World War I. That film became Paths of Glory, the subject of my next piece on the filmography of Stanley Kubrick.