A Look at The Killing Hard-Boiled Scribe, Bronx Boy Wonder Team to Make Noir Music By Jay A. Gertzman. For his third feature film, Stanley Kubrick chose a "B" genre – the crime-heist film – which was lucrative, disreputable, sensational, and prurient...
For his third feature film, Stanley Kubrick chose a "B" genre – the crime-heist film – which was lucrative, disreputable, sensational, and prurient. Gangster films still made money, and Kubrick needed that, as well as to reveal his innovative skills. The best bet for satisfying both motivations was the genre he chose. Sexploitation had a more limited audience and story line, soft core porn was almost a decade away, and the female body was always part of the criminal’s take anyway. The urban settings, and the problems the characters had with money and the opposite sex, were easily recognizable to movie goers. Financial, social, emotional, and political manipulation was deep in the flesh and blood of mid-century Americans, and the resentment found release in songs, jokes, stories, and movies. Kubrick contacted a master of the tough-guy genre, Jim Thompson, to write the screenplay from Lionel White’s novel Clean Break.
Without Kubrick’s cinematic skills, appreciation for popular culture, and defiance of crusading moralists, The Killing (1956) would have been just another bottom half of a double feature. It is now an acknowledged classic. The film was given special homage in Pierre-William Glenn’s 23h58 (1993), which contains prominent mention and stills of Kubrick’s film as well as a story line modeled on it (Drake and Tunney, 1995: 22-25, 55). As a heist caper, The Killing shares stature with The Asphalt Jungle (1950), although Kubrick’s gang consists of struggling citizens not racketeers. The way normalcy is subtly interwoven with paranoia, disregard for the law, self-contempt, and dreams of escape is the key to The Killing’s success. Jim Thompson had everything to do with this. He deserved far more credit than for "additional dialogue." Kubrick and his producer James B. Harris asserted the novelist was hired for his ability to create a recognizable and poetic diction for his hard boiled, street smart characters, his short con artists, and his quietly desperate losers with one last chance to grasp the gold ring. The young Kubrick, as his earlier films show, was not a good writer. In this medium, Thompson was infinitely more experienced, more observant, and more perceptive. He was at the height of his powers, having published five of his best novels the year before The Killing appeared. He specialized in depicting insights the psychic stresses, romantic dreams, and bodily needs of inconspicuous men and women as their needs became self-obsessive. His noirish imagination is as integral to the status of the film as are its narrative and visual innovations. By noirish, I mean that for both Kubrick and Thompson, the urban American experience was conditioned by forces which stacked the cards against making a killing.
The B-Movie Milieu in the Early ’50s
Movies about war and urban violence were as American as apple pie when Kubrick came of age. Why not, since movie goers had just been through a war that cost the lives of fifty million, and were surrounded by media coverage of A-bombs, racketeers, hired murderers, teen age gangs, and impulse killers? Gangster films required sex and violence, sordid behavior, blighted urban settings, and cultural clichés specifying how and why tough guys and designing women acted the way they did. The suspenseful storylines featured what the lobby card and poster blurbs described as "sexsation," "sin-smeared violence," and "fury and violence." A companion in "low art" to the paperback thriller, crime films’ come-ons were indistinguishable from blurbs on the front cover of crime-oriented "paperback originals" (only available in cheap mass market paperbacks). The three phrases quoted above advertised Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing respectively (the latter was recommended as the best crime thriller since Little Caesar, 1931 and Scarface, 1932). They equal the blurbs for Thompson’s works: "A savage novel of crime and lust in a big city hotel" (A Swell Looking Babe); "three bank robbers on the run, ready to kill rather than face capture" (The Getaway); "a novel of twisted lives and tormented loves" (After Dark My Sweet).
Since Prohibition, city dwellers had observed the underworld’s influence in the police force, city hall, industrial complexes, and investment banking offices. Municipal policies of "containment" allowed racketeers to do their worst, unless they were uppity enough to set foot in the business or upscale residential districts. No wonder working class youth inherited a hard bitten contempt for authority. They spent the force of their hatred on the police, who were the only kind of civic authority they saw on their streets–except for the ward heelers for whom their parents voted because they were from the neighborhood and could intercede in its behalf with the higher ups. The response of the moral entrepreneurs (clergy, conservative office-seekers, local anti-vice groups whose pronouncements won them stature, financial contributions and votes) was that degenerate popular entertainments taught improperly brought-up people to be criminals. Crime films, pulp magazine stories, and horror and crime comics were "a treacherous and costly enemy let loose at the public expense" (Gilbert, 1986: 165). The problem, the spokespeople for "the respectable, law-abiding community" asserted, was the poor people themselves and the newsstand and movie house media that triggered their anti-social instincts, not the existing social conditions, or the authorities elected (they pontificated) to see to it that democracy worked.
Although the motion picture code of decency was under fire by the mid ’50s, censors and self-censors carefully monitored movies aimed at the working class and teenagers. The Kefauver Committee’s 1955 Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency included a report on Motion Pictures as a contributing factor. The chairman stated that although he could not find a definite cause-effect relationship between crime movies and juvenile delinquency, the possibilities were so strong that action had to be taken. Representatives from the Industry had to listen to spokesmen for vigilante groups say that films such as Black Tuesday (1954), Cell 2455 Death Row (1955), Cry Vengeance (1954), Rogue Cop (1954), Blackboard Jungle (1955), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955; "the usual mixture of Mickey Spillane trash and crime and I think they call them dames") were at the root of the disrespect for the American Way of Life that results in youth crime. One witness was offended by Cell 2455 because in retelling the life of mass murderer Caryl Chessman, it made Chessman the protagonist. Chessman spoke of his poverty-stricken youth, thus implying that underclass social conditions (as opposed to girlie magazines, erotic paperbacks, and crime movies) were a major factor in making people anti-social. This witness opined that the point was moot as well as pernicious, for some delinquents came from wealthy families. He knew the real enemy – greedy, opportunistic publishers, film makers, and record producers. The Committee’s Chief Council added underclass parents to the list. He thought that it was especially dangerous to show gangster films in poverty stricken areas, since children without adequate supervision would be incited to emulation. Especially relevant to Kubrick’s The Killing were the following criticisms, made both by censorious committee members and righteous citizens with the odor of scapegoat fresh in their nostrils: Police officers were shown as involved in racketeering; sympathy was given to criminals; their plans were described in so much detail they might be primers for real thieves; fights between husbands and wives discredited authority and the American lifestyle; there was too much "violence, sadism, and long fights" (U.S. Senate, 1965: 72-73, 76, 80-81, 88-89, 135, 166-67, 195, 225-28).
A Sleazy Entertainment
The connotations of sleaze are flimsy, fake, unreliable, insubstantial, and disreputable. The original meaning of sleaze referred to a cheaply made, fragile garment, and the most common usage connotes dishonesty. The identification of the word with "sordid" seems to date from 1941. Although sleaze was most powerfully shown by the CIA activities on behalf of United Fruit in Guatemala, or the corporate dishonesty which resulted in General Motors’s resistance to including safety features in their Corvairs, these activities of the power elite and the supra-human entities that sheltered them were not exposed in the 1950s. It was the blatant exploitation of sex and violence by the entertainment zones’ purveyors of girlie magazines, films, wax museums (with their displays of torture and execution devices), and dime-a-dance joints that was evident and decried. For Mayor Robert Wagner’s administration, Times Square in the mid-’50s had become flooded with sleaziness: "Shooting galleries, skee-ball and amusement centers.... open-front stores, sidewalk cafes, flower salesmen[!], ground floor auction rooms, record shops and taxi dance halls broadcasting loud music to attract attention," and "lurid, sexy, and sadistic movie advertisements" (Honky Tonks 1953:29; Gift Shops, 1953: 32; Businessmen Urge, 1957: 11; Hamill, 1962: 11, 53; Lait and Mortimer 1951: 30-31).
To complete the picture of a pop culture carnival, we should add sex-and-violence movies, and back date magazine and book stores. Overhead were the giant neon displays. The citizens who enjoyed "honk tonk" mass entertainments felt a bit disreputable; that made the experience titillating. It also insured that hoi polloi, even while enjoying themselves, bought into the moral conventions that equated interest in sex and violence with guilt.
Competition for customers in the Bright Lights Zones was fierce. Gangster films were to be found as part of genre-specific double bills in the shabbier urban mass entertainment areas. The Killing opened at the Brandt Brothers’s Mayfair Theater on 49th Street near Broadway, as the bottom half of a double feature; Bandido, (1956) starring Robert Mitchum, was the top attraction. (LoBruto, 1997: 126; Baxter, 1997: 82). The Killing had to be the film it was to make money: engrossing suspense, a hard boiled protagonist with a heart, a two million dollar heist, a measure of gunplay and sex.
Kubrick focused on what would captivate not only a male mass audience but also diverse components of it. He used plot elements of special interest to racial, sexual, and ethnic enclaves, and to working- and lower-middle class audiences. Characters in these groups comprise most of the cast, each deeply compromised and desperate in his own way. There are Irish (Mike O’Reilly, played by Joe Sawyer), Italian (Joe Piano), and Russian (Maurice Oboukhoff [Kola Kwariani]) characters. Three critics assume Marvin Unger (J. C. Flippen), the bookkeeper, is a closet gay (Baxter, 1997: 75; Polito, 1996: 325; Falsetto, 1994: 9). The parking attendant (played by James Edwards) at the track whom Nikki Arane (Timothy Carey) befriends and then insults is African American. Both the bookkeeper and the attendant are sympathetically and sensitively portrayed.
Working class people in general liked the suspense, the fights, the macho, the available women who knew the score, the all-too-familiar city settings, and the struggles of plain speaking, sarcastic, worldly wise, down-on-their-luck men and women like themselves. For older viewers, the narrator’s voice-over might have been another familiar element. It had been used in the ’30s and ’40s to provide an authoritative "crime does not pay" moral (Gilbert, 1986:186). Young adult males liked wimps revenging themselves on wife-stealers, little guys mixed up in a two million dollar heist, girls, and sex. Both the femme fatale and the faithful girl friend were in evidence: Kubrick did not choose Marie Windsor to play Sherry Peatty simply because of how good she looked in a slip but that is what made most of the audience wide-eyed. It’s clear that Johnny (Sterling Hayden) and Fay (Coleen Gray), who are first seen putting on clothing in her apartment after his release from prison, have just had sex off screen. So have Val (Vince Edwards) and Sherry (hot to trot). Val’s affair with a "meatball’s" bored, sultry wife represents many a young man’s fantasy. One of The Killing’s original titles was nothing if not lubricious: Bed of Fear (The "cutting continuity" bound document for The Killing at Indiana University has this title on the first leaf, with the title The Killing on the cover). Finally, Maurice’s wrestling scene was more fun than seeing him in the ring. He out wrestled about a half dozen "private dicks, race track cops" before whacking his back against the bar and being hustled off the premises by a whole squad of gendarmes. The film was primarily escapist entertainment for red-blooded, all-American young men. Patrons expected more violence, salaciousness, and darker characters than TV shows (Thompson, 2002: 318). Purveyors of moral platitudes such as those who testified before Kefauver, and most of the Committee members themselves, would have characterized The Killing as typical of its kind: lurid and sleazy.
Kubrick’s Beatnik Phase
Times Square, according to Jack Kerouac, was "the sum and crown of every marqueed square and honky-tonk street in America." (Kerouac 1950: Pt.4: Ch.3). Kubrick spent time there too, at the Chess and Checkers Club of New York, called the "flea house" by regulars. Marc Eliot, a historian of 42nd Street, describes this as a dimly lit walk-up next to the exterior of the then-decayed New Amsterdam theater on south side of 42nd near Broadway, just up street from Hubert’s Flea Circus. Open 24 hours per day, the Club was in fact orderly and clean. (Baxter, 1997: 76; Eliot, 2001: 97; Sorel, 1996: 122). Hubert’s was one of Lenny Bruce’s favorite Broadway hangouts. As Johnny Clay leaves the pawn shop where he buys his suitcase, the camera pans the street. Two doors from the shop is a burlesque theater; its sign indicates Bruce is currently performing. Kubrick admired Bruce’s work (Note 1).
The Beat writers and Kubrick were powerfully captivated by the weird energy working at cross purposes in the Bright Lights Zone. There were plenty of opportunities to release one’s repressed desires and satisfy the fantasies in which the desires embodied themselves. But this had to be done by dealing with middlemen hucksters, and by furtively seeking out surrogate entertainments. Therefore a sense of moral enfeeblement pervaded everything that brought with it the taste, smell, and feel of manipulation and compulsive entrapment. These were the unwritten Rules of the Game. That’s what the Beats, and the noir writers’ contemporary with them, had diagnosed as the Karma of post-war America. And I think that is why Kubrick included a speech about ordinary people who cannot escape their world and its moral imperatives, expecting to see crime punished. Critics feel the observation is Thompson’s addition, critics feel. It is spoken by Kola Kwariani, Kubrick’s chess playing friend from the Flea House, who plays Maurice. Maurice opines that ordinary people want to see heroes fail. They stimulate admiration, but must not be exempt from the iron laws binding the people who observe them, that is, the social parameters regarding money and social class. His lines are as follows:
You have my sympathy, Johnny. You have not yet learned that in this life it helps to be like everybody else. The perfect mediocrity – no better, no worse. Individuality is a monster, and it must be strangled in its cradle to make our friends feel comfortable. You know, I often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They are admired and fellow worshiped but there is always present underlying–to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory. (Note 2)
Recently, film critics Frank Krutnik (1992: 138) and J. P. Telotte (1996: 163-64) have ratified the insight of Kubrick-Thompson’s chess playing philosophical wrestler. They attribute the crime film audience’s willingness to endure the story’s suspense to the belief that the protagonist will fail in the end. It is axiomatic that the consensus will successfully repress and punish the transgressing criminal or artist. The inevitability makes life more bearable for the average citizen who is relieved of the need to compare himself unfavorably to an individual with the guts and smarts Johnny Clay has. In a musical comedy, the hero escapes the tyrant and brings liberation to the suffering community. In a crime story, the real Laws of the Game must apply. In part, at least, noir means reality check. Maurice suggests there is an incalculable, regressive force that makes a clean break impossible. It seems to be in the air one breathes, so to speak, impinging on the individual and in his or her mind as well.
The ordinary wage-earning Joes whom Johnny Clay brings together for his heist have something significant in common with the Americans that Kerouac and Ginsburg observed: a beaten-down, deeply passive, attitude. They can’t change their behavior, because they can’t break out of the narrow parameters inside which they think and act. Marvin timidly and obliquely asks Johnny to go away with him, but he cannot directly confront Johnny’s "you ought to go back to sleep." Critic Norman Kagan (2003: 43) perceptively states Marvin’s interest in his friend is "the dependency of the weak and defeated." George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr. just about steals the picture portraying a man denying the cancerous hysteria inside him) makes believe his lack of money, not his lack of manly virility, is the reason for his wife’s contempt. He’s afraid to think more deeply than that about it. Randy Kennan (Ted DeCorsica) is an obsessive gambler. He’s as compulsive, and as short-fused, as Nikki Arane, the professional killer Johnny hires to shoot Red Lightning. Johnny’s girlfriend, Fay, is as dependent on him ("I’m no good for anybody else. I’m not pretty and I’m not very smart") as Marvin would like to be. As for Clay himself, despite his intelligent planning, emotional toughness, rare (in a career criminal) sense of responsibility, and mental resolve, he is too desperate to escape whatever unresolvable needs made him a bank robber. Dreaming of retirement from the criminal life with no strings attached, he cannot see the weaknesses of the men he has enlisted to make his killing.
It’s not a pretty picture. A haze of mechanistic inevitability saturates it. Kagan (203: 53-54) notes that the snarling gunmen adorning the targets on which Nikki practices his marksmanship prefigure the faces of the plainclothesmen in the final scene as they move in to arrest the defeated Johnny Clay. Johnny himself is resigned to being carted away to the quintessential dehumanizing institution, the "penitentiary." Alexander Walker elaborates on this insight, noting, as the camera pans the freshly killed corpses of the gang at the share out, that they remind him of robots (Walker, 1959: 59). They are another version of humans transformed into dumb, inanimate objects, like the manikins in Killer’s Kiss, the tables in the shape of the female form in A Clockwork Orange, the morgue-frozen women’s body in Eyes Wide Shut, or the soldiers’ corpses in Kubrick’s war films. Whatever the forces are that have done them in, those forces have been too monstrous for them to contend with.
In 1952, Kubrick’s insight was encapsulated by Nick Corey, the robust protagonist of a riveting novel aptly entitled The Killer Inside Me. As noir novelist Lawrence Block has noted, Nick takes a deterministic view of human behavior (1990: 37-38). Whether it is due to ingrained character or external circumstances, he says, people behave mechanically and sometimes they cannot help being destructive, or self-destructive. The analogy Nick makes is to a fence post that is made to fit a certain hole. When it is driven into the hole, it may destroy a nest of rabbits living there:
Just how much free will do any of us exercise? We got controls all along the line, our physical make-up, our mental make-up, our backgrounds; they’re all shapin’ us a certain way...; we better play that role... or all hell is going to tumble out of the heavens and fall right on top of us. We better do what we were made to do, or we’ll find it being done to us.
The author of The Killer Inside Me was Jim Thompson.
Laconic Oklahoma Novelist & An Iconoclastic Proto-Beatnik
Kubrick, his partner Harris, and Thompson spent many hours together. Kubrick’s long hair and unkempt clothes, however, made the Thompson clan embarrassed to be in public with the "boys" in their suburban Sunnyside, Queens home. The young film maker must have been inured to that kind of culture clash. Not only had his appearance disturbed more than one technician with whom he had to deal, but the female lead in Killer’s Kiss (1955), Irene Kane, found him to be a mixture of a brilliant, sensitive director and a prurient-minded screwball with an insatiable taste for vulgarity. He loved Mickey Spillane, whom he rightly thought knew "everything" about getting and keeping a readership. She said he was "all for sex and sadism," insisted on reading the randiest passages of Henry Miller’s Tropics aloud, and conspired with her co-star surreptitiously to involve her in a scene in which the latter groped her breasts (Baxter, 1997: 61-64, 66-67).
Thompson, in his own way, equally with peers in the crime novel genre such as David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, Margaret Millar, Elizabeth Saxay Holding, Horace McCoy, Chester Himes, and Ross MacDonald, made the themes of entrapment and enfeeblement the foundations which gave his art its power. It was these twin insights into the American zeitgeist which made Kubrick see Thompson as the perfect hard-boiled writer to complement his own genius. Thompson biographer Robert Polito states that the novelist’s "nods to hard boiled conventions do not so much toughen [his] novels as humanize them – they’re all we have left to hang on to in the downdraft" (Polito, 1996:10).
In The Killing, those conventions give us the whirlwind consequences of a daring heist. Caught in the downdraft are a compulsively jealous, masochistic George, a yearning Sherry, a venal Randy the gambler cop, a loyal Mike the bartender, and a lonely and resigned Marvin. Each of them is strangling in his or her own dreams of an illusory personal fulfillment, be it winning a disappointed spouse’s respect; finding the dedicated stud who can satiate an unfulfilled female’s sexual desires; gaining the financial independence to pay back incipient debts; getting expert treatment for a loved one; or winning the status of father-figure to a young man one loves. Remarkably, none of these goals involve accumulating money for its own sake, although some are childishly self-involved. All of them would satisfy soul lacerating lacks. However, each man or woman reaching for the gold ring on this Thompson-Kubrick merry-go-round sees money as the magic catalyst to make their impossible dreams come true. Only in the case of the one selfless character, Mike, is it demonstrably true. That’s what makes The Killing such a noir, American story.
Clean Break Becomes The Killing
Students of Kubrick and Thompson have analyzed the probable contributions of both artists to the final screenplay; Robert Polito’s is the most extensive treatment of the puzzle. It remains a puzzle because evidence of documents available is inconclusive about exactly what each artist contributed. Some key documents have yet to be found. The novel and film do of course exist. The shooting script is at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. But the original script which Kubrick and Harris had typed up on legal sized sheets and sent to United Artists may no longer exist. Thompson apparently wrote his adaptations of Clean Break originally in the form of paragraphs, which he and Kubrick reworked into dialogue (Johnston 1991: 17; LoBruto, 1997:113-14; Baxter, 1997: 73-74). These two documents may be at Kubrick’s house in England. The Estate is working with Deutsche Filmmuseum and Deutsche Architektur to catalogue the enormous resources left in Kubrick’s house when he died.
Thompson gets credit for basing Marvin Unger’s kindness toward Johnny on his closeted homosexuality, if it was that. Mario Falsetto notes "the delicacy of the homosexual subtext." Perhaps, however, Marvin admires Johnny for his straightforward manliness. Much more daring, defiant, and ambitious than Marvin, Johnny is either the son he would have liked to have had, or the man from whom he would most like to gain respect. Either would explain the compulsive need for Johnny’s attention that has led the bookkeeper to embezzle money from his long-time employers to finance the scheme. In White’s novel, Marvin does not particularly like Johnny, or anyone else, for that matter. He is a misanthropic, embittered man stewing in the juices of his belief that the envious world quarantines intelligent, cultured people like himself in a limbo of neglect. He comes to the track the day of the big race to watch how events develop, not for a last look at a man with whom he would like to run away. Shrewdly, he has decided that after the robbery, one of the gang will spend too much money or talk too much, and police will move in. So he sells all his possessions and makes plans to disappear. If he still had a radio, he would not have come at all.
The film’s transformation of Marvin from cynic to unrequited, possibly platonic, lover makes him a somewhat sympathetic figure, of course. In the shooting script’s "Cast of Principal Characters," he is described as a "reformed alcoholic." J. C. Flippen is perfect as a man whose lined face and gentle manner denote one who half-cheerfully has assimilated a lifetime of disappointments and still kept his chin up. Saying goodbye to Johnny has been a blow. But he shows up, despite Johnny’s orders, at the track the day of the heist. Acting as if he is a staggering drunk, he diverts a guard while Johnny slips into the office, then gives Mike the bartender a conspiratorial wink. When Johnny is leaving the office after the robbery, Marvin bumps into the guard who had spotted him, thus allowing John to push him and escape. Marvin does all he can, quietly and self-deprecatingly. Viewers have to ask themselves how much compassion they should feel for an embezzler who takes such chances for a younger man whom, sexually and/or paternalistically, he loves. Thompson’s readers often are forced to ask such dark questions.
Robert Polito states Thompson’s most creative revision to be recreating the Sherry-George Peatty marriage as a sadomasochistic merry-go-round. George seems to need Sherry’s contempt because it was the only way she pays any attention to him. He senses in whatever is left of his psyche that she has strayed, or else he would not need to ask her if she loves him. He’s insistent on finding out if Johnny "tried anything" when she was caught snooping because he is so used to the relief he allows himself to feel when she denies it. He’s a mouse, or a parrot, that has built its own cage. He thinks the way out is to give her money. Perhaps Sherry wants fine clothes and jewelry so she can be more effective in finding what is most lacking in George – not money but virility. That would verify the fantasies of male viewers. In their first scene together, George wants to tell her about the older couple he overhears calling each other "momma" and "pappa." That’s the kind of comfort, or mothering, he wants out of Sherry. He knows he is not going to get it, let alone hot-bloodedness, and is not man enough to analyze the reason. So he settles for being hurt. If he wants dinner, he is told to go get the fixings at the supermarket. When, after the disastrous share-out at Marvin’s, he shows up at the door bleeding, Sherry suggests he grab a cab to the hospital (noticing how much blood he must have lost, she does point out where the door is).
Elisha Cook Jr. uses a calculating, suspicious, wary facial expression, staring eyes, a furrowed brow and a slightly whining voice to indicate a man who fears letting people, and chiefly himself, find out the burden of impotent shame that defines him as he makes his daily zig-zag between his menial job at the track and his contemptuous beloved. As for Sherry, Thompson wrote her many caustic, but one powerful speech, after George gut-shoots her. It’s curtains. He can’t live without Sherry; that is, without the pain she has to be there to give him. "It isn’t fair. I never had anyone but you," she sobs. For a moment, George has to think she might have cared after all. But she follows it up with "never a real husband." Collapsing, she grunts, "This is a bad joke without a punch line." Their marriage has been a bad joke, and in its mysterious perversity, inexplicable (without a punch line). Perhaps the only way Sherry could relate to a man ("just a bunch of liars") was the passive-aggressive needling she used with Val as well as George. But George has made himself Sherry’s poodle, or bird in a cage, which cannot live without its owner. The couple’s pet parrot has the last words ("isn’t fair"), as his cage gets knocks to the floor. That’s a typically wry Thompson exclamation point. It’s also the embittered, pitiable conclusion arrived at by people who have taken pipe dreams for incipient realities: people like Marvin, Randy, George, poor Mike (the only selfless schemer), and even Johnny.
Lionel White made Sherry and Val more interesting hard boiled characters than the film does. To determine whether it was Kubrick or Thompson’s idea to simplify cannot be determined until, maybe, Thompson’s original paragraph-form revision or the typed script originally sent to UA become available. It looks like a film maker’s choice, however. In Clean Break, when Johnny tries to scare Sherry after she is caught eavesdropping, he grabs and shakes her. Her response is "Don’t manhandle me, you bastard," and she knees him one between his legs. "And keep your hands off of me until I want you to touch me." She does want that, and gets it. She is playing her own game throughout. She also sleeps with Randy, for information, and of course with Val. White makes the latter convincingly vicious and devious, not merely a handsome small-time would-be wise guy. When he realizes Sherry is sleeping with the enemy and using him, he and his men kidnap, beat, and probably rape her ("you’ve had your fun with her," he says to a henchman as they take her back to her apartment). There’s your Bed of Fear. The film deletes all this so that the focus is on the inevitability of Johnny’s plan unraveling.
Also for the necessary intensity of effect, Mike’s wild teenage daughter becomes a loyal, sick wife (this also avoids citizens groups’ complaints about exploiting juvenile delinquency). So, as not to reduce empathy for Johnny, Kubrick lessens the consequences of Maurice and Nikki’s mischief. In the novel, not only is the horse killed but four jockeys wind up in the hospital, along with a dozen bystanders hurt in the riot Maurice started. Thompson has Nikki shot instead of driving off, thus foreshadowing the bloody shoot out. In order to get the parking attendant to let him alone once he was in shooting range of Red Lightning, he called the man "nigger." The attendant, deeply hurt that two people partially disabled in the War could not be friends, had obviously alerted the police that Nikki was suspicious. George’s last act is to shoot Sherry, not Johnny, which is how White ends the novel. In the film, Johnny continues on a horrible Kafka-like merry go round of failure, guilt, loss, and incarceration, ending with the bills in the suitcase soaring in all directions once it falls off the airline’s delivery cart. Why didn’t Johnny buy a secure case? The scene epitomizes the tentative, fragile nature of a Little Guy’s struggles. The ironic and demeaning inevitability – a shock of the familiar to working- and lower middle class- audience – is another Thompson trademark. An alternative ending, in which Johnny was killed chasing the flying bills onto the runway, was scrapped (Polito 1996: 395). Johnny’s spirit, not his body, suffers.
None of this inevitability is conveyed by the novel’s conclusion. The film’s redactions are sheer Thompson. But the cinematography is pure Kubrick. As Johnny and Fay try to hail a cab – they just miss one – the detectives menacingly and ineluctably advance on him. Johnny’s back is to the audience and, for the first time, his head hangs feebly to one side. When he turns around, his face is lined. His manly pride and determination are gone; the cell door in The Big House has already slammed. That must be Kubrick’s directing. Fay tells him to run but he can only say "What’s the difference?" Now, that’s Thompson again. One of his father’s pet phrases was "What’s the use of kicking?"(Polito, 1996: 392). Actually, in the shooting script, the congruence is even more direct. Johnny’s last line is "What’s the good of running?"
Either way, it’s as if Johnny has heard the booming voice of judgment, and it’s not exactly uttering the "crime doesn’t pay" platitude that the audience grimly expected. It’s qualifying it by telling him and the movie audience that, even with a bold plan and a coolly efficient leader, a gang of ordinary people with familiar problems can’t make their killing. "Thou Shalt Not." It’s the voice of the Kefauver Committee, the Rev. Graham, the Mayors and the Police Commissioners. And it’s a voice protagonists of noir crime writers of the ’50s often hear. One echo is the voice Jake Gittes, almost twenty years later, heard with equal finality: "Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown."
- According to Antony Frewin, Kubrick’s chief assistant (now cataloguing his London/St. Albans estate), Kubrick was a fan of Bruce, as he was of Mort Sahl and Paul Krassner. He met Bruce in the 1960s. I am grateful to Dr. Clifford Scheiner, Erotica specialist and antiquarian bookseller in New York City, for contacting Mr. Frewin to get this information. Dr. Scheiner was a research assistant and technical consultant for Kubrick from 1984 until the filmmaker’s death.
- "A Harris-Kubrick Production of [Bed of Fear crossed out] The Killing, a Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick with Additional Dialogue by Jim Thompson Based on the Novel Clean Break by Lionel White" [typescript, cover title], Lilly Library, U of Indiana. This, according to Anthony Frewin, is a "spotting script," a transcription of the finished film.
- Baxter, John (1997). Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. NY: Harper Collins.
- Eliot, Marc (2001). Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics at the Crossroads of the World. NY: Warner Books.
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