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The Killing (Blu-ray Review)

29 Aug, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray.
Stars Sterling Hayden, Colleen Gray, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr.

After a brief male-starlet “blond” period at Paramount interrupted by Marine Corp service during World War II, Sterling Hayden eventually appeared in such classics or near-classics as The Asphalt Jungle, Johnny Guitar, The Killing, Dr. Strangelove, The Godfather, The Long Goodbye and 1900 — not to mention major cultist causes such as Crime Wave, Suddenly!, Loving (a Pauline Kael pet, if memory serves) and Winter Kills. That is an embarrassingly more substantial filmography than, say, Clark Gable’s — even though the afternoon TV movie host for whom I once worked regularly referred to Hayden as “Mr. Mahogany” (on the air) when introducing one of his films. This wasn’t so: Hayden had few equals in conveying a wizened character’s (think Captain Ahab) inner demons.

The late actor had demons in real life, too, as a friendly witness for HUAC — a transgression that haunted him for the rest of his life. Hayden’s tendency to soul-search also came out in his acclaimed writings, including 1963’s Wanderer, which is still in print. And we certainly get a gripping sense of them in two extraordinary pieced-together interview segments done for French TV and included as a bonus feature on this killer release of The Killing. Holy whatever: when did we ever get to see Sterling Hayden interviewed? We even see him here recalling his disgust at Joan Crawford’s badgering treatment of her son on the set of Johnny Guitar — at least one guy’s rebuttal to the Friends-of-Joan who discredited Mommie Dearest.

This new Criterion release of Stanley Kubrick’s third feature (though I suppose debut Fear and Desire barely counts) is such a jewel that buried in the bonus extras is, in its entirety, the director’s 1955 second feature Killer’s Kiss — a 1955 ‘B’ that I’ve always loved on a minor, forgiving level since seeing William K. Everson’s print 40 years ago on a wintry Sunday afternoon in film school. In a lesser transfer, MGM’s previous DVD version paired both movies as well — as did many years of repertory theater programmers. Even together, the combined running time is slightly less than three hours, and their comparable grit levels made them a compatible combo.

Aside from a spoon-feeding narration that’s pretty terrible, the worst thing you can say about racetrack caper The Killing is that The Asphalt Jungle (about a jewel robbery going into comparable “crumble” mode) is even better — though not by any humiliating margin. What’s more, it was probably Time’s rave review for Kubrick’s pennies-pinched feature that put the then unknown director on the road, leading to his second collaboration with Killing producer James B. Harris on Paths of Glory. As on Criterion’s previous release of the latter, Harris (who just turned 83) is interviewed here and again exudes a pleasing mix of modesty and detailed recall, especially in recalling how former Look photographer Kubrick and the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard just didn’t get along (because Kubrick told Ballard what he wanted). Somebody here deserves some raves, though, because this is standout noir black-and-white that even makes house lamps dramatic.

The movie’s quasi-Rashomon structure of relating the robbery’s events from different perspectives was lifted from the source novel (Clean Break by Lionel White), so it was rather suspect of Kubrick not to give the great hardboiled writer Jim Thompson more significant on-screen credit for the screenplay when Thompson’s dialogue (which crackles) is what makes the script tick. This said, Thompson scholar Robert Polito (nice on-camera interview here) notes that Kubrick treated Thompson well in other ways — using him, in fact, on Paths of Glory. And because Kubrick, according to Harris, knew just about every movie and character actor around, he made an enormous contribution to The Killing’s brilliant low-budget casting (though Harris claims credit for Vince Edwards, which was a master stroke). Just to name two more acting gems, the picture probably has the definitive Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor performances — as a mismatched couple whose courtship rituals must have been pretty interesting.

Rounding out this mouth-watering package is a printed essay by film historian Haden Guest, printed Windsor interview and some on-camera love by critic Geoffrey O’Brien for Killer’s Kiss that did my heart good. The protagonist here is an end-of-the-line pug (Kubrick’s boxing scenes are notably expressive) trying to carve out love with a taxi dancer. O’Brien makes a point that had never quite hit me front and center: that one of Kiss’s achievements is dramatizing just how tough New York City can be when you’re poor. A movie of stinging but strung-together set pieces as opposed to a cohesive narrative, Kiss provides a permanently valuable record of what NYC mean streets (or at least edgy ones) looked like at the time. Everybody, as they should, talks of James Wong Howe’s period Apple cinematography in Sweet Smell of Success, but I don’t think Kubrick’s own camerawork here is very far behind, if it even is.

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