Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I have a confession to make. In spite of my love and reverence for Stanley Kubrick, there are still a few of his early films I have yet to watch. I recently had the privilege of watching his third feature film, The Killing, which was released in 1956. The film only proves that early in Kubrick’s career he had a knowledge and understanding of his craft that few filmmakers will ever attain. Essentially a heist film with noir influences, The Killing is a story based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White about a heist that takes place during a horse race.
Taking its influences from noir, Kubrick gives the film a very distinctive high contrasty look and feel with exaggerated shadows that cut through bright, emphatic lights. This isn’t the case all of the time since the heist happens in broad daylight at a horse track, but even then, Kubrick makes up for this with a very distinctive noir look with all of the interior shots of the race track. He also manages to carry over the other main noir elements. The main character is an anti-hero type. Johnny Clay (played by Sterling Hayden) is involved with the mob and the mastermind behind the heist. The entire heist being one big plan to get enough money to start a new life with his girlfriend, Fay (Coleen Gray). Johnny is clearly a bad person, with good intentions. The other main character to the story is George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) who starts the film as a good person, but ends the film doing bad things. The film finds its femme fatale in Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor); George’s wife. From the first time she appears on screen, to the end of the film, Sherry is clearly a shallow, manipulative woman, who twists George around her fingers in order to get the money for herself.
Acting as the central protagonist, Johnny Clay lays out a plan that involves a police officer, a bar tender, a bookie, and several other employees of a race track. During the seventh race, Johnny puts his plan into action to rob the track for all the money it has. Its a complicated plan that is intelligently put together. The film cuts from person to person throughout the film to show how each element of the plan falls into place like the pieces of a puzzle. By cutting the film in a non-linear fashion, Kubrick is able to introduce the different characters and provide depth to those characters by introducing their motives behind their involvement with the heist. As a result, an emotional connection is made to the characters. At the same time, Kubrick is able to ease the audience into the non-linear nature of the film, which helps make sense of the heist as it happens later in the film. Again, like pieces of a puzzle falling into place.
Those familiar with Kubrick’s work may find the use of a narrator a bit jarring like I did, but after the first scene, the narration becomes an essential part of the story that keeps track of everything happening on screen, like a verbal countdown. Its an element of the film that the studio made Kubrick include in the film, but it ultimately adds to the suspense. It’s things like this that show how capable Kubrick was as a director even in his early work. Even the acting for his third film proves that Kubrick knew what he wanted when he set out to make this film. Some of the acting seems stilted. Timothy Carey’s character is uncomfortable to watch as he grits his teeth through almost every line of dialogue his character delivers. Sterling Hayden is almost too “cool,” and level-headed to be the leader of this group of thieves. But it works. Carey’s horse-like demeanor becomes reflective of the events he is involved with (I don’t want to give too much away). Hayden even appears to break convention by blurring the lines between the strong leading man type and the sleazy anti-hero type.
A theme to Kubrick’s work is his attention to detail. The film is a clever and creative use of compartmentalization. Each segment of the film acts as a unique a separate part of a whole. More than any other film, The Killing creates separation between each of the scenes, and slowly builds those scenes into one complete image in the end. Each scene giving glimpses into what other parties in the plan are doing while other aspects are taking place. In one scene we see Johnny packing a gun into a flower box and sticking that box into a locker at a bus station. It’s not until the next segment that we see who picks up that box and where it moves next. The narration is one big overlapping feature that acts like glue between the different scenes, but there are physical elements that carry over too, like the flower box, and character actions that carry over, like George opening a door for Johnny. This compartmentalization is further emphasized by the constant opening and closing of doors and boxes and characters moving from room to room. At one point, while the men are planning their heist, they move from room to room in a very impressive tracking shot, which shows how everything in the film is separated into segments and events and actions, and yet the lines are blurred as those actions overlap and work in time with every other aspect of the plan. Lingering over this well-oiled machine of a plan is the underlying feeling that at any moment something will go wrong. Why else would the narration include exact minutes for each part of the plan? Why else would Johnny emphasize how exact each person needs to act with their portion of the heist? All of this to emphasize a tension between fate and the will of the characters involved.
With everything that makes The Killing such an impressive film, it has potential to be one of my all time favorite Kubrick films. It’s a film that feels modern in every aspect. Kubrick has managed to make a film that feels every bit like a heist film, while also introducing noir influences that blurs into a masterpiece of cinema. In many ways the film has an old cinema feel to it, but it also shows the beginning of what will come to define Kubrick’s signature style.