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.


Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) Boris Ingster

stranger third

“Stranger on the Third Floor” was a minor B film that probably came and went with little if any attention being paid by critics and the general film audience. Fans of Peter Lorre may have been lured to the film by one of his rare non Mr. Moto starring roles only to probably be disappointed when they discovered he was only on camera for maybe no more than five or six minutes, though he plays the “stranger” mentioned in the title. The critics did not help. Bosley Crowthers of The New York Times welcomed the opportunity for first time director Boris Ingster, but called the film confusing and pretentious. He further stated, “it looks as though his inspiration has been derived from a couple of heavy French and Russian films, a radio drama or two and an underdone Welsh rarebit, all taken in quick succession.” Of course, this is the same critic who twenty-seven years later would denigrate “Bonnie and Clyde” and eventually lose his job with the paper over it.

Strangeronthe    John McGuire, a little known actor whose career goes back to 1932, plays the true lead, Mike Ward, a newspaper reporter whose big break arrives when he is an eyewitness to a murder of a man whose throat was slashed. Ward testifies at the trial of the accused, a nervous Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.), and because of Ward’s testimony, Briggs is sentenced to die in the electric chair, though he continues to proclaim his innocents.

After the trial, Ward begins to have some doubts about what he saw. He is haunted by thoughts that he may have accused an innocent man, who may be wrongly executed.    Mike’s uncertainty increases when he spots a creepy looking stranger lurking around his apartment building. Mike gives chase to the man, but he disappears into the night. There is a surrealistic dream sequence in which Mike is arrested for the murder of his neighbor, a man he previously had an augment with and wished dead. Soon after, his next-door neighbor is really found dead with his throat slashed… exactly like the first murder. The police begin to suspect Mike may be the killer since he witnessed both murders. No one other than Mike seems to have seen the stranger with the bulging eyes, and a scarf, that Mike is now insisting is the killer. With Mike under suspicion, it is left up to his fiancée Jane (Margaret Tallichet) to hunt down the mysterious stranger and clear Mike.

The film runs a fast 64 minutes and is always mentioned as one of the earliest examples, if not the first, of what became known as film noir. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca certainly has many of the elements of noir, the dark shadows, expressionist lighting, voice over, innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit and the off-kilter camera angles. Musuraca would go on to photograph such noir style films as “Cat People”, “Curse of the Cat People”, “The Seventh Victim”, “Out of the Past” and “Blood on the Moon.”

Peter Lorre’s “starring” role was a result of his owing RKO a couple days of work that remained on his contract. He, as usual, is extremely effective as the creepy bulging eyed stranger badly in need of some dental work. Lorre is also oddly sympathetic in the role, a trait similar to his character in Fritz Lang’s classic German expressionistic film “M.” Despite his limited screen time, he is the acting highlight in the film along with a young Elisha Cook Jr. who plays Joe Briggs, the wrongly accused taxi driver. The following year of course, Cook and Lorre would appear in another film together, the classic “The Maltese Falcon”, a film that is considered noirs first big hit. Lorre and Cook along with cinematographer Musuraca would become mainstays in the world of film noir.

stranger1    The two leads, John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet are barely adequate and it is unmistakably evident why they did not advance up to “A” production films. Tallichet’s career was short-lived making only two more films after “Stranger” then retiring to raise a family.

In between the highlights, though there is some creaky material. Besides the previously mentioned mediocre acting of the two leads, the judge at the trial seems to be in another world during the proceedings only to “wake up” when he is actually asked a question. Additionally, the ending regresses back to the typical Hollywood happy conclusion. The dark dangerous streets disappear into the bright sunlight.

The script was co-written by Frank Partos and Nathanael West, author of “The Day of the Locust.” Director Boris Ingster, who would only direct two more films would go on to write and or produce a number of TV shows including “The Man from UNCLE.”

Overall, “Stranger on the Third Floor” is a prime example how filmmakers working with minimal production values, produced a work, that has no artistic ambition, no self consciousness, no gloss yet rises to a higher level of creativity than over produced highly ambitious “A” productions that ring no more true despite the millions of dollars spent.