Kubrick’s The Killing and the Emplotment of Death

Kubrick's films have leaned toward a kind of reluctant misanthropy which reveals the capability for self-destruction as the linchpin of man's existential predicament.

by Asbjørn Grønstad

Desire is the product of incomplete knowledge.
—Thomas Mann

As far as the issues of violence and mortality are concerned, the work of Kubrick exhibits none of the neurotic prevarication which both Daney and Coursodon claim characterizes the Hawksian approach. Kubrick’s films have leaned toward a kind of reluctant misanthropy which reveals the capability for self-destruction as the linchpin of man’s existential predicament. Some of the most memorable images and defining moments in Kubrick’s cinema foreground this nexus of violence and civilization: the seven-minute long execution sequence in Paths of Glory, the nuclear montage which concludes Dr. Strangelove (1964), the confrontation between the prehistoric apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alex’s menacing glance at the viewer in the first shot of A Clockwork Orange (1971), and the close-up of the demented Jack Torrance as he pursues his wife and son in The Shining (1980). Focusing on a much less exposed film like The Killing in light of this exceptional fund of violent imagery may seem like an incongruity. There is little explicit violence in Kubrick’s second film noir (the first was 1955’s Killer’s Kiss). Yet within the thematic purview of violence, narrathanatography and masculinity, The Killing is one of his more apposite movies. Even A Clockwork Orange – praised by among others Alexander Walker as “the first landmark study of the ‘Violent Society'” (National Heroes 44) and by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray as “the definitive investigation into the ontology of violence” (Hollywood Films 173) – refuses the stringent inextricability of death and plotting which recommends The Killing as a key text on violence in the classical era. Kubrick’s trademark preoccupation with what Thomas Allen Nelson has termed “the aesthetics of contingency” (1) and with the fallibility of man (which in a Kubrick film always means the fallibility of the male), meshes with the equally fatalistic universe particular to the genre of film noir.1 The Killing also foreshadows what Marsha Kinder takes to be the central project of A Clockwork Orange: violent form and “its consequences for subjectivity” (“Violence American Style” 72). The Killing conjures violence as a way of seeing, as an aberration and a disfiguration of the filmic gaze that represents a peculiar challenge to the narrational consciousness of the text. For instance, it is no accident that the massacre toward the end of The Killing is the only scene in the entire film that is shot from a subjective point of view.

Adapted from Lionel White’s 1955 novel Clean Break,2 a book Kubrick’s producer James B. Harris chanced upon while browsing the shelves of a New York bookstore (LoBrutto 111), The Killing was released at a time when the Production Code was still in effect, although its pressures were declining. Kubrick’s film, like Scarface, is a rare example of an independently produced movie in the studio era and was subject to few external limitations save the securing of the Motion Picture Production Code Seal and the film’s approval by the Catholic Legion of Decency (Kagan, Cinema of Stanley Kubrick 33). Daniel De Vries has stressed the audacious aspects of the movie’s depiction of violence:

The carnage, if not quite so graphic and prolonged as the famous sixties massacres in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, is perversely effective. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, here one hardly sympathizes with the victims. … Coming when it does, The Killing is remarkable for its nastiness (14-15).

The intrepid element of Kubrick’s violence is possibly due to a general relaxation of the censorship climate in the latter half of the 1950s.3 As Charlie Lyons notes, several films released in this decade and in the early 1960s challenged the increasingly anachronistic Hays Code (8). As early as 1953, Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue was released without the seal of approval, as was Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1965). Discussing these two releases, Lyons claims that the industry “was finally responding to social reality. By 1968, with all of the code’s provisions abandoned, the U.S. screen appeared freer from censorship than ever before” (8). However, the contextualization of the massacre in The Killing is consonant with the dictates of the code. All the criminals in the film either die unheroically or are unmasked as deplorable losers. Although violent action in The Killing is explicit for its time, the effect is balanced by the film’s overall conformity with the moral maxims of the Production Code. Both Scarface and The Killing contextualize violence with reference to an unambiguous moral framework which invariably punishes the culprits in the end.

The restrictions that the production Code imposes concern the filmic quantity, methods, and nature of violent death. There is an acknowledgment of the narrative function which murder fulfils in advancing film plot. From the point of view of the Code, violence is conceived as an abstract phenomenon much in the same way as Seymour Chatman defines “events” as plot actions to be configured into a concrete form (Story and Discourse 43). Once the context is the actual rendition of murder in an audiovisual medium like film, the concept of violence immediately becomes more problematic. As the Code’s paragraph six, article (b) notes, ferocious violence ought not to be depicted “in detail” (in Roberts and Mintz 148). In this respect, the Code functions as an authoritative formula for the aesthetic depiction of crime, violence, sexuality, etc. This formula supervises and limits film practice to such an extent that one may consider it part of a film’s intertext. That is, the relative independence of the artwork is compromised by the qualifications of the Code.

For a 1950s audience, the sheer experience of watching a film like The Killing upset the acquired norms for understanding Hollywood narratives. Perceived as a violation of sorts in itself, the film’s nonlinear temporality was unprecedented at the time and perplexed spectators unfamiliar with its complex use of the flashback structure. “The story begins with the end,” Maurice Blanchot has written, “and that is what forms its troubling truth” (112). Due to negative responses from colleagues and friends prior to the film’s release in June 1956, Kubrick re-edited the film according to a more conventional narrative design, but eventually went back to the original format.4 Though the filmmaker himself tailored The Killing for art-house exhibition, United Artists opted for commercial distribution, and subsequently ended up as a box-office failure (LoBrutto 126). Notably, one of the film’s taglines – “Like No Other Picture Since Scarface and Little Caesar!” – makes the explicit reference to Hawks an integral part of the promotion of the film.

Violence in The Killing is a narrative and visual trope for masculine moralities. It is the character of George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) rather than that of gang leader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) who emerges as the most significant male protagonist. An embodiment of noir anxiety and repressed anger, Peatty’s eventual recourse to violence flaunts and affirms the defeatist deviancy which undergirds the kind of floundering masculinity frequently found in the immediate post-war cinema.5 Peatty is a weak character in every way, easily bullied and ridiculed by his manipulative wife Sherry, the film’s femme fatale. In her first scene she is lying on the bed, patronizing Peatty with sarcastic requests (“go ahead and thrill me, George”) which take on a darkly ironic resonance in the face of later events. Peatty’s timidity finds a visual equivalent in a later, medium-shot composition within the same sequence, in which Sherry towers over Peatty’s small figure in the left corner of the frame. She berates him for his financial shortcomings and lack of ambition, which makes Peatty reveal parts of the heist scheme to Sherry. In narrative terms, this is the fatal error in Clay’s otherwise seemingly impeccable stratagem. As in most of Kubrick’s films, the capricious human element makes the entire operation capsize. Not only does the plan go awry, but it also obliterates almost everyone involved. The act of plotting leads to violence and death.6

The source of violence in Kubrick’s film is found as much in the afflictions of a particular form of masculinity as in the malevolence of a contingent universe. While the former etiology anchors its causes in the social and the corporeal, the latter imbues violence with a metaphysical dimension. In its clinical explorations of the conditions and nature of violence, Kubrick’s cinema tends to espouse a mechanism which transforms the phenomenon into a transcendental entity; concrete manifestations of brutality become signifiers of an abstract Vio­lence whose fundamental mode of being is metaphysical. Films like Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick 1987) – in their insistence on man’s destructive impulses in a hostile cosmos – particularly underscore Kubrick’s transcendentalist conception of violence and evil. His first feature Fear and Desire (1953), long out of circulation at his own behest, features an off-screen narrator who vocalizes what could pass for a philosophical thesis that informs much of Kubrick’s later work:

There is a war in this forest/Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be/But any war/And the enemies that struggle here do not exist/Unless we call them into being/For all of them, and all that happens now/Is outside history/Only the unchan­ging shapes of fear and doubt and death/Are from our world/These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time/But have no other country but the mind.

Kubrick’s pretension to explain human violence as an innate potentiality is tempered by the generic element; violence in film noir is commonly attributed to specific human and social agencies.7 What makes Kubrick’s film so valuable as an object of analysis is its dual emphasis on violence as both a metaphysical given (as a product of man’s fallibility) and a social, historicizable feature (as an effect of a maladjusted masculinity). All the male characters in The Killing, and Peatty in particular, embody traits of the quintessential noir anti-hero. Clay’s gang consists of discontented, but ineffectual, small-time crooks, fatigued, disillusioned and self-abasing men. In comparison with the film’s female counterparts, they appear inadequate and pathetic. When Peatty finally comes unhinged, violence ensues as the expression of his existential impotency. In this regard, the thematic preoccupations of film noir seem to blend seamlessly with Kubrick’s notorious pessimism. The films of this genre, Michael Walker contends, “portray a society in which the American dream of success is inverted, alienation and fatalistic helplessness being the dominant moods, and failure the most frequent outcome. In this, the films show the accommodation of a ‘European’ sensibility which is also reflected in the films’ expressionistic mise en scene” (38). Not surprisingly, Kubrick found an appropriate expression for his own emerging interest in the fallibility of man in a violently contingent universe, a theme which is arguably more immanent to film noir than to any other genre.8

Released at a time when the genre was moribund, The Killing is more than a standard noir. In a much-quoted essay, Paul Schrader delineates the essential properties of film noir’s last stage (the 1950s):

After ten years of steadily shedding romantic conventions, the later noir films finally got down to the root causes of the period: the loss of public honor, heroic conventions, personal integrity, and, finally, psychic stability. The third-phase films were painfully self-aware; they seemed to know they stood at the end of a long tradition based on despair and disintegration and did not shy away from the fact (“Notes on Film Noir” 12, emphasis in original).

Schrader considers the complex temporality of many later noir films to be a narrative device which signals and intensifies the feeling of hopelessness already present in the genre. Along with Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) and Ku­brick’s own Killer’s Kiss, The Killing highlights the ironically unpredictable and often brutal events the male protagonists fall victim to. It is possible to consider the inherent cynicism in such texts as a form of generic exhaustion, prefiguring the narrative mortification that Russell recognizes in the New Wave Cinemas of the late 1950s and onward.

The interconnection between narration and death is no less pertinent to film noir than to the New Waves. In the first serious study of the genre, Borde and Chaumeton discern that “[i]n every sense of the word, a noir film is a film of death” (19). In this particular genre, however, deathliness is not only in the mise en scene, to modify Thomson’s phrase slightly (“Death and its Details” 15); it forms part of the narrative fabric of the text itself. Non-linearity and the peculiar use of the voice-over are the two principal aspects of The Killing which lends the narration a funereal quality. Hardly a coincidence, it is in film noir that one finds some of the most memorable voice-over narrations in American cinema: the dying Walter Neff reciting his story into a Dictaphone in Double Indemnity; Joe Gillis’s voice-over from beyond the grave in Sunset Boulevard (Wilder 1950); and, more recently, Ed Crane’s lethargic telling of his murder story from death row in Coen’s neo-noir The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). The narration of a story in flashbacks and voice-over, Robert G. Porfirio suggests, “enhance[s] the aura of doom. It is almost as if the narrator takes a perverse pleasure in relating the events leading up to his current crisis, his romanticization of it heightened by his particular surroundings” (88). Though Porfirio is addressing the technique of first person narration specifically, there is no reason to assume that a third person narration like that of The Killing produces any markedly different effects. This is partly due to the kind of heterodiegetic narrator often found in film noir, which is one whose style and inflection borrow substantially from the Highway Patrol television series (1955-59), as well as The March of Time newsreels of the 1930s-and 40s (Wilson 77) and semi-documentary films like House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway 1945), both produced by Louis de Rochemont. The voice of the reporter, who recounts events after the fact (thus contributing to a sense of the inevitable), achieves largely the same effect as that of the homodiegetic narrator who is also a character in the story.9 Temporality rather than perspective is crucial for the emergence of narrative mortality; who tells the story is subordinated to the temporal relation between the teller and the tale, and to the mood and tonality of the narrative voice. In a literal fashion, this voice belongs to Arthur Gilmore, an announcer for numerous movie trailers from the 1940s to the 1960s. His presence in Kubrick’s movie adds yet another semantic layer to the narration, since the voice evokes a particular style of presentation which at the same time is both sensational and highly knowledgeable of narrative endings, to use Bordwell’s phrase (Narration 57).

Though often taken for granted or even vilified as a clumsy narrative device, the voice-over has become a staple of noir storytelling. In The Killing, Wilson argues that the voice-over becomes an agent of the heist itself, being present in twenty-six out of thirty-five segments, and that the scenes where it is absent “signify particular junctures where the plan will break down” (78). The narrator withdraws in those scenes in which characters with an incomplete knowledge of the heist are introduced. Examples are sequences such as Sherry’s clandestine meeting with her lover Val in the beginning of the film and Clay giving instructions to more peripheral players like Nikki and Maurice. The narrator’s absence also indicates a lapse of control and planning, allowing the accidental free play in disrupting Clay’s meticulously regulated schedule. An implication of Wil­son’s thesis is that the clockwork precision of the voice-over functions as a protection against the chaos of the unplotted; the departure of the narrator punctures the coherence of the conflated structures of planning and plotting. Moreover, the fact that the only male authority in the film is a disembodied subject is on a figurative level indicative of the disempowerment of masculinity which defines film noir in general and Kubrick’s film in particular. Gilmore’s impersonal voice-over, “all surface and no depth, time-bound and blind to spatial nuances” (Nelson 34), contrasts sharply with the embodied subjectivity of the faltering protagonists.

In its temporal trajectory, The Killing proceeds as an allegorization of a crisis of action. Due to the film’s overlap structure, what Stephen Mamber terms a “series of elliptical goings-back,” there is no real progress to the narrative (par. 2). The exhaustion with which the protagonists are afflicted is made palpable by the film’s emplotted paralysis, which in the end leaves those who are not already dead in a virtually apraxic state. All Johnny Clay can muster in the last shot, as two officers walk slowly toward him, is a final resignation underscored by the words “what’s the difference.” Unlike Camonte in Scarface, Kubrick’s desolate gangster makes no attempt at a desperate escape. His immobility characterizes the plight of the noir male in terms of devitalization and apathy. This sense of inaction results in no small measure from the knowledge that, within the universe of The Killing, all actions are subject to a predetermined conclusion. While a linear emplotment of temporality foregrounds causality – the protagonist’s ability to influence the pattern of cause-and-effect – a nonlinear notion of temporality adds contingency and promotes reflection on action rather than action itself. A conventional conception of masculinity in terms of agency is incompatible with nonlinear structures like that of The Killing, since such tempor­alities deprive the male protagonist of the possibility of intentionality and action.

In an interview with French cinematographer and director Pierre-William Glenn, whose 1993 film 23H58 was heavily influenced by The Killing, Chris Drake notes that violence and death in Kubrick’s film are “something that’s already arrived at, an abstract potential in the shape of money, which then sweeps through a room like a gale, leaving only bodies in its wake” (24). Drake’s observation is an acute one, conceiving violence neither as cause nor consequence but as the reification of that contingency which so pervasively pertains to Kubrick’s cinema. More than violence itself, it is the textual movement toward it that the narrative accentuates. “The anxiety in film noir,” Borde and Chaumeton write, “derives more from its strange plot twists than from its violence” (23). In The Killing, the fatality of plotting is further enhanced by the juxtaposition of two contradictory dispositions: on the one hand, the rigorousness of the planning of the heist, and on the other, the chaos that follows in the wake of its execution. The chess metaphor, as Steve Jenkins points out, acts metadiscursively to flaunt the narrative’s “perverse desire for a limitless excess of plotting, with repetition substituted for suspense and the robbery’s development blocked by the very methods used to chart its progress” (par. 3). The dispassionate order of the design throws the violent disruption into even starker relief, or, as Mamber puts it, “[t]he problem lies in the difference between the elegant conceptual construction and the need to use human beings to execute that construction” (par. 12). The Killing exposes the underlying fissures of an apparently fail-safe system and deconstructs in the process the faith in human rationality. In the film’s alignment of violence and logic, Kubrick prefigures his extended exploration of this intersection in Dr. Strangelove and 2001 particularly.

The Killing contains only a small number of violent incidents, yet the mood of the film evokes a heightened sense of fatalism and doom. As previously stated, this is largely due to the way in which the narration structures the temporal relations within the film, and also to the presence of an ominously detached voice-over which infuses the narrative with a relentless irreversibility. In his analysis of the film, Mario Falsetto underlines the formal intricacy of the syuzhet construction:

The fragmenting of narrative information is one of the film’s most radical elements, although it does not detract from narrative momentum or intelligibility. The Killing illustrates the tension in Kubrick’s work between the conventional and the unconventional, between classical storytelling techniques and a more modernist narrative mode (Stanley Kubrick 2).10

The process of shattering a straightforward plot progression is counterbalanced by an authoritative, extradiegetic narrator who appears to be omniscient though not always fully communicative. In presenting story information gradually – and sometimes elliptically – while at the same time creating the impression that the protagonists’ scheme is going to be ill fated, the voice-over succeeds in impregnating the images with a tantalizing sense of a violent crisis that never seems to happen. The most uncomfortable aspect of the violence is precisely its continuous suspension. Critics like Gene Phillips have also noted that the prospect of disaster, in spite of the pedantic, authoritatively administered voice­over, is telescoped onto the very opening of the film. He writes that

[i]t is clear from the outset … that the tawdry individuals whom Johnny Clay has brought together… comprise a series of weak links in a chain of command that could snap at any point. Add to this the possibility of unexpected mishaps that could dog even the best of plans, and the viewer senses that the entire project is doomed from the start (30).

In effect, Phillips traces the cause of the disaster to the intrinsic shortcomings of the particular type of manhood that Clay’s team embody. Alexander Walker helpfully compares Kubrick’s protagonists with those of John Huston in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and concludes that the former embraces an incomparably less commiserating view toward his male characters: “A director like John Huston … would probably pay respect to the courage of men of action, even when they are criminals. He might allow them some individual decency in death. Not Kubrick … he stays detached, cynical” (Stanley Kubrick Directs 68). With respect to characterization, Walker’s assessment of Huston is reminiscent of the narrator’s slant vis-a-vis the characters in Peckinpah’s movies. While Hus­ton and Peckinpah both manage to mobilize affection for their protagonists even when they are brutal killers, there is little evidence of any empathy in Kubrick.

The scene toward the end of the film which culminates with the killing of most of Clay’s gang – Kennan, O’Reilly, Unger – forms the acme of violent action in the film. After the heist at the racetrack, Clay’s partners are awaiting further instructions at a secret hiding. George is among them, revealing clear signs of nervousness and anticipation as he is pacing restlessly around the room. The other men remain quiet in their seats, talking and smoking. When they hear the sound of the elevator in the apartment, they get up and approach the door. As O’Reilly opens the door, two men with guns enter. This sequence proceeds from a slightly low-angle shot of O’Reilly to a reverse shot of the two gunmen. The camera then cuts to a long profile shot where the intruders start searching Clay’s men, upon which follows a frontal medium shot of Kennan, O’Reilly and Unger holding their hands in the air. Concurrently, George is rummaging around in an adjacent room. Val Cannon, one of the two men who is also Sherry’s lover, expects George to be there with the rest of Clay’s gang, and, in a low-angle shot, asks them where he is. The subsequent frame reveals in medium shot an empty doorway into which George enters with a shotgun. Positioned a little to the right of the frame, he fires the gun, and the camera cuts to Cannon, who, upon firing back, is hit in the shoulder by the impact of George’s gun; his body twists and contorts, he falls back against the door which trampolines him forward. In medium shot we see him falling leftward onto his knees, his head dangling to the right. We next see George firing maniacally into the room. This is a very brief shot that only lasts about a quarter of a second. Val is shown again in the next frame, collapsing and grabbing hold of a lamp, and then swerving in the opposite direction. In a medium-close shot we see him finally lying outstretched on the floor. The following frame in the sequence presents us with George in medium shot firing his gun. Eventually, the shooting desists, and George stares horrified at the havoc he has caused. He leans his head against the wall, eyes transfixed on the scene before him. The next cut establishes an eyeline match, long-to-medium shot, in which the dead bodies of Kennan, O’Reilly and Unger are surveyed from George’s optical point of view. In an eccentric tracking movement the camera seems to inspect the dead bodies; O’Reilly stoops over the couch, his head in the pillows and his feet sticking up from the furniture; Kennan lies face-down in the foreground of the frame. The camera tracks to the right, then to the left and closer toward the victims. It tracks in on O’Reilly, then on Kennan, blood running down his face. Tracking further left, the camera reveals one of the intruders, his face smeared with blood, and his left arm, clutching a pistol, rests on his chest. His hat lies beside him as the camera continues tracking further in on his head, lingering a while on his lifeless face, before it tracks in to a near close-up of Cannon. The space of this violence discloses what Nelson describes as “a grotesquely disordered room of carnage” (36).

I have described this sequence in such detail because the narration seems to emphasize it – through the bizarre camera technique, which is restricted to this scene only – to such a degree that the segment takes on a highly self-conscious air. It is as if the camera is straying pensively, yet carelessly, over the dead bodies. After it has examined Cannon, it continues its tracking motion, revealing next the naked floor, the door in close-up as a hand reaches out for it from the left of the frame. The movement of the camera is here even more fluid, almost zig-zagging across the room. As one might expect, the entire sequence represents George’s subjective perspective as he watches the five dead men lying scattered about the apartment. He is badly wounded himself as he staggers around the floor. The shot series is also characterized by George’s breathing and the jazz score on the soundtrack, bracketing the moment as the focal center of crisis and violence in the film. It is notable that the narration dwells much longer on the consequences of violence than on the act itself. The determination with which the camera surveys the victims is striking in itself; the effects rather than the causes are what the narration highlights. It is also significant that this twenty-three second shot, which was handled by Kubrick himself (LoBrutto 120), is the only subjective point of view shot in the entire film. Falsetto notes that the segment also forms a stylistic counterpoint to the tracking shots, which to a certain extent dominate both this narrative and all later Kubrick films: “It [the subjective point of view shot] penetrates the space in a qualitatively different way than the smooth tracking shots most often used in the film. As the world erupts into the chaos of the massacre, the film appropriately reverts to a hand-held, individualized POV shot” (Stanley Kubrick 112).

According to Black – who draws on sources as disparate as De Quincey and Auden – it is precisely the subjective focalization of the act of murder that elevates the textual depiction to aesthetic status (Aesthetics 60). As I argue in chapter three, however, it makes little sense to parade the pedestrian aestheticization argument for specific passages of a text that in its entirety is an aesthetic object per definition. There is no reason to assume that a subjectively localized mediation of violence is any more aestheticized than an objective one. Whatever significance The Killings sole subjective sequence has derives from its opposi­tional relation to the voice-over. There is order as long as the narrative point of view stays disembodied, but with the subjectively focalized sequence the film’s greatest disruption occurs. Sobchack, in her phenomenological theory of cinema, stresses the degree to which the medium engages “modes of embodied existence (seeing, hearing, physical and reflective movement) as the vehicle, the ‘stuff,’ the substance of its language” (Address of the Eye 4, emphasis in original). Peatty’s point of view in the killing scene represents a subjectivized totality of such an embodiment; the scene not only amounts to a narration about the body (the corpses that occupy Peatty’s field of vision) but is also a narration by the body (Peatty’s consciousness as embodied existence). Significantly, the shift to embodied narration substitutes the almost compulsive order associated with the disembodied narrator with violence and disorder.

There is a sense of restraint in the way in which Kubrick orchestrates the violence in The Killing. Immersed in a narrative sensibility of ironic detachment, Kubrick’s economical handling of the violence defamiliarizes and distances the viewers on one level, while engulfing them on another. This is partly due to the accidental nature of the killings and to George’s aberrant behavior. In the scene where he shoots Sherry, the narration further attains a measure of self-reflexivity. Indifferent to the causal chain that propels the action forward, the sequence unfolds almost as if it were a meta-textual commentary on the issue of self­destructive masculinity around which the previous narration has revolved. The violence in the scene is a narrative bifurcation in which one line of action, Sher­ry’s murder, is subordinated to the events in the main plot. George’s killing of his wife is an act of violence which takes place in the margins of the story, but for this same reason the act may be construed as a moment of self-consciousness on the part of the narration. Sherry’s last remark, “A bad joke without a punchline,” might be taken as an ironic statement on events in the narrative; the preceding bloodbath, her own murder, and the intervention of chance when Clay’s suitcase bursts open at the airfield.

The conflation of plot and planning in The Killing contributes to the manufacturing of a closed, impermeable and self-referential text, temporally delimited by the event of mortality (the narration begins at a point in time when most of the characters are already dead and roughly ends with these same deaths). Hence, the film does not merely narrate a story but recaptures the story of its temporal consumption, its own decay. However scrupulously Kubrick choreographs this self-containment, it is the film’s continuity with the themes and moods of film noir that provides the impetus for this absence of mimesis. Schrader, who also presents a list of the genre’s most characteristic stylistic facets,11 is particularly perceptive regarding its artificiality:

[film noir] tried to make America accept a moral vision of life based on style. That very contradiction – promoting style in a culture which valued themes – forced film noir into artistically invigorating twists and turns. Film noir attacked and interpreted its sociological conditions, and, by the close of the noir period, created a new artistic world which went beyond a simple sociological reflection, a nightmarish world of American mannerism which was by far more a creation than a reflection (13, emphases in original).

The transtextualism of The Killing, furthermore, is specific as well as generic. In terms of character and casting, both Cook and Hayden reprise parts they played in The Big Sleep and The Asphalt Jungle, respectively, and Kubrick’s Peatty – according to Nelson – was deliberately modeled on the Harry Jones character in Hawks’s film (30-31). Kubrick also quotes The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), another Huston film, toward the end of The Killing, where the cash from the robbery literally vanishes into thin air like the gold dust in Sierra Madre. Arthur Gilmore’s film-trailer represents yet another allusive layer which serves to distance the text further from the notion of mimesis while consolidating its semiotic process. Finally, the referentiality of The Killing also encompasses later texts such as Reservoir Dogs, 23H58, Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997), Jackie Brown (Tarantino 1997), Silent Rain in the Ninth (Jacob Rosenberg, 1998), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998), Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999), Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001), Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002), Panic Room (Fincher, 2002) and Kaante (Sanjay Gupta, 2002), films that all in their own ways quote The Killing. Most contemporary viewers will have seen Reservoir Dogs prior to Kubrick’s film, thus inverting the original order of influence. For a theorist like Iampolski, however, a lack of chronology is no challenge to the process of quotation:

the intertextual field of certain texts can be composed of ‘sources’ that were actually written after them…. in some way a later text can serve as the source of an earlier text. This reverse chronology is of course only possible from the perspective of reading, which is precisely the basis of an intertextual approach to culture (246).

Part of the attraction of Iampolski’s thesis stems from its emphasis on reception rather than production, which permits a kind of multi-directional intertextuality that is more flexible and dynamic than a production-centered intertextuality of the kind that mechanistically traces the references in a given text to a previous one. Iampolski’s conception of the intertextual also seems to be closer to the actual logistics of textual consumption; readers and viewers often begin with whatever texts are current at the moment and then work their way back to older texts. From the point of view of reading, therefore, intertextuality may frequently imply (as it does in the Reservoir Dogs-The Killing case) a reversal of the relation between source and allusion.

Like the gangster movie and the western, film noir is a genre which presents an entirely self-contained textual universe that is hardly tangential to an extra­fictional world. Even without their densely allusive texture, the films that belong to these genres would be positively amimetic. The narration of violence that by itself serves to determine the structure of the genres in question suggests a particular form of allegoricity, a reading strategy, whose object is the examination of cultural fantasies concerning death, masculine identity and the body. It is critical that the canvas onto which this discourse inscribes itself is something else than a reflection, or representation in the conventional sense of the word. The gap which arises between text and life – the epistemological distortion which occurs when films violate mimesis – is required in order to generate that enunciatory space where the domain of the real is assayed. The difference is the condition of articulation and discourse; representation in the mimetic, reflective sense merely duplicates, creating nothing but sameness and identity. This is why textuality must advance beyond mimesis in order to enunciate. The world of film noir, like that of the gangster movie and the western, does not signify any corresponding universe beyond itself, but should be comprehended instead as a storehouse of images and narratives which project and explore the contents of different subjectivities. A sign rather than a transparent reflection, the depiction of violent masculinity that these genres invest in becomes tangible only as allegory.

One of the crucial observations that Borde and Chaumeton make in their pioneer study of film noir is that “[t]he primary reference point of earlier days, the moral center, is completely skewed” (25). In this respect, noir narratives an­nounce the emergence of a type of cinematic characterization that adds subtler shadings to the depiction of male protagonists than had been common in the earlier American cinema. As Porfirio submits, “[t]he word ‘hero’ never seems to fit the noir protagonist, for his world is devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero” (83, emphasis in original). Clay’s demand in The Killing that he wants “a guy that is a 100% dependable” becomes in this genre of black fictions yet another of Kubrick’s cynical ironies. There are few dependable characters in a film where femininity represents a fatal threat and masculinity in turn is enshrouded in permanent crisis. The source of the protagonists’ demise, galvanized by Kubrickian contingency, is always related to the psychological errors which inhere in the individual male characters (Nelson 31). In The Killing the nature of these flaws is psychosexual: it is Peatty’s jealousy and fear of the feminine that release his violence, and it is Unger’s frustrated desire for Clay that has him end up drunk on the day of the robbery, thus jeopardizing his boss’s seemingly foolproof plan. Kubrick’s working title for the film was Bed of Fear (Nelson 34), a metaphor more descriptive than The Killing of the narrative’s probing of the pathology of desire and anxiety.

Released in the middle of a decade of conformism – the year after Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause – Kubrick’s film also anticipates the subject of entrapped masculinity so significant to The Wild Bunch (and, in effect, to most of Peck­inpah’s films) and Fight Club. This is an issue that has been largely glossed over in previous criticism of The Killing. All of the male characters in the film are figuratively imprisoned, spatially as well as temporally, and from the very beginning the narration seems to associate disillusion with domesticity. Both Peatty and O’Reilly derive their criminal motivation from domestic predicaments, Peatty from the need to satisfy Sherry’s material appetite, O’Reilly from the need better to provide for his ailing wife. Images of confinement are legion in the narrative, and Nelson even finds that the cinematography itself enacts an externalization of the state of entrapment: “The film combines a series of horizontal tracking shots with repeated vertical compositions to create a spatial grid that suggests both a chessboard and a cage” (34). Notably, most of the film’s violence breaks out within the perimeters of the domestic sphere, and the mise en scene of both the massacre sequence and Peatty’s killing of his wife is configured in terms of an oppressive enclosure. The characters are also metaphorically trapped in a temporal sense of the term, since their defeat is already a foregone conclusion thanks to the peculiar narrational delineation of the plot. In the film’s last shot, the motif of entrapment culminates in the image of the two detectives approaching Clay, who does not even consider the possibility of escape. The narration of masculinity in The Killing, as in most noirs, employs the rhetoric of resignation.

Film noir’s fetishization of dejection and defeat, along with its conspicuous lack of happy endings, makes the genre an appropriate vehicle for allegorizations of mortality. The noir heroes, Porfirio suggests, “fear death but are not themselves afraid to die; indeed a good deal of what dignity they possess is derived from the way in which they react to the threat of death” (89). Though the aesthetics of violence in film noir generally and in The Killing in particular is couched in the same euphemistic register that characterizes all depictions of violence in the classical period, the genre’s concern with deviant masculinity and with the forms of death looks forward to the New Wave’s increased awareness of these issues. Durgnat in fact sees the “obsession with violent death in all forms and genres” in the 1960s as the legacy of film noir, eventually seeping through the narrative texture of more commercially popular genres (“Paint it Black” 51).

Source: Transfigurations. Violence, Death and Masculinity in American Cinema; Amsterdam University Press, 2008


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