The Killing (1956)
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Jim Thompson
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Just a year after Killer’s Kiss, Stanley Kubrick directed this heist film that dripped with noir. It should be noted that starting with this film, every movie Kubrick ever made was based on a novel. For the most part, his films would come to overshadow the books he adapted because Kubrick didn’t believe he was chained to the source material. I think that is an excellent thing because film adaptation is like language translation, you do not go for the exact 1:1 meaning, you shape the content to communicate the ideas and themes best. Kubrick made this picture under the banner of the Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation, a producing partnership he would continue for two more films (Paths of Glory & Lolita).
Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is an ex-con who has planned one last big score before he gets out of the business entirely. This is job will involve ripping off a popular racetrack in Los Angeles to the tune of $2 million. To accomplish this task, he’s put together a team consisting of a crooked cop, a window teller cashier, a bartender at the track, a sharpshooter, and a Russian professional wrestler. The story is told in almost documentary fashion, extremely procedural with the only real emotional arc being between the window teller and his philandering wife. As with all noir stories, you know immediately that the smooth, foolproof plan will inevitably run into snags that ruin the whole thing.
Stanley Kubrick was a never director known for his sharp dialogue in the same way that Tarantino or the Coens might be. In the credits, it’s author Jim Thompson who is credited with that aspect of the script. Thompson became well-known for writing literary crime fiction that helped elevate the genre out being seen as just dime-store pulp and led people to revisit other crime fiction they had discounted before. Thompson would collaborate again with Kubrick on his next picture, Paths of Glory, and there were plans for a third project, but Spartacus and resulting opportunities sidetracked Kubrick. Thompson had some of his novels adapted to film, including The Killer Inside Me and The Grifters.
Because you have two writers whose interests lie in different filmmaking elements, The Killing feels like an odd mix at moments. There is the main plot of the heist, but some smaller character arcs seem like they could have been cut, but don’t hurt or drag the story down by remaining in. The conflict between George, the teller, and his wife Sherry feels like something you could have hung a whole movie on. She’s two-timing him with a younger guy. Sherry pries information out of George and shares it with her lover. That doesn’t pay off until the third act, but when it does, the actions that people take effect the rest of the narrative.
I was impressed with Kubrick taking chances playing with time by not laying out the heist in chronological order. He doubles back, replays scenes to show what was happening from different perspectives. When the heist goes down, we see the wrestler, paid to start a fight at the bar. His commotion creates a distraction for Johnny to be let into the back area where the money is kept. Later we jump back to what was happening outside at the same time when the sharpshooter takes out the favorite horse in the race to draw all attention there rather than to what’s going down inside.
The Killing is a well-made noir heist picture that hits all the notes you would expect with a few surprises. I wouldn’t say that the movie will change anyone’s life, but if you are in the mood for a classic in the genre, you’ll be satisfied. Save for a few shots, most of the cinematography is muted compared to Killer’s Kiss and what we would see in Kubrick’s later work. I suspect The Killing was being made to appeal to a broader audience, and therefore everything looks relatively flat and standard. If Kubrick’s name wasn’t in the credits, I don’t think I would have known this was one of his pictures, honestly.