Kubrick’s The Killing[1] piques our interest with its gradual reveal of the cyclically layered plot, opening at the racecourse – the location which is revisited from a series of perspectives, and where the criminal heist is yet to be pulled off by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) and his gang of crooked inside men. However it sustains our intrigue with the “notion of master plans undone by human fallibility”[2] which occurs catalytically with recurrent motifs that give us clues to precede the fatal failings in the meticulous plan. The presence of animals in particular underlines each event with tangible dramatic irony.

 

Take Nikki’s (Timothy Carey) introduction for instance, visited at his farm by Johnny and displaying his hitman talents, only to swap a rifle for a border collie puppy when discussing his terms for hire. This rapid juxtaoposition of violence and gentleness encodes a sense of Nikki’s flawed morality, and an imbalance to be corrected the only way a Noir knows how: with his death.[3] Kubrick here signals a poetic justice for Red Lightning, the racehorse Nikki shoots in order to distract he public from the heist, as it is a horse shoe (a common enough symbol of good luck, intended as a gift by the black attendant he racially abuses in order to stay on schedule) that punctures his tire and prevents him from escaping being fired at. It acts as an eerie equalizer of fate – a representative phantom remnant of Red Lightning.


There’s something darkly comical in the gradual decay of Johnny’s plan in The Killing being twinned with the recurring animal images, which enhances Kubrick’s thematic concerns of chance, flawed humanity, and instinct. It only aids in shifting the tonal progression of the film, from assumed planned perfection to the haywire helplessness of it’s ending.

 

figure-5-sherrys-marie-windsor-parrot-gets-in-the-last-word-after-the-femme-fatale-meets-her-end-at-the-hands-of-her-husband-george-elisha-c

Figure 5 Sherry’s (Marie Windsor) Parrot gets in the last word after the femme fatale meets her end at the hands of her husband George (Elisha Cook Jnr.)

Most comical of all is Sebastian the runaway poodle, seen moments before the film’s close in a cringe-worthy scene where his elderly owner smothers him with baby-talk, but then later makes a dash for freedom across the airport runway. The humorous nature of the sequence is paired with the seriousness of the failure of Johnny’s own attempted escape with the money and girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray) – as it is the dog that causes the baggage driver to swerve and send the loot pouring onto the asphalt. It reiterates Kubrick’s point on a ‘master plan undone’ by ‘human infallibility’ and a case of plain bad luck.

Kubrick’s dramatic irony enhances the labyrinthine plot and temporal structure of the film, as the pre-laid tension of these instances which we almost don’t realise exist until the last tragic second cerebrally marker the meaningless of Johnny’s plan, it’s doom being re-woven in each reiteration of the heist.

figure-8-sebastian-is-free
Figure 8: Sebastian is free

Lauren Nwenwu

 

[1]Adapted from Lionel White’s novel Clean Break

[2] The Guardian, The Killing review – Philip French on Stanley Kubrick’s influential breakthrough movie, Sunday 1 March 2015 08.00 GMT

[3] A common system of restoring narrative equilibrium in film noir being the fatal punishing of taboo practices through the guilty character’s death, in this case, the slaughter of an animal.