Alfred Hitchcock once referred to the swamp scene in Psycho – where Norman Bates attempts to sink the car containing Marion’s body – as an example of the viewer being made (at least temporarily) complicit in the carrying out of a morally undesirable act. In the long, intense, wordless sequence before this one we’ve watched Norman, a likeable young man, meticulously cleaning up traces of a murder committed by his vicious mother; if we’re really involved with the film at this point, chances are that we acquire something of an emotional stake in his efforts. So we want the swamp to swallow up the whole car. Besides, wouldn’t that be a good way to get the plot moving forward?
There are even better instances of such audience manipulation in other Hitchcock movies (Rope and Strangers on a Train among them) but for an example of a whole film that creates this effect, you probably need to watch one where nearly all the characters are crooks or wannabe crooks. Like Stanley Kubrick’s solid 1956 thriller The Killing, about a group of men carefully planning a racecourse heist, a plan that then begins to unravel on different levels.
The Killing is a very economical film with hardly a wasted shot, and given its short running time, it’s notable that even the minor characters are well-defined. (Key example: the Russian wrestler Maurice, who delivers an interesting monologue about gangsters and artists being the same in the eyes of the masses. "They are admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present an underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.”) The narrative isn't chronological; instead, a fatalistic voiceover details the movements of different people at different times, in the style of a newsreel documentary. This technique feels a bit gimmicky at times, but it creates a sense of urgency and dread, and it fits the theme of each character being like a small piece in a jigsaw puzzle, vital to the successful completion of the project but unable to see what the larger picture will look like (an analogy that is explicitly made in an early scene). The one person who can see most of the puzzle is the plot mastermind Johnny Clay (played by Sterling Hayden, an underutilised actor), but even he spends much of the film on tenterhooks, clearly aware of everything that can go wrong.
And sure enough things start to get messy, not all at once but in small increments that accumulate dangerously. There are little miscommunications and errors in timing (how did people ever carry out heists in the days before cellphones?). A man hired to shoot a racehorse in order to provide a distraction finds himself pestered by an over-friendly parking attendant. Most crucially, one of the conspirators, a mild-mannered racecourse clerk, tells his wife about the scheme in a weak moment, and she passes on the information to her young boyfriend. Not everyone in the group seems to understand that to live outside the law you must be honest.
All of this leads to a superb climactic scene set at the airport where Johnny and his girlfriend are trying to make a getaway. I won’t give away the scene, but it’s a real lesson in how to build tension by putting a number of different elements in place beforehand (a large suitcase stuffed with dollar bills; an official who’s a stickler for the rules; a talkative woman and her yappy little dog; a plane taxiing onto the runway, its giant propellers whirring) and then combining them for a knockout punch. If you admired the way Johnny and his associates planned and executed their operation, this ending is a real heartbreaker too; the Scene Selection menu on my DVD labels the track “Crime doesn’t pay”, but just for a few moments you wish it had.
P.S. The Killing was one of the many films that influenced Sriram Raghavan’s excellent Johnny Gaddaar. Johnny Clay can be seen as a distant cousin of Raghavan’s Johnny, though there aren’t many similarities between the two men beyond their names and their involvement in a money-making scheme. (It’s typical of Raghavan’s playfulness and his knack for paying tribute simultaneously to multiple influences that the Johnny in his film borrows his name from the Dev Anand-starrer Johnny Mera Naam, and that “Johnny Gaddaar” itself is a riff on the title of another 1950s film Johnny Guitar, in which Sterling Hayden played the title role – how’s that for a complicated set of associations!) Incidentally another film that owes a small visual debt to The Killing is last year’s box-office smash The Dark Knight. (Two hints: “clown-mask” and “currency notes”!)
[Earlier posts on Kubrick films: Paths of Glory, Dr Strangelove, Spartacus]