Recent repeated viewings of Stanley Kubrick films have left me with the impression that he may in fact be one of the subtlest comedic directors, his films laced with moments of dark humour. The doubt of whether this may have been due to the sheer number of times I had watched these films was put to rest with my first viewing of one of his earlier films ‘The Killing’ (1956).
The plot revolves around Johnny Clay, played by Sterling Hayden, a criminal hoping to hit the jackpot and settle down. He assembles a group of men hoping to perform an immaculately timed heist at a horse racing track. Kubrick’s meticulous attention to detail is explicitly evident within the plot itself, as he uses a narrator to aid the viewer in mapping out the whereabouts and actions of each member of the gang at specific times throughout the course of the day. Each of these perfectly executed moves are countered by acts of fate that bring about the gang’s downfall. Pressure is built up throughout each of these individual strands of narrative as the audience watch the events of the heist unravel, however these lead to ironic conclusions for each story.
Nikki Arane, played by Timothy Carey, is hired to shoot the favourite horse as a distraction. However, in an attempt at a getaway, his tyre is punctured by a horseshoe brought to him for luck. This conclusion to the Nikki narrative is shown to the audience in a comically simple shot, which serves as a punchline.
The protagonist of the story, Johnny Clay, acts as the mastermind behind the entire scheme. His character seems to be cool under pressure and for the most part makes quick and intelligent decisions. However, in the finale of the film, a disobedient dog becomes the embodiment of his comeuppance who reveals the stash of money stowed in his suitcase during his attempt at a getaway. The shots of the thousands of dollar notes flying on the airport runway juxtaposed with a defeated Johnny evokes nervous laughter due to the amount of stress experienced during the first two acts of the film, and watching his hard work escape him so nonchalantly.
Kubrick also manages to flip this formula within the film by reversing the setup and punchline within the relationship between George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr) and Sherry (Marie Windsor). George is obviously the weakest link in the gang who cannot help but blabber to his wife about all their plans. Following his wife’s betrayal which ends in a hilarious shootout sequence, George returns to his home and fatally shoots Sherry, leaving a chirping parrot in the room as the sole survivor. Kubrick manages to twist this narrative from one of humour at George’s inept nature and Sherry’s lack of respect for her husband to an intense, short scene of harrowing uxoricide. The shots of George’s blood spattered face speaking dazedly to his wife seem to be pulled right out of a horror film, and can be seen as a glimmer of the surreal seen in Kubrick’s later films.