31 Flavors of Noir on the Fringe to Lure you in! Part 4 The last Killing in a Lineup of unsung noir

☞SPOILERS!

27-The Killing 1956

Daring hold-up nets $2,000,000! Police baffled by fantastic crime! Masked bandit escapes with race track loot! These 5 Men Had a $2,000,000 Secret Until One of them told this Woman!
Narrator – At exactly 3:45 on that Saturday afternoon in the last week of September, Marvin Unger was, perhaps, the only one among the hundred thousand people at the track who felt no thrill at the running of the fifth race. He was totally disinterested in horse racing and held a lifelong contempt for gambling. Nevertheless, he had a $5 win bet on every horse in the fifth race. He knew, of course, that this rather unique system of betting would more than likely result in a loss, but he didn’t care. For after all, he thought, what would the loss of twenty or thirty dollars mean in comparison to the vast sum of money ultimately at stake.

The Killing is an enigmatic tour de force directed by the fiercely independent Stanley Kubrick, who also penned the screenplay adapting its non-linear story structure from Lionel White’s novel ‘clean break.’ Kubrick chose Jim Thompson for the atypical style of writing in his pulp fiction books and had a great ear for dialect and an original approach to dialogue.

{about writer Jim Thompson} “At the time he was just another bitter alcoholic wordsmith living on paltry advances for paperback originals like Savage Night, The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me. Kubrick recognized his affinity for desperate characters and the great gallows humor in his dialogue. Thompson had a nasty falling out with Kubrick after Kubrick took a screenwriting credit, and reduced Thompson’s credit to merely – dialogue by…” (Eddie Muller)

Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick on the set of Paths of Glory 1957.

Thompson and Kubrick came together two years later to collaborate on his break-out film Paths of Glory 1957. Working within the Hollywood system there would always be strings attached, initially, Kubrick and writer Thompson’s screenplay (Thompson was popular as a writer of hard-boiled paperback crime novels) did not include a narrator, but the studio insisted they use one in order to lessen the audience’s confusion.

Kubrick’s insistence on staying true to White’s novel and his style of writing made him bang heads with United Artists who were distributing the film. They thought they were getting an unambiguous film noir heist picture, not a rip-off story told in the middle of a time warp.

Kubrick cleverly disrupted the studio’s demand for a Narrator and only used Gilmore when the narrative became linear, making him an unreliable storyteller, which had the outcome he was looking for from the beginning which was – to confuse the audience.

When Kubrick turned in his final cut United was furious and insisted he restructure the film so it wouldn’t mess with the audience’s heads. After a bit of a debate, Kubrick held his ground and stuck with White’s vision. The result was rather than spending any more money editing the film, United Artists marooned it under the half of a double bill with Robert Mitchum’s western, Bandito directed by Richard Fleischer who made some interesting B noir/crime movies His Kind of Woman 1951 with Robert Mitchum, The Narrow Margin 1952, Compulsion 1959, Crack in the Mirror 1960, and The Boston Strangler 1968.

Inspired by films he saw in Manhattan movie palaces and art houses, The Killing is Kubrick’s third considered benchmark film, he was known for disregarding his first two, Fear and Desire 1953 and Killer’s Kiss 1955. Though not a triumph at the box office, It is acknowledged as an innovative piece of filmmaking, his first accomplished tour de force which certainly inspired other directors. Kubrick gives the film a quality of solemnity that might have been influenced by his earlier work as a photojournalist at LOOK magazine. He had an instinctive eye for dramatic lighting and composition.

It is this non-linear story structure that initially engaged Kubrick and producer James B. Harris to acquire the rights to the source material, a blend of film noir and heist picture featuring noir veterans, classified simply within those two genres.

Kubrick was signed to The Jaffe Agency which consequently screened The Killing at different studios. Dory Schary at MGM was so impressed with the team that a year later would give producer James B. Harris and Kubrick $75,000 to write direct and produce a film they owned the rights to. That film would be Paths of Glory 1957.

The film is an expression of a familiar Kubrickian trope, the fallibility of man, and the framework of his designs and desires. We can see this theme playing out in his other films, the surefire devices that ultimately fail in Dr. Strangelove 1964, Hal’s rebellion in 2001: A Space Odyssey 1968, and Alex’s mind control in A Clockwork Orange 1971. 

Kubrick’s work often examines human behavior, that it can never be entirely predictable and how a person’s fallibility is pivotal to the fate of their convictions, and their humanity. The Killing centers around a Los Angeles racetrack heist and is an example of how things quickly fall apart as a result of greed and human error, with most of the bunch of thieves either cut down by gunfire or on their way back to jail. Kubrick’s casting of Sterling Hayden would pose the question – is Johnny Clay ‘a craftier big city cousin of the hayseed hooligan (Muller) Dix Handley in Huston’s classic The Asphalt Jungle 1950, any luckier?

Jean Hagen as Doll and Sterling Hayden as Dix Handley in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle 1950.

There’s a dynamic score by composer Gerald Fried (Cast a Long Shadow 1959, A Cold Wind in August 1961 directed by Alexander Singer, the associate producer on The Killing, The Killing of Sister George 1968, Soylent Green 1973).

The Killing features cinematography by Lucien Ballard known for his work with director Sam Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch 1969. With over 151 films to his credit, including Laura 1944, Don’t Bother to Knock 1952, The Killer is Loose 1956, A Kiss Before Dying 1956, and The Getaway 1972. Ballard uses exaggerated snapshots and frames composed with a documentary feel.

The racetrack scenes were filmed at the former Bay Meadows racetrack located in San Mateo, CA, and were directed by Alexander Singer while Stanley Kubrick was in Los Angeles shooting scenes there. Singer with over 85 titles to his credit is an underrated director of films including A Cold Wind in August 1961, Psyche 59 (1964), Love Has Many Faces 1965, and popular television series including Police Story, Quincy M.E, and The Rockford Files. The Killing is edited by Betty Steinberg who also worked on the 1951 nihilistic sci-fi psycho-sexual Five.

It’s one of the exquisite ironies we experience with the heist movie… a fine detail that causes us to feel both dread and empathy along the way… it’s still the best-laid plans that go awry. The inevitability is that every man is doomed no matter how much they move the chess pieces along the board, they cannot predict the outcome of the game. When you factor in the player’s reckless impulses, the unreliability of the human element, and the unforeseen intervention of providence, most times the protagonists’ dreams break apart like that shitty suitcase full of stolen money blowing away like leaves on a dark airport runway. 

For example, Johnny Clay (Hayden) is in the dark about the hidden thread running through his scheme. Sherry (Windsor) and her lover Val (Edwards) are in cahoots to swipe the money from the racetrack heist, which leads directly to the gang’s execution. He also doesn’t realize that his naive rejection of Marv’s subtle overtures, delivers his friend to a bombed state of woe while the heist is taking place. Johnny spends the whole movie planning to grab hold of a chance to pull himself up, but it ultimately leads to his downfall. His last words say it all – “What’s the difference.” All things unlooked-for will intrude on the world and all intentions will therefore fail.

The Killing calls for a reasonable comparison to the originally efficient heist noir – The Asphalt Jungle 1950 in terms of the relationship between the weakness of its players, the underestimated dependency on the heist going as expected, and noir’s ruthless fatalistic ideology.

In John Huston’s heist film, Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is nabbed as a consequence of his lecherous itch to watch a few young girls at a diner. He gives them nickels for a jukebox so he can watch them dance. It is his lingering for one last song that leads to the police catching him. It is one crummy decision that leaves Johnny Clay to utter the final three words of the movie- the suitcase that brings him down in the disordered noir world renders his careful planning useless.

The film is centered around gambling and life being a gamble. The stolen money comes from people who have bet on a losing race. The betting office is littered with an infinite trash pile of losing tickets including Marvin Unger’s (Jay C. Flippen) discarded losing ticket. And finally, the stolen money is scattered all over the airport runway as out-the-window money. Johnny bet on his plan and lost.

The film stars Sterling Hayden as Johnny Clay. Hayden is no stranger to the heist movie, nor an antihero who can’t escape his fate, as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle 1950.

Coleen Gray as Fay, Vince Edwards as Val Cannon, Jay C. Flippen as Marvin Unger, Ted de Corsia as Patrolman Randy Kennan, Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty, Elisha Cook Jr. as George Peatty, Joe Sawyer as Mike O’Reilly, James Edwards as Track Parking Attendant, Jay Adler the Loan Shark, Tito Vuolo as Joe Piano, Dorothy Adams as Ruthie and the often menacing, manic, eccentric or violent (let’s just say I don’t want to know what’s in the chili he serves to Columbo!) Timothy Carey as the psychopathic tinderbox Nikki Arcane.

Nikki Arcane is roguishly sardonic taking pleasure in his viciousness, his unholy smirk and demonic grin are not tossed off by his stroking a puppy while listening to Johnny’s pitch. We first encounter Nikki at his farm where Johnny hires him to shoot Red Lightning running in the seventh race.

The perpetually offbeat Timothy Carey was made to play the puppy-loving bigot with his ugly twisted grimace, and whose words sound like he swallows them whenever he opens his mouth.

Usually restricted to playing loathsome genre heavies, Carey’s strongest performances offer the kind of mixed signals associated not so much with art or craft as with pathology or the twisted mysteries of DNA. Paralleling his psycho roles, Carey’s dark personal legend encompasses 40 years of dedicated, or perhaps just helpless, eccentricity—zany behavior shading off into the macabre. Since the era of The Killing (56), Paths of Glory (57), Kazan’s East of Eden (55), and Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (61), he’d hung in my mind as one of the first Method character actors, embodying all the follies and fevers of that holy-roller theatrical regimen. Even in throwaway partsGrover Lewis from Cracked Actor: Timothy Carey

Coleen Gray, the damsel of noir appeared in various film noir, Kiss of Death 1947, Nightmare Alley 1947, The Sleeping City 1950, and Kansas City Confidential 1952. Colleen Gray’s angelic role of Fay echoes her submissive Nettie Cavallo who lives for Victor Mature in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947). She was always the one ray of light in noir’s dismal demimonde. (Muller)

Kubrick and Marie Windsor’s femme fatale Sherry, also summons up other notable noirs, Force of Evil (1948) and The Narrow Margin (1952) in this stinging reflection of a ruthless she-devil.

The gang itself is a gathering of character actors and veterans of some of the most prominent crime/noir of the 1940s. Jay C. Flippen with his concrete kisser as Hodges the guard in Brute Force 1947 and the brutish T-Dub in They Live by Night 1948Ted de Corsia the crooked cop appeared in The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Naked City (1948), and The Big Combo (1953).

Elisha Cook Jr. was the peculiar little runt in a trench coat, Wilmer Cook in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Cliff the frenzied drummer in  Phantom Lady (1944), and Harry Jones in The Big Sleep (1946).

Kubrick cast the avatar of weaselly, weak-willed weasels everywhere Elisha Cook Jr. Cook and Windsor’s scenes together flinging Thompson’s brutal barbs are domestic life at its most dire. A marriage made in film noir hell. (Eddie Muller)

Elisha Cook Jr. his usual owl-eyed persona, is in a constant state of humiliation provoked by his cunning wife Sherry (Windsor). George is painful to watch as he suffers under the weight of his masochistic marriage, rendered impotent by his worship of a woman who does not conceal her hostility toward him.

George asks “Why did you ever marry me anyway?” Sherry condescending answers “Oh, George if you have to ask your wife that well he just hadn’t better. Why talk about it, maybe it’s all for the good in the long run. After all if people didn’t have headaches what would happen to the aspirin industry?”

Maurice (Kola Kwariani) reminds me of the wrestler, wild man George the Animal Steele. Joe Sawyer appeared in Gilda and Jay Adler as Leo, (the loan shark heavy who is sticking it to Randy, was Detective Sam Hill in The Big Combo.

Tito Vuolo plays Joe who rents the room to Johnny appeared in Kiss of Death, T-Men (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and The Racket (1951). Fans of early medical drama Ben Casey will get a kick out of seeing Vince Edwards slipping out of his neurosurgeon scrubs to play Val Cannon, Sherry’s swarthy, slippery lover. Edwards appeared in other film noir in the 1950s. Rogue Cop 1954, The Night Holds Terror 1955, in Hugo Haas’ Hit and Run 1957, Murder by Contract 1958, and City of Fear 1959.

And in contrast to George’s pathetic relationship with Sherri, Mike (Joe Sawyer) adores his bedridden wife (Dorothy Adams), though his situation is tragic in a different way. Dorothy Adams appeared in Laura (1944) as Bessie the hysterical maid, also cast in another noir He Walked by Night (1948).

Even the two plainclothes cops who approach Johnny at the airport had their turn at noir Charles Cain appeared in The Dark Corner (1946) and Dead Reckoning (1947), and Robert Williams was in Lady in the Lake (1947), T-Men 1947, and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950).

Art Gilmore the deadly serious, patriarchal-toned narrator in The Killing was a familiar storyteller in films of the 1940s and 1950s. Having a full-toned ‘voice of god’ commentary was a conventional technique in noir, used in Hollywood fiction, police procedurals, etc. Here it is used as an unconventional device to organize the film’s nonlinear structure. But on the whole, when there isn’t a wild jump in time, the Narrator does not introduce the scene.

In the opening scenes, the omniscient commentary is built in so we are presented with the exact time of the actions but he has no personal stake in the story.

The agency given to this method of storytelling was carried over into shows of the 1960s, The Outer Limits 1963-65 and The Fugitive 1963-67. Here, Kubrick employs the use of an ‘omniscient’ narrator to mislead us, the zigzagging plot is obfuscated. At some point, we become aware that we’re purposefully being misguided and that the narrator is keeping a lid on the truth.  What we do establish through the misdirections is we can’t have any faith in the ‘Dragnet’ style voice-over that tries to give an account of a precisely scheduled heist/trip that will become a train wreck.

Stanley Kubrick’s racetrack caper The Killing is a conceptual “exercise in time travel… a flashback film with no flashbacks.”(Stephen Mamber). Throughout your travels, you inevitably wind up back where you’ve already been. Kubrick uses this complex narrative structure to set The Killing apart from other heist films – notably The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

Johnny Clay is absent in large patches of screen time. Once a character is fixed in the plot the film travels backward and factors in another player on screen until all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. After the main characters are introduced in this way we begin to realize the film possesses a nonlinear time structure. Were given the information in little snapshots at a time and like the gang, we never really see the full picture of the heist.

“Brilliantly, Kubrick doesn’t always give us “the right” answers – some of the repetition is false, and most of the points-of-view only see a slim portion of the overall plan. Kubrick occasionally uses these tropes straight-up, but the director subverts certain techniques to befuddle the audience.” (Mario Falsetto: Nonlinear Time) 

Kubrick tells the story from different angles of the same episode as each character plays out his role in the scheme. The robbery begins, and each gang member serves his purpose from the moment the camera shoots the dray horses taking their positions for the race. We see the same section of the event from varying perspectives which gives us more insight into the heist, at which point the third time the announcer calls the Seventh Race, we’re made aware of things as they happened.

“The Killing goes backward from the very beginning and its end is where we start, so the entire movie is a series of elliptical goings-back… the film has some interesting means to express simultaneity generally through repitition which perhaps keeps it from being completely impossible to follow however its genius lies in the conceptual nature of this enterprise, the glimpses of a grand design  When these occur we know we are back where we’ve been free now to see another piece of the puzzle.” (Stephen Mamber)

*Sources: Stephen Mamber-Simultaneity and Overlap in Kubrick’s The Killing” and Mario Falsetto’s article Nonlinear Time:

Present in The Killing is the familiar noir tropes -greed, the heist, betrayal, fatalism, obsession, racism, paranoia, infidelity, jealousy, and the femme fatale that causes ruination and destruction.

Kubrick introduces the main characters’ motivations in the first fifteen minutes of the film, a convention seen in Hollywood in the mid-1950s.

The crew includes a mixed bag of atypical criminals. As Johnny Clay mentions in his scene with Fay they are not archetypal criminals.

Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) None of these men are criminals in the usual sense. They’ve all got jobs. They all live seemingly normal, decent lives. But, they’ve got their problems and they’ve all got a little larceny in ’em.

We find out about Mike’s devotion to his bedridden wife, Officer Kennans’ money troubles, George’s submissive relationship with his wife Sherry, Johnny’s history as a petty crook and his five-year prison stretch, and good-girl Fay’s intense loyalty to Johnny in striking contrast to Sherry’s femme fatale.

When his gang of hired henchmen comes together to go over the details of the heist they end up fighting with each other, but do manage to work together once the heist begins, pulling off the robbery. Maurice’s speech to Johnny foreshadows how ultimately, things will go horribly wrong with most of the gang scattered lifeless on the floor and Johnny being brought down by a rambunctious poodle.

Jay C. Flippen’s character Marv Unger remains the least defined, particularly due to the trickiness of the queer subtext of his unrequited love by Johnny.

A scene takes place between Johnny and Marv in which Marv embraces Johnny revealing his feelings made less subtle by the heartache on his face. Due to the Hays Code still being enforced in the 1950s, it was imperative that Johnny’s character perform masculinity, and Marv’s homosexuality remains coded. Johnny treats Marv’s show of affection as something of a warmhearted gesture. Johnny’s dismissal leads directly to Marv’s drunken fit later on during the robbery. Although Marv’s role in the heist is not crucial, his intoxication signals the downfall of the operation.

Johnny-We’ll probably never see each other again after we split the money and break up tonight but in my book you’ll always be a stand up guy.

Marv-Johnny , I don’t know how to say this and I don’t even know if I have the right but I always thought maybe you’re like my own kid.

Johnny -Oh you could say anything you want.

Marv-You’ve had a lot of rough breaks, maybe you’ve made a few mistakes. After today the good lord willing you’ll be a new man. A rich man. And that can make a lot of difference. You’ve got a lot of life ahead of you. A lot of people to meet. People of substance.

Johnny- What are you gettin at?

Marv- Wouldn’t it be great if we could just go away the two of us. Let the whole world take a couple of turns. Have a chance to take stock of things. It can be pretty serious and terrible particularly if it’s not the right person. Getting married I mean.:

Johnny- Get’s some sleep.

Johnny playfully brushes Marv’s overture off like a kid brother. Marv is revealing his feelings, that Johnny might be marrying the wrong person in Fay, that he’ll be a rich man after the heist and they could go off the two of them and see a new way of life together. This is probably Marv’s motivation for putting up the money in the first place.

Marv isn’t the only one who alerts us to the downfall of the operation, everyone contributes their little blunders, and the goof-ups are strewn throughout. George Peatty is the major contributor to mucking up the works. But the smaller slip-ups would come from Mike who narrowly gets the gun out of the locker, Nikki arrives too early at the parking lot and spooky in his amiability must charm the parking attendant (James Edwards) to allow him to park there. Johnny choosing that ridiculous suitcase isn’t his only nonsensical moment, after he grabs the money from the heist, he goes to the wrong motel room.

These small unplanned deviations cause us to doubt they will succeed, and this is what Kubrick wanted to breathe into the narrative so we are not surprised when it all goes awry.

Ex-con Johnny Clay, is a small-time criminal who after spending 5 years in Alcatraz, organizes one final heist. He masterminds a daring racetrack robbery laying out plans to steal $2 million from the Lansdowne Stakes in Los Angeles, during a big race. After they score, Johnny plans on marrying his childhood girlfriend, the sweet Fay who waited for him while he served his five-year sentence. Johnny reaches out to Marv Unger who would do anything for him. Marv funds the operation, providing the cash it’ll take to hire the right men for the job. Johnny tracks down a collection of inconspicuous guys who would normally go unsuspected of a two-million-dollar heist.

Marv (Flippen) is a regular at the track who knows the layout. He’s a paternal figure and heavy drinker who supplies the upfront money.

Elisha Cook Jr. is the unassertive betting cashier George Peatty, a track teller whose cheating shrewish wife is fooling around behind his back with Val Cannon (Edwards), who sets out to rob the robbers.

George maintains a pitiable weakness for Sherry. But this dynamic isn’t the only snag in the operation. Marv is found drunk by bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) right before the heist in the seventh race. Mike O’Reilly cares for his sick wife Ruthie (Dorothy Adams– Bessie the maid in Laura 1944) suffering from some unstated chronic disease. He needs the cash for her medical expenses. It is his justification for participating in the heist.

And Randy Kennan, a crooked cop (de Corsia) who’s buried by his gambling debt to an itchy loan shark (Jay Adler). Though Randy figures in the heist he doesn’t have many prominent scenes. Johnny also hires the volatile sharpshooting psychopath Nikki Arcane. Mike O’Reilly is pretty straightforward but does have some interesting screen time and Randy Kennan are more stock characters.

Wrestler Maurice Oboukhoff (Kwariani Kola) is a Russian bear who hangs around a local chess club and serves as a hired muscle in Clay’s scheme. He verbally spars with Clay and the dialogue is wonderfully tight. He’s brawny and cartoonish. The chess-playing ex-wrestler is hired to pick a fight in order to create a distraction. At the end with Johnny’s failed getaway, Maurice who was paid  $2500 upfront is the sole player who gets away.

Maurice You have my sympathies, then. You have not yet learned that in this life you have to be like everyone else – the perfect mediocrity; no better, no worse. Individuality’s a monster and it must be strangled in it’s cradle to make our friends feel confident. You know, I’ve often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They are admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.

Before accepting Johnny’s offer, Maurice shares his insight about the mediocrity of the bourgeois middle class who often show hostility toward inspired individualism and the criminal element succeeding. While playing at his chess club: “You know, I often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses.  They’re admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.”

Up until this point, the leaps in time have all been forward, and nothing appears out of the ordinary.  At 7 p.m. Johnny explains his motives and assures Fay that everything is going to be okay. Fay lacks self-confidence, believing she isn’t smart enough or pretty enough. Though Johnny shares very tender words with Fay, we still are in the dark about the entire details of his scheme. This will be a sustained effort to decipher the strategy all at once.

It is plain that Johnny understands he can rely on the men only so far, as they all need the money in the same way. He does not reveal the full-scale operation of the strategy to any of them. Even we, do not see the entire picture. The members of the gang either figure into the blueprint of the robbery or specialize in some way, yet none of them are aware of any other details of Johnny’s grand plan.

Oddly enough and the most confusing choice, Johnny lends his trust to the weakest link, George Peatty. His relationship with Sherry is perhaps the most character-driven to get screen time and with dialogue that is fully fleshed-out.

Johnny hires Maurice for muscle and Nikki as a marksman to create a distraction at the track. At the home stretch Nikki (Carey) will shoot Red Lightning, the horse favorited in the race. Maurice (Kwariani) will instigate a brawl while at the bar, as a diversion to preoccupy the security guards. During all the fuss, George will let Johnny into the building. Once inside, Johnny wearing the smirking rubber clown mask will grab the gun hidden in the locker, enter the cash room and get his hands on the $2 million in unmarked bills. He’ll take the bag of money and pitch it out the window where Officer Kennan (de Corsia) is waiting in his patrol car.

It’s not nearly a flawless plan except the hapless George Peatty brings his manipulative, insatiable wife who is repeatedly dismissive and mocking into the picture. George is not, in Sherry’s words, “a handsome brute of a man.”

Sherry Peatty It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line.

Writer Jim Thompson’s (Paths of Glory 1957, and The Getaway 1972) sharp dialogue, and Kubrick’s fluid camera movement reveal a telling subplot of the couple’s story. George is framed in the opening scene, as the camera follows him around the room as he brings her a drink.

George has a fragile self-worth as a husband and man. He follows Sherry around their apartment like a flogged puppy, mopping up her vicious aversion to his inadequacies and failure to give her a life filled with material things. George doesn’t have to worry about that though after he shoots her at the end.

As he becomes less prominent remaining in mid-frame, the camera settles on Sherry and she is the one who commands the screen in focus (Windsor is shown in the foreground) and has dominion over the scene. It is clear that Sherry is the one in charge. It’s a dynamic sequence with Sherry Peatty’s pirouette of manipulation that Kubrick’s story pivots on.

Dissatisfied, resentful languishing, and vengeful, Sherry makes jokes at George’s expense, cuts him in half, demeans him with scripted cruelties, and then strokes him with phony affection. George knowing too well she’s not in love, lets her manipulate him into revealing the secrets a few days before the heist. George alludes to the fact he’ll be able to give her all the finer things he’s promised her over the years.

George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) Tell me something, will you, Sherry. Just tell me one thing. Why did you ever marry me, anyway?

Sherry (Marie Windsor) Oh, George, when a man has to ask his wife that; well, he just hadn’t better, that’s all.

George It would make a difference, wouldn’t it. If I had money, I mean.

Sherry How would you define money, George? Now, if you’re thinkin’ of givin’ me your collection of Roosevelt dimes…

George I mean big money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Sherry You really don’t feel well, do you? Are you sure that pain’s in your stomach?

George I’m gonna have it, Sherry. Hundreds of thousands. Maybe a half a million.

Sherry Of course you are, Darling. Did you put the right address on the envelope when you sent it to the North Pole?

He hints that he’s meeting some men and is into something big, plans to get rich, and set her up in a life of luxury. Easily, Sherry sweet-talks the plan of action out of sad-sack George.

She then shares the details about the secret meeting at Marv’s and the upcoming robbery with her sly lover Val Cannon and that’s when the plan begins to fall apart. The conniving couple will rob the robbers, and steal the money from George and his pals, after they’ve pulled off the job, swooping in while the gang is dividing up the loot.

The cunning Sherry gets caught listening outside Marv’s apartment where the gang is meeting up to discuss the plans, Johnny in his quietly hostile way confronts Sherry and warns her to keep her mouth shut. ‘I know you like a book” he says “You’re a no good nosy little tramp. You’d sell your own mother for a piece of fudge.”  George confesses that he spilled the beans to her.

On the day of the heist, Nikki gets into a position where he will have a clear shot at Red Lightning. He is approached by the racetrack parking attendant (James Edwards) who refuses to allow him to park closer to the track. But Nikki gives him a sad story about being in the war. Met with empathy for having been injured in the war himself, he lets him take a closer spot in the lot. Nikki’s unctuous charm wears off and he exposes his racism when Edwards keeps hanging around his car, bringing him a racing program until Nikki Arcane has had enough and reveals he’s a nasty species, slugging Edwards with a racial slur. Carey’s demeanor is chilling. He has cold demonic eyes.

Johnny heads into the locker room to grab the gun, his farcical mask, and the sack he’ll dump the money into and waits to listen for the track announcer who will call the seventh race.

Nikki’s mission is complete, he successfully downs Red Lightning and the announcer confirms his strategy is coming off as planned. But his sniper is shot in the back by police trying to get away. Maurice stages the fight in the bar to draw the attention of the security guards, and though it works, he is arrested.

George unlocks the door for Johnny so he has access to the room with the track’s take for the day. Johnny then tosses the $2 million out the window convinced that Officer Randy Kennan can grab it and take off in his patrol car without anyone seeing him. The sack with the fortune will soon be on the bed in Joe Piano’s ten-dollar-a-week room.

Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) A friend of mine will be stopping by tomorrow to drop something off for me. He’s a cop.

Joe Piano (Tito Vuolo) A cop? That’s a funny kind of a friend.

Johnny Clay Well, he’s a funny kind of a cop.

The rest of the gang makes it to the prearranged apartment waiting for Johnny to arrive with the cash so they can split the money. But Johnny gets stuck in traffic and is late showing up. That’s when Val Cannon shows up at the rendevous point first, and holds them at gunpoint. Everyone ends up blasted with bullets, wiped out except for George who is left barely alive.

By the time Johnny gets there, he finds George bloodied, stumbling onto Johnny’s car for a brief moment, then gets into his car across the street, and heads home. Johnny’s perfect plan has gone horribly wrong, he had no choice but to save himself and the money, so he drives off.

George the poor schmuck staggers home. Standing In the doorway while Sherry packs expecting to leave with Val, a bloody runt he asks in his weak impish voice, “why… why did you do it?” Sherry-“What? do what dearest. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just getting some clothes together to go to the cleaners. So you had to be stupid. You couldn’t even play it smart with a gun pointed at ya. Well you better get smart fast and get out of here while you can while you can still walk.” George-“Your friend, Val… is that his name?” Sherry-“Yes and you better get out of here before he gets here.” George-“I’m sick Sherry. Call an ambulance.” Sherry-“The door’s behind you take a cab.” George-“I love you Sherry” Sherry-“George you better go one and go you look terrible.” He shoots the unfaithful Sherry in the stomach then collapses. The grim scene leaves George lifeless on the floor while the caged parrot screams next to his dead body. The camera focuses on his bloody face.

Gilmore recites Johnny’s movements, “Ten minutes later he bought the largest suitcase he could find.” Johnny who now has enough money to purchase some decent luggage buys the infamous suitcase that might as well have been a paper bag with a hole in it, the world’s most ridiculously cheap piece of luggage that doesn’t lock. Adding fuel to the flames, he dumps the loose bills into it, like dirty lettuce in a garbage bin.

Johnny and Fay head to the airport, but when they check in, the suitcase is too big to carry onto the plane. Not wanting to draw attention to himself he lets them check his bag with all the other luggage.

As the couple waits to board the plane, they realize they’re up the creek without a paddle when a dog owner with an obnoxiously endearing voice indulges her French poodle (named Sebastian) and lets him run onto the tarmac. The suitcase breaks open and Johnny and Fay watch helplessly as the bills swirl around the airport like leaves in the Autumn wind provoked by a plane’s rotating propellers.

Barely trying to get away, a trace of futility in the noir couple’s aura, and on their faces, as they attempt to grab a taxi outside the airport when security spots them. The police slowly move through the glass doors, and Johnny and Fay know they’re done. Fay tells him, “Come on, Johnny, we’ve got to run.”, but after all the careful planning, Johnny resigns himself to the downfall of his pipe dream, with Hayden’s zen-like stoicism he fatefully utters, “Eh, what’s the difference.”  It’s a nihilistic ending. Brought down by a rambunctious poodle, and a malfunctioning suitcase filled with $2 million spinning in the wind tunnel from the airplane’s engine, littering the tarmac. Kubrick’s dark humor quivers side by side with the foreboding defeat. And not unlike Hayden’s character Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle 1950, we wish he’d gotten away. Instead of Johnny watching his fortune blowing away or Dix dying in the field with a horse licking his face.

TRIVIA-

The film was effectively dumped by “United Artists,” premiering as the second half of a double feature; Richard Fleischer‘s “Bandido! (1956)” was the main film. However, it made Stanley Kubrick‘s reputation, and Kirk Douglas and Marlon Brando soon hired him

The film was shot in 24 days. Frank Sinatra expressed interest in the project but Kubrick was awarded the rights. Kubrick picked Windsor after he saw her performance in The Narrow Margin. He delayed filming until Windsor was done shooting Swamp Women 1956 Corman’s first film.

Working titles were “Clean Break” and “Bed of Fear”.

Initial test screenings were poor, citing the non-linear structure as the main problem. Stanley Kubrick was forced to go back and edit the film in a linear fashion, actually making the film even more confusing. In the end, it was released in its original form, and is often cited as being a huge influence on other non-linear films

Kirk Douglas was so impressed with the fillm he sought out Kubrick to direct Paths of Glory 1957
Jack Palance and Victure Mature were both considered for the part. of Sterling Hayden

31-The Lineup 1958

“Ordinary people of your class, you don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.”

Directed by Don Siegel (who directed his earlier film noir The Big Steal 1949, and Private Hell 36 1954, helmed thrilling films in the 50s that boasted trashy titles Like Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), his arresting mediation on communism and identity theft  Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956, Crime in the Streets 1956, and the volatile Baby Face Nelson 1957.

Siegel worked initially as a film librarian and then as an assistant in the inserts department, second unit work, and as assistant editor at Warner Bros. He was head of the newly formed montage department and in 1938 was editing montages for directors like Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz.

By the 50s he left Warner Bros with experience and began directing B pictures first at RKO then as a freelancer for producers who valued his skill at working with modest budgets while still turning out high-energy pictures with all the elements of good action/thrillers.

Siegel rooted himself in the 1960s with his updated Hemingway story, originally directed by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film noir, The Killers 1964. Moved on to crime thrillers like Madigan in 1968, and began his long-time collaboration with Clint Eastwood – Coogan’s Bluff in 1968, The Beguiled 1971, and Dirty Harry in 1971. Siegel directed the highly underrated and one of my favorite heist films – Charlie Varrick 1973.

Siegel’s skill in the editing room and his spirited set pieces are very distinct – from the staged scenes of paranoia breaking loose in Body Snatchers in 1956, the energetic car chase of The Lineup (1958), and the clash between car and plane in Charley Varrick (1973).

The works of Don Siegel who directed Madigan, Coogan’s Bluff 1968, and Dirty Harry 1971 a lawman trilogy that significantly balances the unholy triptych of Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup, and The Killers. All of which featured the psychotic professional gunman hero. (Carlos Clarens- An Illustrated History by Carlos Clarens)

Siegel is more interested in the operations of crime and detection than in passing moral judgment (Carlos Clarens)

“The police and the mob are viewed as parallel organizations functioning according to rules and agreed on procedures, but Siegel’s real interest clearly lies in the Wallach-Keith pairing. Marked as it is by a strongly ‘perverse streak.'” (The Gangster Film Edited by Phil Hardy)

The LIneup is a full-length feature adapted to the screen based on the popular television series of the same name that ran between 1954-1960 on CBS, a police procedural that takes place in San Francisco. Given the success of Dragnet based in Los Angeles, the San Francisco-based series focused on two cops played by Warner Anderson and Tom Tully. Columbia hired Don Siegel who had forged a reputation as head of the montage department at Warner Brothers producing multi-shot

Siegel’s film is Based on the television show of the same name that ran between 1954-1960 and centered around actual cases from the San Francisco Police files with Lt Ben Guthrie and Inspector Grebb. The show’s producer convinced Columbia to finance the screen version.

Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) Tom Tully as Inspector Matt Grebb who works as a team tracking down criminals. Some of the directors who contributed to the series were Felix E. Feist, Paul Henreid, Stuart Rosenberg, and Earl Bellamy. In Siegel’s full-length film, Tom Tully was replaced by established tough guy Emile Meyer.

There is an uncredited score by Mischa Bakaleinikoff and was shot by cinematographer Hal Mohr a native of San Francisco (The Walking Dead 1936 with Boris Karloff, Destry Rides Again 1939, Phantom of the Opera 1943 with Claude Rains, The Wild One 1953, Underworld U.S.A 1961, The Creation of the Humanoids 1962). His camerawork captures the neo-realism filmed beautiful, authentic on-location spots in San Francisco. The Lineup is a galvanic-charged tour of the bay area, haunted by the quest of two sociopathic hitmen.

The film features notable San Francisco spots like the old Embarcadero YMCA, the Golden Gate Bridge, the War Memorial Opera House, US Customs House, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, the Legion of Honor, the old DeYoung Museum, and the Mark Hopkins Hotel.  One of the key scenes is filmed at the Sutro’s Museum  – the amusement ice skating rink at the beginning of the climactic end.

The Lineup begins at the waterfront docks, across the city, from the Cliff House and ends in a chase that plunges off the unfinished Embarcadero Freeway. Though it pales in comparison the car chase might have initiated the famous high-speed hot pursuit in Bullitt 1968 also filmed in San Francisco and William Friedkin’s New York crime thriller The French Connection 1971.

Written by Stirling Silliphant (5 Against the House 1955, Village of the Damned 1960) who received an Oscar for his screenplay for In the Heat of the Night 1967. Silliphants also wrote the screenplay for Jacques Tourneur’s unyielding noir directed by Siegel- Nightfall 1956, which also features two psychotic hitmen, an eccentric bully Brian Keith who happens to be the son of Robert Keith who plays the unmerciful Julian in Siegel’s The Lineup.

Both Siegel and Silliphant were not interested in turning The Lineup into another retread of the police procedural. Instead, they wanted a compelling crime thriller paying more attention to the pair of sociopathic hitmen contracted to fetch smuggled heroin. The film is a dialogue on violence reigned over by an older mentor and an uncivilized unstable apprentice.

As we progress from the pioneer generation to the corporate underworld, the residual normality of Baby Face gives way to almost inhuman specialization.

The latter-day gunman lives in a hotel room and moves actors around the country like a salesman in his Ivy League suit, carrying his rod in a briefcase. Women are notably absent from his life. (Carlos Clarens)

The Lineup stars raspy-voiced Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven 1960, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly 1967) as a quintessential psychopath, Dancer a cool assassin, with a flammable temper, he’s a killer who convulsively disposes of people while out of control in San Francisco. “he pushed me too far. I pushed him far enough!”

The actor is known for his ability to convey subtle changes in his expression within a split second. He gave an impressive performance as Silva Vacarro in Kazan’s Baby Doll 1956 For his debut in the film, he won a BAFTA Award for Best Newcomer and a Golden Globe Award nomination. Similar to another of Don Siegel’s crime thrillers Baby Face Nelson 1957 starring Mickey Rooney who also plays a psychotic antagonist emerging zealously out of control when faced with the slightest obstacle or provocation, Wallach’s antagonism has a hair trigger.

Robert Keith (Boomerang! 1947, Edge of Doom 1950, The Wild One 1953, The Masks episode of The Twilight Zone 1964) as Julian, a malevolent deep-thinker (who has never used a gun) and says things like “Crying’s aggressive and so’s the law. Ordinary people of your class, you don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.”

It’s Julian’s function to restrain his murderous protégé Dancer, describing him as if seduced by his instinct to kill – “a wonderful, pure pathological study. He’s a psychopath with no inhibitions.” Robert Keith is fiendish as a misanthropic cynic, a lawless devil, a woman-hating elder – “Women have no place in society, they don’t appreciate the need for violence” he tells his terrified female hostage.

Dorothy Bradshaw [while being held captive, in distress] What kind of men are you?

Julian See, you cry. That’s why women have no place in society. Women are weak. Crying’s aggressive and so’s the law. Ordinary people of your class, you don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.

Siegel concentrated not on the police procedural or the drug smuggling but on the two hired gunmen assigned to recover a heroin drop. Julian Dancer is an addict, an addict with a real big habit. Sandy McLain ‘H’ like in heroin, uh? Julian ‘H’ like in hate.

Julian asks Dancer about their victims’ dying words, which he writes down in his journal. Julian “Did he say anything?” Dancer. “He said, ‘Why be greedy?” Julian “That would make a swell epitaph.”

Richard Jaekel as Sandy McLain, Mary LaRoche as Dorothy Bradshaw, William Leslie as Larry Warner,  Raymond Bailey as Phillip Dressler, and Vaughn Taylor as ‘The Man’ – a power-hungry boogeyman in a wheelchair, who is the link to the drug Kingpin behind the operation. Warner Anderson as Lt. Ben Guthrie leads the hunt with Emile Meyer as Inspector Al Quine. Also co-stars Marshall Reed as Lt Fred Asher.

The film noir of the 1940s possessed an imaginative iconography and expressive shadow-work that painted the narratives with dark corners of rain-soaked streets, twisting staircases, and the inward mind. The 1950s left that obscurity behind for a bolder thriller that was capable of planting itself in the harsh light of day.

Siegel’s inherent naturalistic environment in his films became his trademark visual style. For example Riot in Cell Block 11 and Private Hell 36 “utilize internal and external space as a means of visualizing the outsider’s psychological relationship to society.” (Ronald Wilson Film Noir: The Directors edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini) or what Andre Sarris termed as the “doomed peculiarity of the anti-social outcast.”  Siegel sets up his two outliers in the same way director Robert Aldrich has an affinity for crafting a story that made visible, nonconformists who live outside of society. They are loners, with no other friendships but each other. Like Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) in The Big Combo 1955, Siegel’s Dancer and Julian are typical of his noir protagonists/antagonists, “the man outside society” who have contempt for any type of authority.

“From The gangster protagonist in Baby Face Nelson 1957 and The Lineup 1958 are defined by their mobility. The use of external space is dominant in these films where the outcast is literally apart from society. The gangster outsider lives on the road and is dependent on mobility to achieve his aims.

Therefore, when the character encounters internal space he becomes unstable and often resorts to violence Siegel’s use of narrative space in these films creates tension between the characters because of this conflict between mobility and stability.”– Ronald Wilson Film Noir The Director

In San Francisco, unwitting cruise ship passengers coming back from a trip to Hong Kong, are being used by the mob to smuggle heroin into the country. The syndicate hires two out-of-town hoodlums to retrieve the illegally trafficked drugs inside souvenirs – dolls and figurines. The recurrent theme: flash forward to Terence Young’s 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark starring Audrey Hepburn as a helpless blind woman and a trio of thugs who in her claustrophobic apartment, terrorize her while looking for a doll stuffed with heroin.

Eli Wallach, the psychopathic hitman Dancer, and his zen-like mentor Julian (Robert Keith) are coded lovers and Julian is writing a book chronically the last words spoken by Dancer’s unlucky victims. They murder each one of the targets in cold blood while trying to retrieve the drugs.

Siegel’s dark humor is palpable as Julian tries to impart social graces to Dancer, which chillingly forecasts the need to housebreak his trigger-happy psychopathic pal and the unstable nature of the beast. Any slight deviation in the plan can set Dancer off.

The first 30 minutes work as the original tv show’s formulaic police procedural.

The film opens with an employee ((Raymond Bailey, later of CBS-TV comedy series “The Beverly Hillbillies”) from the San Francisco Dressler Opera Company watching a porter steal his luggage and toss the bag filled with heroin into a hot taxicab that runs down a cop. After he speeds away from the airport, the police pursue the driver, a junkie, who they shoot and kill.

San Francisco Detectives Al Quine (Emile Meyer – Paths of Glory) and Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson- The Caine Mutiny 1954) are assigned to the case and now try to hunt down the bad guys and find the source of the shipments being smuggled in.

Later Dancer and Julian who arrive by plane from out-of-town recruit Sandy (Richard Jaekel) a shaky alcoholic, to be their wheelman. Sandy McLain [Referring to Dancer] I knew a guy like him once. Julian No, you didn’t. There’s never been a guy like Dancer. He’s a wonderful, pure pathological study. He’s a psychopath with no inhibitions.

Getting the instructions from a dockside informant in a trench coat and running into trouble along the way, they must track down the three separate parcels of heroin planted on the separate groups of travelers. The first package is being held by a merchant seaman who knows what is stashed inside the statue he pawns for insurance.

There are 3 sequences in the quest for the smuggled drugs. The first occurs in the steam room bath house of the Seaman’s Club, where Dancer shoots the seaman Larry Warner (William Leslie The Night the World Exploded 1957) once he has revealed the location of the statue containing the heroin.

Dancer meets him in a steam room, but when he tries to shake down Dancer for a bigger piece of the split Dancer kills him. The scene where Dancer reveals his gun with the silencer emphasizes the sexual hostility and homoerotic nuances.

The next framing of ‘internal space’ that sends Dancer into a violent rage takes when Dancer goes to retrieve the second package brought in by the wealthy couple, the Sanders who are not at home at their mansion. When Dancer calls on them he violates the quiet comforts of the elegant San Francisco residence. He is greeted by their butler who makes the mistake of giving Dancer a hard time when he will not hand over the heroin stashed inside a collection of expensive cutlery. Dancer is reflected in the mirror as he guns him down on the staircase. Siegel draws on a system of recurring iconography – noir mirrors and staircases. Dancer’s sense of confinement within Sander’s affluent walls triggers his murderous impulses.

The final sequence involves the package of heroin stashed inside a little girl’s Japanese doll. It’s uncomfortable to watch Dancer ingratiate himself with the lonely Dorothy Bradshaw (Mary LaRoche) who invites him and Julian back to her apartment for coffee. Here the internal space of the mother and daughter’s homey setting closes in on Dancer who reveals he’s a psychopath when he learns that little girl Cindy has used the heroin to powder her doll’s face, he tears the doll apart. Julian warns Dancer that they cannot come up light on their deliveries. Julian worries that he and Dancer be hunted down if they can’t explain why they’ve come up short. In a frenzy, he drags Dorothy and the little girl to the skating rink to explain what has happened to ‘The Man’ who is waiting for the drugs. Julian {Contemplating not murdering Bradshaw and her daughter] Are you that wise? I hope so for the sake of you both. Dorothy Bradshaw Yes, I’ll do whatever you say. Julian, I’m personally very pleased with your decision because in my profession there’s one thing I dislike and that’s hearing someone’s last words.[Knowingly to Dancer] Julian You know, famous last words.

Amid his own near-hysteria and dread, Dancer confronts ‘The Man’ (Vaughn Taylor) at the rendezvous, who doesn’t buy his story
”The Bradshaws, that’s when it all went to pieces, kid used it as dusting power for her doll. It’s all gone. (he laughs) How bout that crazy kid” ‘’Aren’t you gonna say anything’’ the man coldly ’ You’re dead.’’

As long as Dancer is known only to Julian and to a driver assigned to them by the organization he can preserve his anonymity and keep his distance. but Dancer wonders about the Man, the unseen executive who hires him, refusing to report through the usual channels. As he confronts the Man himself, he realizes that he has renounced the isolation that made their working relationship possible.(Clarens)

In a rage Dancer kicks the old ‘Man’ who pushes himself around in a wheelchair- over the balcony and he falls, striking another man before he lands lifeless on the ice rink. For me, It’s an unforgettable scene in the later installment of noir films that diverged from earlier Hollywood film noir. Pushing a wheelchair-bound victim to their death can be seen in an earlier noir Kiss of Death in 1947 when a psychopathic Richard Widmark shoves Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs.

Don Siegel imbues this fast-actioned unorthodox noir with his ultra-violent signature formula, inhabited by Siegel ‘anti-social outcasts.’

Wallach’s performance is at its most offbeat with intense zeal and depravity. The pair of villains have a similar perceptible homo-erotic companionship as Fante and Mungo in The Big Combo. Dancer grabs the mother and daughter and tries to make a run for it.

The police chase the three criminals in an energetic scene until a drunk McLain goes off course onto a half-built freeway and has nowhere to go. Dancer shoots McLain and Julian, “How about some last words for the book?” and is finally gunned down by the cops.

Fuller is quoted as saying “What is quiet brutality?… We have a professional killer in my picture. {speaking about Gus in Underworld U.S.A.} He is no psychotic. He is no idiot. No strange chuckle before he kills. No twitch. A normal young man. He’s just a professional executioner… the only thing he does-and this is like the atavistic outcry of the warrior-immediately before the job he puts on dark glasses… If you are going to buck television you need an original idea.” As Carlos Clarens puts it, he might as well be talking about Dancer.

Source-

*Film Noir: The Directors edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini
Don Siegel Ronald Wilson
*“Doomed Peculiarity” Narrative Space and Movement in Don Siegel’s Film Noir-Andre Sarris
* Crime Movies: An Illustrated History by Carlos Clarens

 

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying during this Noirvember ‘keep it dark, shadowy and out of the hands of fate!

 

One thought on “31 Flavors of Noir on the Fringe to Lure you in! Part 4 The last Killing in a Lineup of unsung noir

Leave a Reply