The Killing (1956) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Timothy Carey and Elisha Cook Jr.
“The Killing” was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film, but for cinephiles it’s generally considered his first "real film”. Made in 1956, when the young American director was just getting his sea legs, the film feels less an auteur statement than a rock-solid genre film. From beginning to end it’s one of the best heist films of all time and, ironically, one of Kubrick's most accessible and entertaining films.
We open with a classic noir image, a group of shadowy men sitting around a poker table, lit with a single harsh lamp above them, a cloud of cigarette smoke lingering. They are plotting a heist of a racetrack. The hard boiled dialogue bristles with kinetic energy. Sterling Hayden (the star of the “Asphalt Jungle”) is perfectly cast as Johnny Clay, the ringleader of the bunch. He’s fast-talking, tough and confident. Outside of the table the schemers seem like ordinary people, each with a specific task to make it all go down smoothly. There’s the Irish bartender Mike, one of the inside men who stages a fight in the racetrack as a distraction, George (Elisha Cook Jr.) another inside man, a teller who lets Johnny into the back office where the cash is, Maurice (wrestler, Kola Kwariani) who’s starts the fight which distracts the cops, Timothy Carey, the beatnik sniper who shoots the horse causing more confusion, and Randy (Ted de Corsia), the crooked cop who collects the cash.
The score is planned and executed to perfection, but there’s always a wrench in the works, which comes in the form of Sheri (Marie Windsor), George’s domineering trophy girlfriend, who’s waiting for the right time to double-cross her pathetic husband. There is no weak link in the ensemble as each character fits the mold of the genre perfectly.
The innovative structure of the film is due in part to both Kubrick and the great crime novelist/co-screenwriter Jim Thomson (“The Getaway). After the first act ‘setup’, the second act heist is replayed 4 or 5 times from the point of each of the characters. Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” used this technique as well as Steven Soderbergh in “The Underneath” and “Ocean’s 11”. Neither filmmaker used it more effectively than "The Killing" and , 50 years later, the technique is still fresh.
The “Kubrickisms” are few and far between. Unlike his later films, Kubrick keeps the running time down to under 90mins, and we only see a hint of his famous wideangle lenses, and long tracking shots. There are a few seeds of his trademark visuals though, including Sterling Hayden’s disguise during the heist which would foreshadow Kubrick’s fascinations with masks (ie. “The Shining”, “Clockwork Orange”, Eyes Wide Shut”); and the omniscient voiceover, which would be used later in “Dr. Strangelove”, “A Clockwork Orange”, and “Barry Lyndon”.
The film certainly feels like a 50’s film, the dialogue, music and narration are a tad antiquated, and so viewers should watch it in context of the era. Whether it’s comedy, action, science fiction, suspense, horror, "The Killing" is a reminder of Stanley Kubrick's gifted skills to make any kind of film his own - a true filmmaker who could pretty much do anything. Enjoy.
Buy it here: The Killing
Watch Sterling Hayden set the scene: