One of the greatest powers of cinema is its ability to distort time. The story within a 90-minute film can take place over the course of hours or decades. Single scenes can be sped up or slowed down by manipulating the order in which shots are presented, the duration of single shots, and the juxtaposition of related shots. This type of distortion of time generally maintains linearity; that is, the viewer assumes that each successive shot is occurring at some point later in time than the preceding shot. However, linearity can be successfully obliterated from film, and has historically been done so in multiple ways. The success of this eradication of linearity ultimately depends on the ability of the film to hold the viewer in ultimate suspense, suspense that supersedes time. Suspense keeps viewers emotionally engaged, and the linearity of time can be manipulated to build horribly terrific anticipation. The collision of multiple timelines into a single critical moment enables narrative pressures only possible in a realm outside our everyday experience, the realm of film. “The Killing” (Kubrick, 1956) uses this technique beautifully.
In the “The Killing,” the cunning and fearless Johnny Clay masterminds a perfect robbery and recruits a group of big-dreaming men to execute his plan. Kubrick introduces us to a number of intriguing characters in the first half of the film. He builds tension meticulously; back-stories and secondary characters become critical. In the style of classic film noir, a devilish femme fatale is introduced played by Marie Windsor. Her greed for money initiates a plan to backstab her husband and, with the help of her boyfriend, rob the robbers.
In the second half of the film, Kubrick takes us through the day of the robbery. Instead of presenting the crime linearly, each character’s part is presented one at a time. All of the suspense is built around one question: will they be successful? By showing one character at a time, Kubrick emphasizes that success depends on everyone. We spend the second half of the film just waiting for someone to mess up. With each successive person, the stakes become higher. It’s why Kubrick’s nonlinear presentation works so well. Instead of building suspense once, suspense is built with every character. The anxiety that a high-stakes robbery creates for the criminals is felt over and over again. It causes us to constantly question the plan; it’s too perfect to work. Amazingly though, it doesn’t fall apart. The robbery goes to plan… except for a small catch.
Underlying the entire scheme, we know there’s a plan to take the money from the criminals. This plot combines with the already rolling plots of each character at the climax of the film. Except for a late arriving Johnny Clay, everyone meets in the same room, and some, with guns ready. The tension is at its highest. Timelines and plots collide into a single moment. At the perfect time, the terrified George enters the room and automatically fires his gun. There’s a round of shots and several fall to the ground. The suspense is released in a single moment. The perfection of the crime is lost in an instant. It’s brilliant.
Ultimately, we are left to witness the fate of Johnny Clay, who, with a bit of luck, escapes with all the money. By this point however, we can guess that his fate will be the same as the others, we just don’t know how it will happen. In the end, luggage constraints and a small dog bring him down.
“The Killing” shows us just how successful a story can be told without the constraints of linear time. Tension around the same subject can be built more than once. We can become invested in each and every character’s role. It makes us fully aware that everyone is a piece of an intricate puzzle. Since 1956, a number of films, mostly in the crime genre, have repeated this style. Interestingly, “Reservoir Dogs” (Tarantino, 1992) was dedicated to Timothy Carey, an actor who played one of the criminals in “The Killing.”
“The Killing” was released in 1956. 85 minutes, 1.37:1 Aspect. Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Novel by Lionel White.