Released: May 20, 1956
Director: Stanley Kubrick; Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson based on the novel by “Clean Break” by Lionel White; Cinematography: Lucien Ballard; Music: Gerald Fried; Producer: James B. Harris; Studio: United Artists
Cast: Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay), Coleen Gray (Fay), Vince Edwards (Val Cannon), Jay C. Flippen (Marvin Unger), Elisha Cook Jr. (George Peatty), Marie Windsor (Sherry Peatty), Ted de Corsia (Randy Kennan), Joe Sawyer (Mike O’Reilly), James Edwards (Racetrack Parking Attendant), Timothy Carey (Nikki Arane), Joe Turkel (Tiny), Jay Adler (Leo the Loanshark), Kola Kwariani (Maurice Oboukhoff), Tito Vuolo (Joe Piano), Dorothy Adams (Mrs. Ruthie O’Reilly)
Just as Quentin Tarantino is continually accused to ripping off this noir classic when he burst onto the indie scene with Reservoir Dogs, so too has Stanley Kubrick been accused of showing his influences a bit too much in making The Killing. There is no question that The Killing owes obvious debts to previously realized caper films, most particularly 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle and to a lesser degree 1955’s Rififi. Still, I always take exception to the idea that being influenced by a film, using similar stories or techniques, somehow automatically is morphed into ripping it off. Is The Asphalt Jungle a direct influence on The Killing? No doubt about it. But Kubrick’s film is so good, some would go so far as to argue that it tops even John Huston’s classic. I go back and forth and that topic, but I will say that I think Kubrick took a familiar story, told in a unique way, and that the end result is the tightest, most consistently entertaining film of his career.
Knowing the plots of any of the other movies mentioned above will mean familiarity with the story of The Killing. It is the story of the perfect heist gone awry, as the individual personalities and troubles of each member of the gang force the overall plan to crumble. The leader of the group is Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), a smalltime thief recently released from prison. He puts together a motley crew of co-conspirators to pull off a daring robbery at a local racetrack. The cast of characters brought together for the job is wide-ranging and each brings his own set of motivations and problems. There is the corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia) trying to pay off loanshark debts; George Petty (Elisha Cook Jr.), a teller at the track trying to make enough money to appease his cheating wife (Marie Windsor); the track bartender (Joe Sawyer) who is hoping to make enough money to care for his ailing wife; a gun-loving marksman (Timothy Carey) to shoot a horse in mid-race and create a diversion; Johnny’s longtime partner Marvin (Jay C. Flippen) who raises the necessary startup money to properly do the job; and even the wrestler Maurice (Kola Kwariani), another of Johnny’s old friends, is brought in to start a fight in the lobby. For his part, Johnny just wants to pull off this one last score and then run away with his sweetheart Fay (Coleen Gray).
What makes such a humdrum set up feel so fresh is the way that the story is told. It might seem passé now, but the nonlinear technique was not as commonplace in 1956 as it is today. Even now, having become used to it in modern movies, its use here has a certain freshness that keeps it from feeling like a gimmick. Kubrick opens the film with the actual robbery going down, then begins to jump back in time and follow each individual participant. We are introduced to each person, learn why they are engaging in the heist, and then follow them right up to the actual deed. Once a strand has been taken right to the verge of the robbery, the story then jumps back in time and picks up a different participant. It is a wonderful strategy to try and convey the countless machinations taking place simultaneously in the lives of everyone involved. George’s wife Sherry is plotting to have her boyfriend (Vince Edwards) end up with the loot. Randy is meeting with his loanshark (Jay Adler) promising he’ll have the money soon. Johnny is scrambling to tie up any loose ends in the planning. Rather than wildly jumping back and forth between these various threads, the style allows each subplot to be fully developed. The key to ultimately making everything work is the fact that each actor in every single subplot turns in an outstanding performance. The principals are universally solid, with Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook Jr. in particular shining. The supporting actors, in limited screen-time, might be even more impressive. The nagging from Marie Windsor’s Sherry will be annoying even to viewers. Her boyfriend Val is the meathead who sees himself as Romeo. Kola Kwariani as the intellectual, chess-playing professional wrestler. Even Jay Adler, who is in the movie for mere minutes, is wonderful as the sympathetic loanshark, allowing his customer to slide a bit on his payments.
Still, it is likely Kubrick that will leave one most impressed. He was just 27 years old when The Killing was released, making only his third film as a director. It was also the first time that he had the opportunity to work with any kind of budget (albeit still a relatively small one), which allowed him to do a bit more than in his previous efforts. His keen visual sense was evident in 1955’s Killer’s Kiss, which at times looks nothing short of brilliant. The story, though, was severely lacking in that film. So for The Killing, he made the best decision in bringing in a skilled writer to help him with the script. The man he chose was pulp writer extraordinaire Jim Thompson, whose hardboiled stories have since come to be regarded as classics of the genre. I don’t know enough about specifics to say how much input Kubrick had in the screenplay, but the general consensus seems to be that Thompson was the reason that the story was so strong. At the very least Thompson deserves credit for the skillful dialogue that is rattled off in nearly every scene. Whatever the individual contributions of each man, the result is a script that is unbelievably tight. There is not a wasted moment in the entire film. It clocks in at just 83 minutes, which feels not a moment rushed or too long. It is perfectly paced.
And, oh my, those visuals. Kubrick and cinematographer Lucien Ballard create individual images that are frame-worthy. This incredible visual artistry would become a hallmark of his career, and he would have many future films that would be marvelous to look at, but for my money it’s hard to top the beauty of the black-and-white look of The Killing. It’s certainly not Kubrick’s top film in terms of greatness or influence, but it remains my personal favorite.