It was while I was watching a blurry print of 1935’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (I know. I don’t get out much) that I realized how accustomed I have become to the impeccably restored versions of vintage black & white films in the Criterion Collection. (No, this is not a paid endorsement.) In addition to pristine prints of classic b&w (and color) films the Criterion DVDs usually offer interviews with key players and/or film critics and authors. (There is often a booklet inside the DVD with an essay and/or other material relating to the production. I don’t know what was included in The Killing DVD cuz the booklet was missing when I checked out the DVD from the library. Put Rex Libris on the case. Oh, sorry, that’s another post.)
I was thinking of this while watching the Criterion DVD of Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 classic The Killing (which comes complete with 1955’s Killer’s Kiss on a separate disc.)
Being a film nerd I couldn’t help but admire Kubrick’s eye for casting. I wasn’t the only one. TIME magazine likens a group shot of the cast (which includes Elisha Cook Jr. Timothy Carey, Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia and Joe Sawyer) to ” a class photograph from San Quentin.”
Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Clay,the leader of this gang of mugs. His elaborate scheme to rip off a racetrack ticks along like the proverbial Swiss watch but there is one thing Clay hasn’t included in his plan – the human factor (and, of course, that always messes everything up.)
Although confident in his cinematic skills, Kubrick realized his original story for his previous film (Killer’s Kiss) was weak. Kubrick’s producer, James B. Harris, found the source material for their first collaboration together, a paperback thriller called Clean Break by Lionel White.
It was Kubrick’s idea to hire the dark prince of pulp noir, Jim Thompson, to write additional dialogue in his own distinctive style and his fingerprints are all over this film. For example, the bittersweet dialogue between Cook and iconic B-noir femme fatale Marie Windsor (she’s bitter, he’s sweet) is pure Thompson (at least, to my ears).
Let the film scholars dissect the work for Kubrick’s innovative camera style, his attention to detail and his eye for composition and framing.
I liked the film for Kubrick’s purposeful sense of pacing, the gritty dialogue, the artful use of lighting to add atmosphere and heat to the proceedings and, of course, the fabled cast of character actors assembled by the young master. (Yes, Cook is the snub-nosed “gunsel” in The Maltese Falcon.)
The Criterion edition of The Killing comes with some informative extras, including an interview with Mr. Hayden lensed by a French film crew in the last few years of his life. The DVD also comes with soundbites from producer Harris and a featurette with Robert Polito, author of the Jim Thompson biography Savage Art. (Both the Harris and Polito featurettes were shot expressly for the Criterion folks.)
In the Harris featurette, the veteran producer/director/screenwriter recalls working with Kubrick (“One thing I learned from Stanley is ‘You do not let the actors accommodate the camera, you let the camera accommodate the actors … you stage the scene, the actors rehearse and, then, you bring in the camera and decide how you’re going to cover it … preserves the naturalness of the actor.”) Mr. Harris also reveals that in his role of producer he contributed $130,000 of the film’s $330,000 budget (chipping in 8o grand of his own money and borrowing some cash from his father.) Apparently, Frank Sinatra was also interested in the White novel but Harris snapped up the rights before Ol’ Blue Eyes could make his move.
In the Thompson featurette, Polito says the way the Thompson family tell it, (Jim)Thompson worked very closely with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay and “was either expecting a sole screenwriting credit or a dual screenwriting credit”. When he saw the film at a screening room in Manhattan and saw he was only credited with “additional dialogue” he went ballistic. Polito says Thompson saw this as “a slap in the face”. Nevertheless, he worked with Kubrick again on 1957’s Paths of Glory.
(With all of his novels out of print in North America , Thompson remarked grimly to his wife that he would probably become famous ten years after his death. In a twist right out of one of his bleak novels, Thompson’s work was “rediscovered” in the 1980s. Several of his books were turned into films including the Oscar-nominated The Grifters and 1976’s The Killer Inside Me (remade in 2010). Today Thompson (who died in 1977) is considered a modern master of so-called Noir fiction.