The Killing (1956)

1956, THE KILLING2016.50: The Killing (Blu-ray)

The Killing is the earliest Stanley Kubrick film that I have yet seen- it is his third film, made when he was just 27, vaguely indicative of the great director he was yet to become, with perhaps few of the trademark touches his later films had. One might expect his nascent talents were limited by the boundaries of a low budget, a short shooting schedule and the censorship codes of the time, but it’s hardly evident here- indeed some might say Kubrick thrives under these conditions. This film is quite spectacular and might be ranked as one of Kubrick’s best films. For what it is, a film-noir heist movie, its almost damn perfect.

Indeed, it’s pretty much the definitive hard-boiled pulp fiction tale (regardless of the ensuing Tarantino connotations). Its like one of those cheap old ‘sixties paperbacks with garish covers printed on pulp paper brought to life, so vividly you can almost smell the mouldering print as you watch the film. Everything seems intense and larger than life, its 1950s setting and black and white photography giving it the dreamlike quality of a relentless nightmare relived by its characters over and over.

The Killing is dark and gritty and is full of noir touches and yet it almost entirely takes place in daylight. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is an ex-con with a perfect scheme to rob a racecourse on a big race-day. Financing the operation with money from a  friend (who is not quite the reformed alcoholic he thinks he is), he recruits a team that includes a dirty cop, a sharpshooter, two workers at the racetrack and an ex-wrestler. Unknown to Clay, one of the inside men has a cheating wife who learns of the scheme and gets her boyfriend to try turn it all over, but typical of noir, everything ultimately goes wrong for everybody involved. The grim conclusion is as inevitable as in any noir.

kill2Hayden is magnificent as the stony-faced ex-con fresh from five years in prison who has cooked-up an elaborate scheme to steal $2 million, but it’s Marie Windsor as the cheating wife who steals the show as an evil blonde confident she can ensnare and manipulate her men with her feminine charms. She’s the blonde seductress of so many noir films and cheap paperback covers, dripping with venomous hate and greed.

Kubrick was a great chess player and it’s evident by how The Killing is structured. Clay’s scheme isn’t fully explained, we simply watch it unfold in a docu-drama fashion complete with a cold narration telling us the location and time as it presents the same events several times from different points of view, jumping forwards and backwards over a period of days, slowly revealing the plan. I’ve read that this is very much like how a chess game might be planned out several moves in advance (if he does this, I’ll do that, or if I do this, he might do that…) so much so that the whole film unfolds like a game of chess. An indication perhaps of Kubrick’s genius that later made him so famous a director.

Clay’s plan depends on each member of his team doing his part, and not every member of the team  knows the whole plan- they are like chess pieces that know their moves but not the grand scheme behind them. Clay wouldn’t make as perfect a chess player as Kubrick likely did- he doesn’t see all the possible moves or possible outcomes, but it does make this film endlessly fascinating. Clay’s ultimate failing, despite his own hard-boiled tough guy persona, is perhaps having too much faith in humanity.

The cast are uniformly great, the location filming makes everything look real while, from the vantage point of 2016, offering a glimpse of a world long-lost. The screenplay (written by crime novelist Jim Thompson rather than a traditional Hollywood scriptwriter), deserves special mention for its great dialogue which was likely an inspiration for Tarantino. Yeah, I can imagine this was one of those films that Tarantino poured over in his video-store days, dreaming up those films he’d later make. There’s all sorts of moments in The Killing that brings to mind stuff in Reservoir Dogs and other Tarantino films. As usual, Kubrick was there first.

 

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3 thoughts on “The Killing (1956)

  1. I was reading a thread on Kubrick the other day, prompted by the announcement of Masters of Cinema’s Paths of Glory Blu-ray, and I was struck that virtually every Kubrick movie is someone’s favourite and/or their pick for his most underrated. I know Kubrick is exalted and worshipped, but still, that’s quite an achievement.

    I would say I really must get round to this (as per usual!), but I’m confident I will eventually — WDYMYHS throws up a Kubrick with unerring regularity, and I’m sure will continue to do so.

    1. There is something strange about Kubrick films. On first viewing they all tend to leave me cold but they are hypnotically rewatchable, and reward repeat viewings like no other directors work I can think of. Just something intangible about them. His best stuff is so… Kubrick, like watching one of his films is like having a conversation with him. They don’t seem to be trying to meet the audience halfway or pander to audience expectations, which is what might be so refreshing compared to films made by marketing departments and demographic studies per modern blockbusters.

  2. I was introduced to‘The Killing’ by my old man, and I find it endlessly re-watchable. Unlike some people I don’t have a problem with the occasional voice overs, for me they heightened the tensions amongst the members of Johnny Clay’s crew. Though each has a function within the heist. Each one’s underlying agendas spell trouble.
    Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor rock out loud. Timothy Carey’s just plain creepy. And the film’s grittiness, unusual locations and mistrust of all involved is very much like Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’.
    Great review, I really enjoyed it!

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