The title of The Killing (1956) describes what, in one sense of the word, its characters hope to make, yet, in the more literal sense, it’s what they wind up unexpectedly doing a whole lot of once the machinery of their elegantly planned heist goes awry. This was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature, made when he was just 28. It should be seen as his proper arrival, the first film so charged with the particular brand of irony and almost singular rendering of architectural space that would come to define the director’s signature. Though hardly indicative of the towering and exacting displays of ambition to come—see Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001 (1968), Barry Lyndon (1975), et al—The Killing is also nimble and fleet and yielding of cinematic pleasure in a way that Kubrick would never quite replicate. It features camerawork from the great Lucien Ballard and dialogue from hard-boiled author Jim Thompson—the source material is Lionel White’s Clean Break—and a dream cast of actors that read like a film noir rogue’s gallery: Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr., Vince Edwards, Coleen Gray, and the unmistakable Timothy Carey. The Killing is now available on a great-looking DVD and blu-ray from Criterion.
Career criminal Johnny Clay (Hayden) has already done a five-year stretch, so he figures if he’s going to risk getting caught again it better be for a whopping payday. Two million, split between a small crew, about fits the bill, so Clay assembles a team consisting of a sniper (Carey), a betting window teller (Cook), a cop (Ted de Corsica), a bartender (Joe Sawyer) and—best of all—a wrestler (Kola Kwariani), who at one point actually has his shirt ripped off before he starts to kick ass, to rob a busy race track. Part of what’s meant to make the plan so effective is that no one player in the operation is able to fully see the whole, but this reduction of a larger machine to its individual parts is also part of what causes it to malfunction. The teller’s younger wife (Windsor) tells her boyfriend (Edwards) about the plan and the boyfriend figures to get in on the take; the sniper loses his patience with a parking lot attendant and fellow veteran (James Edwards), lets fire a racist slur, and is eventually fired at himself.
Moving back and forth chronologically—tellingly, the film was an inspiration for the young Quentin Tarantino—we see parts of the plan play out from different perspective; narrated by an anonymous voice who sounds a little too much like he’s narrating a trailer, it’s as though we’re medical students tracking the paths of a cancer. The cynical masterstroke in all this can be traced to the manner in which Kubrick manipulates the viewer’s emotional connections: by The Killing’s brilliantly staged finale, we’re confronted with the fact that we’re far more invested in the fate of a suitcase full of cash than we are in the lives of several characters. Everything, finally, is grist for the mill. As Clay memorably puts it, inadvertently foreshadowing the general shrugging attitude toward human endeavour in so much later Kurbick, “What’s the difference?”
The supplements on Criterion’s release are terrific, especially the interview with Robert Polito, author of the excellent Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, concerning Thompson’s relationship with Kubrick. (Among Polito’s most interesting insights are the connections he draws between Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and Nabokov’s Lolita, which Kubrick would soon adapt.) But the obvious supplementary highlight on The Killing is Kubrick’s preceding feature, Killer’s Kiss (1955), also a strong, moody noir about a not very good boxer and a girl in trouble, which memorably features scenes of casual voyeurism, lusty television viewing, underwear fondling, more bad voice-over, and a long, messy, dirty fight involving an axe, a spear, and about a hundred mannequins in various states of assembly. It was also shot by Kubrick, who had by then wound down his career as a photographer for Look, and his memorable, seemingly spontaneous street imagery conveys a curiosity about the world that would rarely resurface in his later work.