Sunday, January 19, 2014

THE KILLING (1956) - Stanley Kubrick

The film noir genre is littered with loser criminals undone by scheming femmes, but how many films do you know where the crook is ultimately undone by an excitable poodle at the airport?

I'd seen Kubrick's classic heist film numerous times already. Once in my high school "Kubrick Discovery phase." Another time in my college "Reservoir Dogs and its origins phase." There might have been a Sterling Hayden appreciation phase in there somewhere. Then I probably saw it another time or two for some heist plotting inspiration in my own work. With all these great character actors, the crackerjack pulp dialogue, the assured direction (and by a novice Kubrick, no less), it's truly the movie gift that keeps on giving, a brutally efficient ticking time bomb of a film. I defy any cineaste to name a better bleak ending in any other film noir.

This time, I rewatched The Killing through the Jim Thompson-as-screenwriter lens. According to the Thompson biography I read a year ago, he was outraged when Kubrick stiffed him on his screenplay credit, downgrading him to mere "Dialogue By" in the opening titles. I didn't read any actual drafts of the screenplay The Killing was based on, so it's hard to know where to assign the bulk of the writing credit. I did, however, read the Lionel White novel it's based on, Clean Break, to try and get a better handle on how much "adaptation" was actually performed.

The film is surprisingly faithful to the book. Apart from moving the setting from NY to L.A. and excising or condensing a few characters involved in the heist (a jockey on the horse that gets shot by Timothy Carey, for instance), the basic structure remains and works well on paper, too. Some of the great lines in The Killing are lifted straight from Clean Break, but it's obvious Thompson pulled his weight in juicing up the movie dialogue in spots. Structurally, it seems like Kubrick knew he had a good thing on his hands in the book and did his best to preserve that on film. So I'm guessing Thompson was more or less a paid draftsman on that front. His own novels are psychologically innovative, especially in his use of the first person, but for the most part they are chronologically linear and don't be-bop around in time too much. The biggest change in the transition to the film comes at the end (that poodle I mentioned earlier). In the book, it's Elisha Cook, Jr.'s hen-pecked husband Peatty who ultimately foils the getaway.

So was this yet another case of a bitter novelist come to Hollywood grousing about unfair treatment? Or did Thompson, like Hayden's character in the film, really get screwed? I'm not sure. But when a film turns out this brilliant, does it really matter when all is said and done? It's a golden notch on both their resumes. Whoever came up with the poodle and suitcase of money of blowing away in airplane propeller's exhaust (Kubrick or Thompson), I hope they got a nice little bonus.

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