The plot of Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film, the 1956 heist thriller, “The Killing” seems old hat. A criminal just out of prison after serving five years wants to do one more job before settling down and marrying his girl (Colleen Gray). There have been some great heist films prior to this one. In 1950, “The Asphalt Jungle”, in 1955, Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” and Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 classic “Bob le flambeur.” Among these films, made by experienced filmmakers, Kubrick’s third feature film stands tall, though at the time of its release, the film was not warmly received. The New York Times critic A.H .Weiler, was reserved in his response calling it “a fairly diverting melodrama.”
Since its release, “The Killing” has come to be recognized as one of the most influential crime films of all time. Quentin Tarantino admits the influence Kubrick’s film had on the filming of “Reservoir Dogs.”
For the first time Kubrick had professional financial backing for a project. The budget was $320,000 dollars. Yes, still small but compared to the forty thousand he had to film “Killer’s Kiss”, this was astronomical. Additionally, for the first time Kubrick could afford to use experienced actors, including Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle , Johnny Guitar), Elisha Cook (The Maltese Falcon, Phantom Lady), Marie Windsor (The Narrow Margin), Jay C. Flippen (The Live By Night)and Vince Edwards (Murder by Contract).
Kubrick engaged a professional co-writer, in this case Jim Thompson, whose hard-boiled novels were the basis for films like “The Grifters”, “The Getaway”, “The Killer Inside Me” and “After Dark, My Sweet.” Though Thompson wrote most of the screenplay, adapted from a novel called “Clean Break” by Lionel White, Kubrick took most of the credit with Thompson receiving only an additional dialogue credit. Unperturbed, or in need of the money, Thompson would continue to work with Kubrick on his next film, “Paths of Glory” and even on a third script that never was made.
It is in this film that Kubrick’s visual brilliance shines through for the first time. There were traces of it before in earlier works but here it is turned on full throttle for the first time. True it is not a complex story, but Kubrick’s structure of the entire film is expertly realized.
Johnny Clay’s (Sterling Hayden) gang are not made up of your usual criminal types. Each man is in if for his own reasons. There is the meekish racetrack window teller George Peatty (Elisha Cook) who is desperate to win some respect from his trampy wife Sherry (Marie Winsor). Then there is Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer), a bartender at the track, who needs the money to pay for the medical bills of his bed-ridden wife. A corrupt policeman, Randy Corsain (Ted DeCorsia) who is the getaway guy. Finally, there is Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) an older man who is financing the upfront money. If all goes well, the gang will get away with two million dollars.
Unfortunately, a good plan is only as good as its weakest link, and here the weak link is George Peatty. George’s insecurity, and as we find out he has reason to be insecure about his wife, ignites the fuel that will blow the plan apart. George tells Sherry more than he should about the heist plans and Sherry shares it with her small-time hood boyfriend Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) who has ideas of his own.
The cinematography, credited to Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch, Will Penny) reflects the hand held style Kubrick favored many times during his extraordinary career. This is displayed during the blood bath toward the end of the film when George surveys the outcome of his violent massacre. Noirish high contrast lighting is also well used in various scenes where a single lamp sometimes is the only light source.
Kubrick’s most original element here is his use of a nonlinear timeline, jumping back and forth, as we watch each of the gang members’ movements before and leading up to the moment of the heist. Kubrick was encouraged to abandon this structure during the editing of the film and go for a straighter direct storyline approach, however, after trying various other approaches he wisely decided to leave the film as it is. Finally, there is the ending with Johnny and Fay (Colleen Gray) trying to escape from the airport. There are two plainclothesmen coming toward him. Fay tells him to run and Johnny, looking tired and beat says, “What’s the use?”
Seemingly overshadowed by his later works, “The Killing” appears to be looked at as a minor work in the Kubrick filmography. Certainly not as provoking or intellectually stimulating as his better-known films, “The Killing” remains a visual blueprint on how to make a great crime thriller, the nonlinear storyline, the pacing, and the characters.
Kubrick spends more time on character development here than he would in later works. Johnny’s relationship with Unger (Jay C. Flippin), the scenes with the Russian, Maurice are all exceptional. The highlight though is loser George Peatty, who Kubrick films various times from behind bars (ticket window at the track and through the bars of a bed), and is locked up in a loveless marriage to his cheap sultry wife. They are a perfect mismatched married couple, the little emasculated man with big dreams, and his money hungry two timing wife who is tired of waiting for those dreams to come true. After Kubrick saw Windsor in “The Narrow Margin”, he wanted her for the role. Marie Windsor is sensationally evil in her role.
Kubrick incorporates some interesting minor touches in the film that add color and depth to the characters. There is Johnny’s attempt to seduce Sherry, the unexpected explosion from Nickki (Timothy Carey), the shooter hired to assassinate the horse, Red Lightening, during the seventh race, who verbally attacks the black racetrack parking attendant with a racial slur. Finally, the unexpected homosexual insinuation in Marvin Unger’ s suggestion that he and Johnny leave town together, so Johnny would avoid the trappings of marriage.
There are problems with the film, the use of voice-over, becomes annoying and unnecessary at times. The voice over seems to pander to the audience as if the assumption is we are not bright enough follow what is going on. This may have been forced upon Kubrick by the studio that may have been nervous about the nonlinear storyline. Kubrick did use a narrator in his previous film, “Killer’s Kiss” which I found less troublesome. Also, unconvincing the infamous cheap suitcase, Johnny uses and loses the money with. As precisely planned as the heist was you would think Johnny would have purchased a stronger and more secure suitcase.
Overall, “The Killing” is an excellent heist film with fine performances by Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook. Personally, this is one of my favorite Kubrick films.
Excellent work, as usual, John on a film that I don’t hesitate to name as my favorite that Kubrick ever made. The only one that really comes close is Dr. Strangelove, but I still definitely prefer The Killing. You touch on a lot of the key points that appeal to me, mainly in the cinematography. I think it’s spectacular. I am also always struck by the brilliant ensemble performances. You rightly point out how effective George Peatty is as the loser who is sucked into the plot just to get some respect from his wife. Peatty really was one of the great character actors of film noir.
I also think that you’re right concerning the voice over and the movie would have been better served without it. But I’m able to overlook it because it seems more like an artifact of an era. There were many other noirs that had similar voice overs that I would have preferred were simply cut, but for whatever reason they seemed to be “in” during that era.
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Dave – Many noirs of the period had voice over. Here though, there were certain times when I just thought it was not needed. It really does not take away from the over all film. The cinematography is a real highlight and I think Kubrick’s background as a still phtographer certtainly helped. Thanks again.
Great analysis! The Killing was certainly a brilliant albeit largely overlooked film, even though it was directed by Stanley Kubrick. Ok, he wasn’t famous when he directed this movie, but once he became the legend that he is now, the movie ought to have been “discovered” to a larger audience.
I agree with mostly everything you said. However, I think it would be a bit unfair to criticize the voiceover. In film noirs, I feel voiceovers were used more from a stylistic aspect than to serve the narrative or “educate” the audience about the storyline. The principal job of voiceovers was to reveal the nihilism and/or cynicism that typically identify a noir world in general and its anti-hero in particular.
The film definitely needs and deserves a large audience. As you say, when people discusee Kubrick they seem to overlook this fil.
“The principal job of voiceovers was to reveal the nihilism and/or cynicism that typically identify a noir world in general and its anti-hero in particular.”
This is a good point and one I did not think of. Appreciate the input. Thanks!!!
John, many of Kubrick’s films after The Killing employ voiceover to some extent. He did it often enough to convince me that he actually favored it, depending on his subject matter, and perhaps as a distancing device. Barry Lyndon is probably the ultimate example of this approach. Shubhajit is also right to stress the generic significance of voiceover in noir. Apart from that point, I agree with your fine review of this film, a great late noir from a rising young director.
Thanks for your input, I am going to have to revisit the film and look at the voiceover from this new perspective.
John, a great job on a movie that I love (and that I first saw on TV as a child, before I had any idea who Kubrick was or even what a film director actually did). Aside form “Barry Lyndon” all the Kubrick movies I admire are from the early part of his career–up to and including “Dr. Strangelove.” His brilliance as a director was so unmistakable that it’s a shame he later applied it to subjects unworthy of it–to me clear cases of artistic overkill. But this movie has everything he was great at–brilliant images, a compelling story, even black humor (George and Sherry). It’s interesting you should bring up the latent gay element in the character Jay C. Flippen plays. A couple of years ago I saw a documentary (I think it was “The Celluloid Closet”) that dealt largely with the covert way Hollywood movies dealt with gay themes and made the point that a classic way to do this was to have an old-timer warning a younger man about the dangers of women. Then I saw “The Killing” on TCM a couple of weeks later, and there was Flippen doing exactly this with Hayden, just as you wrote. And I sure agree that this film belongs with the others you named as being at the top of the heap in this genre, so frequently imitated later on but never equaled as in its heyday of the early 50s when it was still fresh.
Like yourself, I too favor early Kubrick over his late work though I do like A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. I think his later works are burdened by his being STANLEY KUBRICK. I watched The Celluloid Closet many years ago and yeah this was a clear example of as you say “the covert way Hollywood delt with gay themes.” I had a delayed reaction when I was watching the film and had to rewatch that scene just to make sureI heard what I thoughtI heard. Reminded me of the many pre-code films and how Hollywood would sneak things past the censors. Thanks as always!
One of the greatest of crime films, a seminal Kubrick, and one of his few films that has just about no detractors. This claustrophobic, fatalistic film boasts some of the best editing Kubrick has ever displayed, even in his later masterworks. It enables us to see what the different men are doing at the same time, a device that is riveting. Like Wilder’s ACE IN THE HOLE this is an unrelentingly cynical film, and even the “romance” is intertwined with elements of perversity.
Sterling Hayden gives an excellent performance and Cook and Windsor are quite good (as you note) and yes I quite agree that this film is a ‘virtual blueprint on how to make a caper film.’ I must say I have no issue myself with the voiceover, and understand it’s the style of the period. It does not detract from the film’s endless fascination.
Your roll continues with yet another superlative review in a genre you are a proven specialist in. I love all the small observations particularly, like this:
“Kubrick incorporates some interesting minor touches in the film that add color and depth to the characters. There is Johnny’s attempt to seduce Sherry, the unexpected explosion from Nickki (Timothy Carey), the shooter hired to assassinate the horse, Red Lightening, during the seventh race, who verbally attacks the black racetrack parking attendant with a racial slur. Finally, the unexpected homosexual insinuation in Marvin Unger’ s suggestion that he and Johnny leave town together, so Johnny would avoid the trappings of marriage.”
Good point on the romance between Hayden and Gray. She knows what he is and what he is doing and is with him all the way. Thanks Sam!
This is a good point and one that I find fascinating… it is like it’s perfectly understandable for a normal girl to have a career criminal for a beau! 🙂
True, she is perfectly willing to run off with him and the money. While she is not involved in the actual robbery, doesn’t she become an accessory after the fact since they run off together?
Yeah, you’re likely right, John. I’ve noticed this phenomenon in a number of noirs. It makes it seems like almost every eligibly bachelor in the country was involved in some kind of racket!
I think I might watch this one tonight… it’s been a little review has made me want to see it again.
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For me The Killing is over-shadowed by the ealier heist movies The Asphalt Jungle” and Rififi,which clearly influenced Kubrick, but it is still a solid picture.
For me the most interesting scene, and I suppose credit should go to Jim Thompson, is in the Chess parlor where the caper’s mastermind Sterling Hayden, recruits Nicholas (’Kola’) Kwariani’s heavy to start a distracting bar-room brawl at the track. Kwariani was a professional wrestler and wrestling promoter, and dedicated chess player who frequented “The Flea House” in New York City, which is also where this recruitment scene was filmed. As far as I know this was his only screen appearance ever!
Kwariani has the best lines in the movie, and delivers them with a thick Eastern European accent and a perfect world-weary understanding of exactly what he is saying :
Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden)
Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani)
Johnny: Good game, Maurice?
Maurice: Johnny, my old friend. How are you?
Good to see you. Been a long time, eh?
How long have you been out?
Johnny: Not long.
Maurice: It was difficult, no?
Maurice: Very difficult.
You have my sympathies, Johnny.
You have not yet learned that you have to be like everyone else.
The perfect mediocrity.
No better, no worse.
Individuality is a monster, and it must be strangled in its cradle to make our friends feel comfortable.
You know, I often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They’re admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present an underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.
“You know, I often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They’re admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present an underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.”
That is a great line and so true. We like to build up our heroes and once they reach the top, tear them down. IMDB verifies your belief that this was his only appearance in a film. What a find!
Thanks Tony for recreating the scene which I remember well though did not mention, I now say with regret, in my in review.
Nice post about an excellent film by Kubrick. I just revisited this one in the process of preparing for a film school entry test.
Regarding your end notes about the dubbing and the suitcase:
– While watching it I was thinking about doing a ‘narrator-free’ version by doing some post-processing. It’s clear that many would take it as blasphemy but I think it would be an interesting experiment.
– The suitcase was not bought during the preparations as they planned to split up the money from the duffle bag and only the circumstances pushed him to buy one. He was also running late already and got to the apartment at 7:30 with a 9pm plane to catch, not the best schedule to have when you want to buy a proper suitcase! The hastened choice was further emphasized with the key not working properly in the ‘loading the dough’ scene. Although you could argue if there was a plan B for a certain situation why there was no careful planning accessory-wise for that event too.
The narrator free version would be interesting and I think the film would still work. I generally do not have a problem with narration, it just seemed here it was not needed. The suitcase thing just seemed a bit sloppy, since Hayden’s character was so precise with everything else. I understand what you are saying though.
Nice review and commentary!
The film’s voice-over gives it a sense of documentary realism, as if the audience were watching a newsreel, which were popular until around 1960. Also, the authoritative tone of the narrator represents the voice of the law, or more broadly, the social order, against which the criminals struggle.
While the voiceover didn’t bother me, I’m becoming a convert to the idea that the film may not have needed it!
You’re right about the “sense of documentary realism” the voice over lends to the story and this was a technique used in many film noirs still I do think it was over used in this particular film. That said, it still remains one of my favorite of Kubrick;s films.
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Great film review and everything I would have brought up has been discussed thoroughly in the comments. The one think I would point out is that I actually think it is Sherry that tries to seduce Johnny not the other way around. Maybe that was a typo, or maybe a different interpretation, but but a great review in all.
Thanks Peter! It’s been a few years since I have watched The Killing, but you are probably right that Sherry seduced Johnny. I do need to watch it again.