Stanley Kubrick, 1956
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook Jr
After he’s released from prison, smalltime criminal Johnny Clay plans to run one final heist before marrying his faithful girlfriend, Fay. His idea is to rob a local racetrack when they’re counting down the sizeable bets they receive during the day. His team includes two insiders, a teller at the racetrack, George, and a bartender, as well as a dirty cop, a sniper to shoot the winning horse and cause a distraction, and a wrestler to start a fight and cause a distraction near the counting room. Unfortunately George blabs a little to his wife, Sherry, who is greedy and hopes to steal the money with the assistance of her boyfriend, Val. Though the plan goes off with nary a hitch, Sherry’s betrayal could cause the ruin of all.
Though he made two features before this, namely noir-melodrama Killer’s Kiss, The Killing can be seen as director Stanley Kubrick’s first serious work. It was something of a breakthrough hit and has gained critical momentum over the years. This was also the beginning of the partnership between Kubrick and producer James Harris, who recognized Kubrick as a brilliant young talent and financed part of The Killing with his own money. They would go on to work together for the following decade and the success of The Killing allowed them to make Paths of Glory together. Based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break, the film was apparently initially intended by Hollywood to be a Frank Sinatra vehicle.
Kubrick and Harris made the brilliant decision to hire noir novelist Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me) for the script, which is excellent, particularly the dialogue. Overall, The Killing is a highly imaginative and influential heist film. Though it has much in common with John Huston’s earlier heist-noir, The Asphalt Jungle, including the presence of star Sterling Hayden (Johnny Guitar). I have to admit that I just don’t get Hayden’s appeal. I think he’s going for the sort of gruff aloofness that John Wayne pulled off so charismatically, but I find him to be flat, unemotional, and utterly boring in every film. He certainly doesn’t do The Killing any favors, though part of its charm is how roughly and coldly it treats the characters.
Like Killer’s Kiss, this shows a distinctly shabby side of life that exists amongst the city’s glitz and glamor. The characters are generally unlikable, although these men want the money not just out of greed, but to improve their lives (and often for the sake of a woman). Some are simply in it out of a sense of loyalty to Johnny Clay, such as my favorite character, wrestler Maurice (played by real-life wrestler Kola Kwariani, apparently a chess buddy of Kubrick’s). Aside from the dull Sterling Hayden, there are some great performances. Noir regulars Ted de Corsia, Timothy Carey, and Marie Windsor all shine. Windsor, as a femme fatale and unfaithful wife, is perhaps the most colorful character and is shown in various stages of dressing and undressing, applying makeup or removing it.
Noir staple Elisha Cook Jr is equally memorable as her runty, rundown husband, always trying to accomplish the Sisyphean task of pleasing a woman obsessed with wealth and glamor. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how they got together in the first place – though there is the suggestion that he promised her a lifestyle he hasn’t yet delivered on – and it is this greed that brings the whole enterprise crashing down around their heads. As with Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick uses noir tropes only where they advance the film, such as with frequent voice-over narration, and a non-linear plot structure (rather than the flashback sequences of Killer’s Kiss). The non-chronological tale often has the same events shown from different characters’ perspectives, resulting in a truly elegant film.
There is a lengthy, though genius heist scene where each character looms large in their individual tasks and everyone from the wrestler to the sharpshooter, as well as Sterling Hayden with his clown mask and shotgun, are unforgettable. Kubrick waits until the last possible moment to realize the explosive, sudden violence at the film’s conclusion, which sharply contrasts earlier scenes of heavy dialogue. The nihilism and hopelessness, such a staple of the noir genre, is contrasted with unexpected moments of black humor. The greedy, nagging wife’s parrot squawks loudly when she dies, and Johnny’s failure at the film’s conclusion is surprisingly (and somewhat uncomfortably) hilarious.
The Killing comes highly recommended. It’s the first Kubrick film where he really comes into his own. Check out the Criterion Blu-ray – certainly the best presentation of the film in the U.S. – which also includes Killer’s Kiss as a supplement. If you enjoy heist films or crime caper movies, this is an absolute must-see.