REVIEW: The Killing [1956]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½


Rating: NR | Runtime: 85 minutes | Release Date: June 6th, 1956 (USA)
Studio: United Artists
Director(s): Stanley Kubrick
Writer(s): Stanley Kubrick / Jim Thompson (dialogue) / Lionel White (novel Clean Break)

“Just a bad joke without a punch line”

After test screenings left audiences confused and frustrated, writer/director Stanley Kubrick and producing partner James B. Harris decided to return to the edit bay and turn The Killing‘s overlapping, repetitious structure into a more linear A-to-B narrative. You can’t blame the former for wanting to do everything possible to make the film a hit since it was his first project with a real budget positioning his career forward (he’d disavowed Fear and Desire as amateurish and sophomore effort Killer’s Kiss proved almost silent due to financial constraints rather than creative impulse). Luckily for cinema, however, the process of retooling things only reminded them why the non-linear structure worked. They remembered that it was the main reason they optioned Lionel White‘s novel Clean Break in the first place.

The final result would ultimately inspire countless others decades later (see Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan). By following each character separately during the course of an elaborately conceived heist—no matter how many times it forces you to replay events your audience thinks it already knows—you’re provided a built-in pathway for measured deflection. Suddenly the “perfect plan” becomes secondary to the fallibilities of those engaged within. Rather than anticipate where blind spots or betrayal may arrive to ruin things, we’re allowed to watch each player face his/her high-pressure scenario with as much fear, uncertainty, or confidence as is allowed by their clearly established identities. Kubrick and Jim Thompson (who was famously screwed out of a deserved writing credit) push in past mechanics to fate’s ever-fickle, darkened whimsy.

Our intrigue is therefore earned during the recruitment process rather than the act itself—meeting these disparate souls to learn their personal motivations. It’s about discovering how those motivations propel them forward and hold them back. Look at George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) for example. Here’s a man so devoted to his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) that he’ll risk everything to reacquire the look of love she gave years previously upon the promise of a life far-removed from the isolated existence their shabby apartment provides today. If he lets her know they’ll soon be rich, maybe he’ll finally earn more than derisive sarcasm when opening his mouth. How’s he to know she and her boyfriend (Vince Edwards‘ Val) would then hatch their own plan to rob the robbers?

These little developments get us excited because nobody onscreen knows their scheme has been compromised. But how could it not with so many moving parts? It’s a calculated risk on ringleader Johnny Clay’s (Sterling Hayden) part because the spoils are worth the trouble. Just released from a five-year stint in jail, this job will afford him and his fiancé (Coleen Gray‘s Fay) the escape they crave. So he brings in trusted friend Marv (Jay C. Flippen) for starting capital. He recruits George and Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) as inside men at the horse track he plans to fleece; brings in a police officer (Ted de Corsia) as his “invisible” mule; and throws money at known accomplices (Kola Kwariani‘s Maurice and Timothy Carey‘s Nikki Arcane) to help spark turmoil.

Kubrick then enlists Art Gilmore—a man who made his career as narrators and announcers (often uncredited) in popular films and television shows—to periodically establish when and where everything occurs. His voice reinforces who the focus of each new vignette is by stating the character’s name and what he/she knows via timestamps marking whether we’ve traveled backward or forward from the previous scene. This device only amplifies the hard-boiled, film noir aesthetic by driving home the point that every action has meaning beyond its intent. Every explanation is therefore shared to set-up the current moment while also inferring upon one yet to come. They’re meant to give us everything necessary to the plot in a way that overwhelms us into thinking important facts are merely colorful distraction.

We learn about Mike’s ailing, bedridden wife back home and wonder if he’ll stray from his pre-ordained path to earn some extra dough. We discover Marv might be involved because of unreciprocated feelings towards Johnny, preparing ourselves for the potential danger he can inflict in response to rejection. We watch Maurice ask a friend to call his lawyer if he goes missing for a couple days—revealing his mettle while also creating a witness for when his seemingly independent piece of the larger puzzle comes under scrutiny for premeditation. What starts as a harmless bet by an old man explodes each time someone comes into orbit with eyes widened by adrenaline. More and more people get involved until innocuous extras (see James Edwards) become crucial cogs within an unrelenting machine.

Whereas Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs later stripped this form of storytelling down until the heist could be erased completely, The Killing retains its climactic centerpiece for excitement and chaos. There’s something to the suspense that each player running into trouble provides because of the domino effect one false step can ignite. It provides a slew of “what ifs” that creates alternating states of tension and relief able to raise anyone’s blood pressure. When one close shave leads to probable catastrophe over and over, we become fully invested if for no other reason than the filmmakers’ refusal to let us take more than a single breath at a time. It’s hard to imagine the elegiac, sprawling epics Kubrick would later make after watching this claustrophobic kill box of nihilistic dread.

And yet it’s very much his from the plot’s exacting nature, sometimes over-the-top performances that fit their scenes perfectly, and memorably exacting nature of the cinematography (for which it’s been said that the young Kubrick micromanaging every shot proved a thorn in Lucien Ballard‘s well-established side). Stanley’s handle on the material is ironclad with every second holding a significant impact on at least two future scenes. As such, every action is also provided two or three possible outcomes to keep us on our toes as far as tragedy or success prevailing. Nothing is left to chance and yet chance proves an unavoidable accomplice regardless. Kubrick knows that smart plans are made to be broken. His trademarked clinical precision is thus saved for depicting the messiness of human disaster.


Watched in conjunction with Season Two of Buffalo, NY-based film-noir series Noir Essentials, hosted by Alex Weinstein at Dipson Theatres Eastern Hills.

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