You know of the Siberian goat herder who tried to discover the nature of the sun? He stared up at the heavenly body until it made him blind. There are many things like this, including love, death, and my business for today.

The Killing by Stanley Kubrick (USA, 1956, 84 min.). Smooth talking criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), fresh from five years in Alcatraz, has learned one thing from doing time: “If you take a chance, be sure the reward’s worth the risk.” No more small-time jobs for Johnny; instead, he plans a 2 million dollar racetrack heist that requires immaculately planned choreography between multiple collaborators.  Working against his watchmaker’s plan is the veteran of another five-year stint: Marie Windsor’s bored, two-timing Sherry, wife to track cashier George (Elisha Cook Jr.). Twisting with desperation in the face of Sherry’s magnificent disdain, Cook’s reluctant inside man slowly reveals enough of what he knows for her to put a rival plan in motion: her lover Val will stick up the conspirators after the heist, and the two of them will make off with the whole take. All the pieces in places, Kubrick unwinds the scheme by tracing each player’s role individually, replacing a straight-ahead narrative with chronological jumps and building tension through a series of individual climaxes that keep reverting to an earlier moment and another point of view.

The authoritarian voiceover gamely places us each time the chronology restarts, yet the experience of the many strands is not pieces of a puzzle coming together, but a shifting, kaleidoscopic incompleteness. As the plan begins to unravel at the end, the all-knowing voiceover retreats, challenged by local substitutes with no pretension to omniscience: a track announcer, a radio voice speculating about the heist, an airport PA system. This fragmented, stuttering form of presentation and accompanying loss of authority makes the spectator’s experience mirror the film’s own thematic engagements with the possibility of securing happiness through knowledge and control, and the disaster that lies beyond the limits of that knowledge.  

The intertwining of limited knowledge, action, and human (un)happiness has long marked noir’s attenuated affinity with classical tragedy, and Kubrick stretches that affinity to its breaking point here. Tragic knowledge was always knowledge that comes too late, ruining our plans; in Aristotle’s estimation, the best tragedies linked this sudden insight to fate and character, revealing the fearsome necessity of just this end for just this person. Knowledge was left as the slim, hard consolation for what is done: a life may be in ruins, but the hero knows who she is and what the world is. The Killing empties out this consolation until barely anything remains. Johnny began the film in control of every moment of his plan, dispensing knowledge to each hood on a need-to-know basis while leaving his men and the audience in the dark about what is to come. By the end this superior knowledge is revealed as delusion, fate has become no more than bad luck, and Johnny’s omniscient control has yielded to the fateful, unknowable power of contingency.

Kathleen Kelley
PhD Candidate in Philosophy
The New School For Social Research, New York