The Killing (1956) Stanley Kubrick


    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).

  screen02  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.

The Killing- Stilla    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.

The killing Poster416109.1020.A    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.

The Killing Still C    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.


Killer’s Kiss (1955) Stanley Kubrick


Stanley Kubrick’s “Killer’s Kiss” was independent filmmaking even before there really was an independent filmmaking movement. As far I’m aware, one of the only other American independent filmmaker’s prior to Kubrick was Morris Engel with his excellent 1953 work, “Little Fugitive.”  For his second feature, Kubrick borrowed forty thousand dollars from relatives to finance the film. The story deals with an over the hill boxer, who meets a dance club hostess named Gloria Price (Irene Kane), a blonde beauty who lives in an apartment across the courtyard from him.  The two meet and quickly fall in love, deciding to move to Seattle.  However, Gloria’s slimy boss, small time hood, Vincent (Frank Silvera) has the hots for her and no intention of losing her to some over the hill boxer. This sets in motion a series of events that leads to murder, kidnapping and a climatic chase that ends in the finest film noir style.   2

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“Killer’s Kiss” is no masterpiece, but the building blocks of a master filmmaker are there. Young Kubrick’s use of actual New York locations extracts a dark sleazy realism of urban living that is hard to match.  The apartment complex the two lovers share is tied together by a common roof, separated only by a courtyard that provides visual access to one neighbor viewing the activity of another. Kubrick’s use of the gritty streets of 1950’s Times Square crowded with an overflowing rush of people adds to the realism. There is a wonderful shot of the long gone Astor Theater, the New York City Subway and three scenes of the old Pennsylvania Station, two of which bookend the film with opening and closing shots.  Penn Station comes to symbolize the transitional nature of city life, people both coming to and leaving the metropolis including our two protagonists.  If nothing else, “Killer’s Kiss” is a visual tour of the seedy side 1950’s New York City.

The boxing match between Davy and his opponent Kid Rodriquez is a visual delight. It’s a short sequence but evocative of the best boxing films.  Kubrick’s combination of camera angles and editing, marks these scenes as second to none. There are moments you feel like you are watching “Raging Bull.”  Also impressively filmed are the rooftop chase scene and the final garment factory showdown between Davy and Vincent, surrounded hauntingly by hundreds of mannequins. Vincent’s use of an axe in his battle with Davy, results in  chopped up arms, legs and heads. This is a scene Blake Edwards may or may not have borrowed from Kubrick a few years later in “Experiment in Terror.” KK Still.A

For the young filmmaker the choice of subject was familiar territory. As a still photographer for Look Magazine (when he started working for Look he was still in high school), Kubrick photographed numerous boxing matches. His first short “Day of the Fight”, made in 1951, follows Irish Middleweight Walter Cartier as he prepares for a match.

Due to the minuscule budget, Kubrick was forced to post synchronize all the sound and dialogue. The story was by Kubrick, the screenplay was written by Howard Sackler (“The Great White Hope”). With this film, Kubrick would begin a career habit of reducing the overall credit due or given to many of his co-writers.  Kubrick and his producer uncle managed to sell the film to United Artists who released it in limited markets as the bottom half of a double feature.

333371.1020.A   Irene Kane who plays Gloria was the name used by Chris Chase who later on achieved greater success as a writer working for The New York Times. Chase also co-authored  several biographies, and memoirs, with Alan King (“Name Droppings”), Rosalind Russell (“Life is a Banquet”) and Betty Ford (“Times of My Life”).   The best-known actor was Frank Silvera who played Vincent Rapallo the slime ball minor hood. A light-skinned Black, Silvera made a career portraying Blacks, Hispanics and White characters. While it is never stated what Vincent is, his last name Rapallo seems to indicate Hispanic which would signify Kubrick was one of the earliest directors to use an interracial couple without making it a plot point in the story. Silvera also appeared in Kubrick’s first feature, the little seen, “Fear and Desire.”

“Killer’s Kiss” is a training manual for guerilla filmmaking, a combination of cinema verite and classic Hollywood film noir, a flawed mixture of economic filmmaking and budding brilliance.