Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film noir The Killing is striking for its attention to domesticated animals – horses, dogs and a parrot. The film’s first shot is of horses being led from their paddock, the title is superimposed over footage of horses, and a toy poodle brings about the movie’s denouement. The title itself can be interpreted as referring to the killing of the racehorse Red Lightning since no character mentions “killing” in regards to the heist, none of them make a killing because they all end up dead or back in jail, and the only character who uses the word “kill” is the hood hired to shoot Red Lightning when he’s asking for the details of the job. All the animals are confined; the horses in stables and paddocks before being ridden and led, the dogs cuddled in their owner’s arms, and the parrot in its cage. Kubrick makes comparisons, in shots and dialogue, between the animals’ confinement and the characters being hemmed in by circumstances they can’t surmount.
Domesticated animals appear in many scenes throughout the film. The movie’s first seven shots are of racehorses being led to a racetrack starting gate, a team of four horses dragging the gate into place, and the racehorses taking off. This same footage of horses is used as an anchor as Kubrick repeatedly returns to the seventh race to show the various characters acting out their separate roles on the day of the heist. A caged parrot is shown in most of the scenes between the mousy George Peatty and his wife, Sherry, a wisecracking siren in a curly pompadour. Like Polly, George is shown more than once behind bars, and in the scene where Sherry pulls the wool over her husband’s eyes, a cloth is draped over the parrot’s cage. The farmer who moonlights as an assassin cradles and caresses a puppy during the entire scene where he and the heist’s mastermind, Johnny, discuss killing the horse to distract the cops during the crime. Finally, a yappy little poodle precipitates the film’s unhappy conclusion. When the poodle jumps out of the arms of its smothering owner at the airport, it runs in front of a baggage cart. The driver swerves to avoid the dog and Johnny’s suitcase tumbles off the cart and bursts open, sending the loot flying away in the wind generated by the airplane engine.
In the film’s first shot horses ridden by jockeys are led out of their paddock. We see a team of harnessed white horses, with blinders blocking their peripheral vision, dragging the starting gate into place, and the racehorses being led toward it, two of them repeatedly throwing their heads back as if to shake off their restraints. Then trainers, rushing, yank and pull the horses up to the gate. Later in the film jockeys whip them to make them run faster. In no scene do we see the horses being fed, groomed, petted or congratulated, or any affection being shown. They are led, confined and manipulated, and they don’t look happy.
The Killing’s characters are similarly led, confined and manipulated. Kubrick draws a visual comparison between horses and people by cutting from the horses lined up behind the gate to the line of cashier windows at the racetrack. (He also makes a visual comparison between horses and people later in the film, when Nikki waits in the parking lot for Red Lightning to approach, by dissolving back and forth between the racing horses and the cheering crowd.) The characters are confined and limited by their relationships and by their low-paying, dead-end jobs. A loan shark who notes that “We all get a little cramped,” nevertheless raises the vig $400 and menaces Stanley, the dirty cop, with veiled threats of what he’ll do if the debt isn’t repaid soon. Fear of the loan shark motivates Stanley to participate in the stick up at the racetrack to get cash immediately. George Peatty, a track cashier, is under the thumb of his wife, Sherry, a manipulative, wisecracking gold digger. Sherry leads him to believe she will love him if only he provides more money for a fancier apartment and more comfortable lifestyle. To avoid the pain of her emotional blackmail, George takes part in the theft. Just as people make horses race for financial gain, the loan shark and Sherry try to use Stanley and George to procure money for them. In another parallel between animals and humans, just as the horses leave the confinement of their stables and paddocks, and run around and around the track, ultimately ending up back where they started in the confinement of their stables, Johnny gets out of jail, engages in a lot of useless activity, and ends up where he started, in the slammer.
The animal most closely identified with a character is Polly, the Peatty’s parrot (presumably that’s her name, since she squawks, “Pretty Polly, pretty Polly). Polly’s cage has a rounded top and is elevated on a pedestal, so the bird is even with George’s head when he is standing. In the first scene in the Peatty’s apartment, Sherry is mocking him, as usual. Sherry thinks George is a boring loser, and tells him as much. To seek refuge from her belittling, George walks over to Polly, a kindred spirit. Just as Polly is confined in a cage, we see George behind bars, twice. The first time is near the film’s beginning, when he is shown, with a grim facial expression, behind the bars of his cashier’s window. The second time he is framed in a medium close up, holding the balusters of the spiral staircase that Johnny is ascending to hold up the racetrack office. George is imprisoned by his love for Sherry; he will do almost anything for her love.
George also is blinded, metaphorically, by his attraction to Sherry. In the second scene at the Peatty’s apartment, Sherry is seated at a dressing table, George is standing next to her, and Polly is in her cage behind him, blinded literally because a drape covers her cage. Sherry is trying to fool George and obscure the truth by faking affection she doesn’t feel and lying to him so he’ll tell her more about the plot. She says she eavesdropped outside the apartment where the conspirators were planning the job because she was jealous and suspected he was seeing another girlfriend. Sherry tells him she loves him and will love him “always and always.” (Although Johnny doesn’t lead him on, Marvin also is blinded, by his sexual attraction to the younger man. Even though Johnny is engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Marvin suggests he abandon Fay and travel the world with the older man.)
In the final scene at the apartment, George, who has been shot, stumbles in to find Sherry expecting her lover. Wobbling from his injuries, he holds on to the vertical stand that holds up Polly’s cage for balance. Polly says “Watch it” and “Watch out.” When Sherry refuses to call an ambulance for him and tells him to go out and get a taxi, he realizes, too late, that she has never loved him, and he shoots her. When he succumbs to his wounds and tumbles to his death, he is still holding the bird’s cage, and he takes it down with him. The camera pans from George’s head, his expression frozen in death, partially shadowed by Polly, to the parrot, constrained in her overturned cage and unable to fly, before cutting to an airplane taxiing at the airport.
The final domesticated animal given prominence in The Killing is the dog. When Johnny goes to Nikki’s farm to hire him to kill the racehorse Red Lightning, Johnny holds and pets a really cute puppy, covering its ears with his hands, while the assassin tries out the shotgun. Then, they exchange the puppy for the shotgun. The farmer/assassin continues to hold and cuddle his puppy throughout the scene, caressing and rubbing its muzzle, back and ears as the men discuss shooting the horse; a perverse contrast between the affectionate gestures and the murderous words. Johnny makes light of the killing, saying that shooting “a four-legged horse” isn’t even murder.
A yipping toy poodle with a bow in its topknot renders poetic justice on the heartless (to horses) Johnny, as it foils the (literally) last man standing at the movie’s end. In his exhaustively researched, and highly readable book, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, author Vincent LoBrutto reports that before Kubrick became a director, and was a photographer for Look magazine, he shot a photo essay of a champion toy poodle named Masterpiece. Poodles were extremely popular in the 1950s, and Kubrick was obviously familiar with the dogs, and their owners’ practice of giving them undignified, clownish trims, and having them prance around, perform tricks and otherwise behave artificially for human amusement and, in the case of show dogs as with race horses, purses.
The cloying, middle-aged owner of Sebastian, the poodle in The Killing, cradles him near her cheek and smothers him with affection, cooing baby-talk in a phony, Elmer Fudd voice. At the airport to meet her husband, she addresses the unfortunate dog, “We haven’t seen daddy sweetums foe such a wong, wong, time.” She takes Sebastian outside as the plane is arriving, and the dog, agitated by the engine noise, escapes from her arms. As a worker driving a baggage cart turns sharply to avoid the dog, Johnny’s cheap, flimsy, pawn-shop suitcase topples off the top of the heap and bursts, the loot scattering into the wind generated by the airplane’s engine.
Kubrick and the novelist Jim Thompson adapted the screenplay from the novel Clean Break by Lionel White, published in 1955. The novel’s title does not refer to a horse’s broken leg; it is an expression used by Marvin, who despises the other conspirators and wants to make a clean break from them after the heist, and it’s also used by an initial newspaper report that the crooks got away with the loot. Both Kubrick and Thompson were interested in animals. For example, in Thompson’s novel The Getaway, one character is a veterinarian who calls his wife “Pet” and “Lambie,” and philosophizes over the effects of kindness to animals. The screenwriters added the animals to The Killing; Clean Break doesn’t mention dogs or parrots, or horses leaving their paddock or approaching the starting gate. Of course The Killing is a film noir with has a femme fatale, a flawed hero, characters drawn from society’s underbelly, a grim atmosphere and a downbeat ending, but clearly on another level it is about the treatment of animals.