The Killing (1956)

“Five years have taught me one thing, if nothing else: Anytime you take a chance, you better be sure the rewards are worth the risk.”

A year after the release of what is considered two absolute failures’, his second film, Killer’s Kiss, director Stanley Kubrick sold himself short. Both Fear and Desire and the aforementioned Killer’s Kiss are not bad films in the slightest. They are technically sound, shot, and directed by the then first-time director and ex-photographer for Look magazine. What Kubrick and the box office saw as a failure; the results are quite opposite. If anything, those two early films serve as a starting point, an opportunity to prove oneself, a skill sharpening tool to gain experience with as the person in charge, calling the shots. We can’t all be perfect at doing something extremely difficult like directing a film for the first time, can we?

Not the most unique title for the 3rd overall feature length film (first in Kubrick’s eyes), The Killing is adapted by Kubrick from the Lionel White novel titled Clean Break. After securing the rights with his partner James B. Harris, Kubrick brings in novelist Jim Thompson to write the dialogue while Kubrick mapped out the rest. Learning firsthand after getting his feet wet, Kubrick applies his newfound skill and eye for directing to The Killing. The result is a fascinating film noir heist gone wrong.

The plot of The Killing is rather simplistic – an inside job heist orchestrated by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) starting off as planned but quickly gone off the rails – unraveling at every moment that Clay promised would be airtight. Johnny’s hope is to make one final score so he can settle down and marry Fay (Coleen Gray). Assisting Johnny is a small tightknit group of unsuspecting associates that all play a significant part. Johnny’s plan is to rob the money counting room at a racetrack during the horse final race before the payouts can begin. A $2 million dollar job, enough money split between the team to retire afterwards.

On the team is Val (Vince Edwards), a sharpshooter, George (Elisha Cook Jr.), the betting window teller, Randy Keenan (Ted de Corsia), a policeman, Maurice (Kola Kwariani), the muscle used as a distraction to draw eyes away from Johnny’s plan, and Mike (Joe Sawyer), a bartender. Told in a non-linear format, the stories narrator, follows each individual leading up to, during and post theft. All with their own task, Kubrick is meticulous in how the screenplay doesn’t miss a detail nor leaves any stone untuned.

Johnny is the lead, much of the 85-minute runtime follows him in the preparation and execution. As a plan, the heist is bulletproof, everyone on the team is reliable, playing their part flawlessly. Kubrick juxtaposes his approach to screenwriting and directing through his characters – it’s a perfect plan, how could anything go wrong? Outside of the team is where Johnny’s bulletproof plan unravels. George, after returning home to his wife after being given the instructions and invitation to join the team by Marvin (Jay C. Flippen), spills the details to his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) who has become bitter in disappointment in not living with a certain comfort in life that George promised.

Once all the major players are introduced in act one, the second act of the film watches the effort of Johnny and Marvin play out. The narration comes back, pinpointing every member and their role and as expected down to the minute, going back and forward in time, the heist is successful. But what Kubrick does better with The Killing is introducing unknown variables into the plot. Characters that could derail Johnny’s entire plan to live a better life with Fay. Everything down to the escape at the end is planned out but it’s what the money means to each individual character that brings about the destruction and demise of all involved. No plan is without flaw and greed will ultimately swallow someone whole.

Along with his first two efforts, Kubrick introduces an unpredictability into a story that follows a predictable path. We know something will go wrong eventually and by whom but where and when remains to be seen. Getting to that point however is a steady dose of intimacy on screen, between characters and an injection of built suspense and tension. The climax is quick and effective nailing the impact of the lead up to this point. Because of this, every minute in the 85 matters. Filled with the same attention to detail that a horse race is called with, a hair out of place can change everything. Kubrick’s early works transform him into a perfectionist – every line of dialogue, every shot is framed to capture the scope of the heist, every note from Gerald Fried hits with emphasis. The Killing is Kubrick at his absolute best.

Once the wheels on The Killing start moving, there’s no stopping or slowing down the machine. Paced exceptionally well, I found myself glued to the screen, hanging on every word said, every pickup and drop off, every meticulous detail added by a director who has grown in skill exponentially, perfected with each take. The Killing is an inspiration, a triumph to look at and use when crafting a heist film, the gold standard for storytelling. Watching The Killing, I understand why Kubrick doesn’t like to consider Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss his first two films, but I disagree with him. Those two films triggered his power as a storyteller.

Screenplay By: Stanley Kubrick

Dialogue By: Jim Thompson

Directed By: Stanley Kubrick

Music By: Gerald Fried

Cinematography: Lucien Ballard

Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Ted de Corsia, Joe Sawyer

Release Date: May 19, 1956

Running Time: 1 Hour 25 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%

Based On: Clean Break by Lionel White

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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