Like most of Kubrick’s films, 'The Killing' is absolutely impervious to time. While the film is one of his most ‘conventional’ films, it is remarkable for his forward-thinking narrative structure, showing the mechanics of a crime from multiple points of view in different spaces of time. Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled dialogue and Kubrick’s youthful cinematic flare with the camera still pulsate with a different kind of energy than the more formal and stolid works he’s most known for.
The Killing (1956) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Jay C. Flippen, Timothy Carey
By Alan Bacchus
There’s a strong sense of aggression in this picture. Starting with the score by George Fried, a loud and almost angry music cue opens the picture and helps to create momentum for the film as it snowballs throughout. There’s also the supremely imposing figure of Johnny Clay (Hayden), the ring leader of the racetrack heist who speaks with a larger-than-life deep voice, oozing confidence. Clay’s barely even a movie character, but more a caricature of someone like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and the Hollywood crimesters of the past.
We don’t care that Clay exhibits no other emotions other than his devotion to the job and supporting his dutiful wife. We may just be meant to identify with the affable George Petty (Cook Jr.), who is manipulated by his overbearing wife, Sherry (Windsor). But even then, his characterization as the ‘patsy’ is written to the extreme, an indulgence of Kubrick’s which doesn't really fit into his body of work, but within the rules of the crime/noir genre it is completely acceptable.
While most of the visual hallmarks we associate with Stanley Kubrick were birthed in his next film, Paths of Glory, we can see some stylish commonalities incorporated here. The omniscient voiceover, which tells us exactly what we see going on in front of us, is featured again in Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. And while the information presented seems unnecessary to help us understand the story, Kubrick uses the narration to convey a distinctly documentary-like realism to the film. Kubrick’s staunch adherence to real location flavour and almost consciously un-cinematic newsreel-like imagery of the racetrack adds to the unique procedural qualities.
There’s also the mask used by Clay during the heist, a recurring visual motif used so dramatically in Alex Delarge’s home invasion in A Clockwork Orange, as well as during the costume party flashback in The Shining and the infamous sex party in Eyes Wide Shut.
Rashomon was Kubrick’s cited influence in this regard, but as applied to the stone cold film noir/American heist genre it resembles little of Kurosawa’s rigorous technique. While the idea of showing a heist from the different perspectives of the participants often doubling back on each other was clearly in Lionel White’s original source novel (titled Clean Break), it was Kubrick’s confidence as a filmmaker which made it work for cinema, thus influencing later filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Atom Egoyan, who regularly use this approach.
Kubrick may have also looked to Europe for this influence in tone. We can’t help but see the connection to the cool, emotionless fetish for details in the great crime films of Jules Dassin (Rififi), Robert Bresson (Pickpocket) and Jacques Becker (Le Trou). It’s no surprise because these three films are some of the best heist/escape pictures of all time, with The Killing lining up proudly beside or arguably even above them.
The Killing is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.