The Killing

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Adaptation: Stanley Kubrick (dialogue by Jim Thompson; based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White)
Stars: Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay), Coleen Gray (Fay), Vince Edwards (Val Cannon), Jay C. Flippen (Marvin Unger), Ted de Corsia (Policeman Randy Kennan), Marie Windsor (Sherry Peatty), Elisha Cook Jr. (George Peatty), Joe Sawyer (Mike O’Reilly), James Edwards (Track Parking Attendant), Timothy Carey (Nikki Arcane), Kola Kwariani (Maurice Oboukhoff), Jay Adler (Leo the Loanshark), Tito Vuolo (Joe Piano), Dorothy Adams (Mrs. Ruthie O’Reilly)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1956
Country: U.S.
The Killing Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The KillingAfter character actor Sterling Hayden, who by the mid-1950s had acted in more than 20 films including classics by John Huston (1949’s The Asphalt Jungle) and Nicholas Ray (1954’s Johnny Guitar), read the script for The Killing, he was intrigued by the project and contacted producer James B. Harris about the starring role. When he asked Harris who would be directing the picture, Harris replied, “Stanley Kubrick,” which prompted Hayden to ask, “Who is he?,” which is most likely the last time that any actor--or anyone working in the motion picture industry, for that matter--had to ask that question. Although Kubrick had already directed a couple of short films and two independently produced features, Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955), he was still an outsider and an unknown whose biggest claim to fame was having shot pictures for Life magazine. The Killing changed all of that.

Based on a paperback crime novel by Lionel White titled Clean Break, which had previously attracted the interest of Frank Sinatra, The Killing takes us deep inside the inner workings of a complex $2 million heist being spearheaded by Hayden’s Johnny Clay, a tough, consummate professional criminal. The heist involves stealing all the cash from the Lansdowne Stakes racetrack in the middle of the day while it is filled with thousands of spectators, which requires more than half a dozen men, including several who work at the track, to fulfill specific roles at specific times. Kubrick, who adapted the novel and hired pulp novelist Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside) to write the gritty dialogue, structures the film in classic noir fashion, beginning at the racetrack on the day of the heist and then bringing us back in time to introduce all the major characters and establish piece by piece how the job will be pulled off. Kubrick’s elaborate temporal structuring--which rewinds time and replays events from different perspectives rather than cross-cutting in typical suspense fashion--has a push-and-pull effect, moving us around the narrative like an unassembled jigsaw puzzle that slowly but surely comes together in the end, but never in the way we might expect it.

Granted, we can sense trouble and where it might boil over, particularly in the case of George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), a cashier at the track who plays a crucial role in the heist. A meek and insecure man, he is constantly browbeaten by his emotionally manipulative wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), who pressures him into telling her about the job and then takes that information to her lover, a young hood named Val (Vince Edwards). George’s involvement in the heist is driven by his pathetic desperation to please Fay, with makes it so cruelly ironic that she plans to double-cross him. George is not the only desperate one, however. In one way or another, all of the men working on the heist are at some kind of edge, including Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), a police officer who is deep in debt to a vicious loan shark (Jay Adler), and Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer), a bartender at the track who has a terminally sick wife for whom he cannot afford medical care. These relatable problems humanizes the criminals and exacerbates our tension in watching the job go down while knowing that somehow it will go wrong. This was, after all, still the era of the Production Code when crime in a Hollywood film could not pay, and Kubrick uses that to his advantage, playing up the fatalistic nature of the crime’s undoing via both human failure (George telling his wife) and simple dumb luck (best exemplified in a “lucky” horseshoe effectively causing in someone’s death).

Despite this only being his third feature and his first with a significant budget, Kubrick displays many of the thematic preoccupations and visual traits that would come to define his unique, cinematic voice. The film’s overall look is clearly indebted to previous film noir, with its dark, claustrophobic interiors and chiaroscuro lighting, but Kubrick makes it his own with finely wrought compositions and elegant tracking shots that emphasize the pressure of real time (you can feel the influence of both Max Ophuls and the legendary crime photography Weegee). Those who have seen his later films will notice that many elements of The Killing are foreshadows of great moments to come, whether it be the lengthy tracking shots through the trenches in Paths of Glory (1957), the unforgettable image of the circular lighting over the war room in Dr. Strangelove (1964), or the phallic mask Alex wears in A Clockwork Orange (1971), which is presaged by the uncanny hobo mask Johnny dons during the robbery. Kubrick had already worked out the kinks in his filmmaking in his previous two features, thus The Killing feels like the work of a consummate pro.

There are a few narrative hiccups here and there--I, for one, never believed that someone as thorough and calculating as Johnny wouldn’t be aware that airlines have a size limit on carry-on luggage and that he would become so flustered at the last minute--but overall the plot works like clockwork, drawing us into the scheme and then milking the pleasures of watching it unfold exactly as planned--at first, anyway. “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men,” as poet Robert Burns wrote, and this one certainly goes astray, culminating in one of the most brutally ironic moments in all of Kubrick’s films as the group’s hard-earned cash literally blows away--a potent image of great symbolic value that visually mirrors earlier images of the racetrack grounds littered with losing tickets. Kubrick holds the image for maximum impact, and the look on Hayden’s face is a deft summary of film noir’s inherent fatalism--all are doomed, and the only question is how (the fact that we are clearly meant to feel for Johnny is a reminder that Kubrick is not the misanthrope he is often painted as, but rather a humanist who recognizes and is drawn to the uglier ironies of life). It is not surprising that The Killing was the last crime film that Kubrick ever made. He had essentially conquered the genre and was ready for the next challenge, a pattern that would come to define his extraordinary career.

The Killing Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Killing is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Video interview with producer James B. Harris
  • Excerpted interviews with actor Sterling Hayden from the French television series Cinéma cinemas
  • Video interview with poet and author Robert Polito about writer Jim Thompson
  • Restored high-definition digital transfer of Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 noir feature Killer’s Kiss
  • Video appreciation of Killer’s Kiss featuring film critic Geoffrey O’Brien
  • Trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film historian Haden Guest and a reprinted interview with actress Marie Windsor
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 16, 2011

    Long neglected on home video, Criterion has finally given Kubrick’s first signature film its due with a gorgeous high-definition transfer made from the original 35mm camera negative and properly framed at 1.66:1 (the old MGM open-matter DVD transfer doesn’t hold a candle). Extensive digital restoration has given us a virtually brand-new image, with only the faintest traces of age or damage. The beautifully rendered black-and-white image boasts great contrast, strong black levels, and the kind of fantastic detail that makes you feel like you’re seeing the film again for the first time. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic soundtrack and digitally restored, is likewise pristine, especially for its age.
    The Killing is packaged with quite a few supplements, starting with a restored high-definition digital transfer of Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 noir feature Killer’s Kiss, which is often referred to as Kubrick’s “practice” film. It looks stunning in high-def, and while it certainly falls short of his later efforts, it is nevertheless an engrossing story that makes great use of New York locations and is a clear sign of great things to come. In lieu of an audio commentary, film critic Geoffrey O’Brien offers his thoughts in a video appreciation of the film that helps set it within the context of Kubrick’s later work. Criterion has also dug into the archives and come up with several excerpted interviews with actor Sterling Hayden from the French television series Cinéma cinemas, as well as conducted new interviews with producer James B. Harris and poet and author Robert Polito (author of Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson), who talks about Thompson and his contributions to the film. The insert booklet features an essay by film historian Haden Guest and a reprinted interview with actress Marie Windsor

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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