I got around to my first viewing of The Killing only after seeing the young movie-lover’s requisite Sacred Texts like 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and a Latin class screening of Spartacus. I’d mentally lumped it with Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, all of which I’d been led to believe were works-for-hire building up to the “real” Kubrick oeuvre. So I was surprised and delighted to find something so—daft though it may sound—Kubrickian in The Killing. Because beyond its sublimity as a heist noir, its pungent and hilarious dialogue, perfect perfs, bold non-chronological structure, and savage ending, it is also, tangibly, A Stanley Kubrick Film, most apparently in the meticulous blocking, framing, and camera movements. The director’s control was less total than it would be in the future; Art Gilmore’s smug, documentary-like narration was the studio’s idea, and it’s said (perhaps dubiously) that the gaffes in chronology and detail in the voiceover were Kubrick’s way of sabotaging the interference. But the film is a near-complete success, more than a source of mere “flashes” of greatness to come.
Jim Thompson punched up Kubrick’s screenplay, based on Clean Break by Lionel White (who also wrote Pierrot le fou‘s source novel). Unlike the oft-compared The Asphalt Jungle, with which it is double-feetched at Film Forum, The Killing‘s criminals are not aces, but wretched, rash, almost bored men scheming to rob a racetrack’s two million mid-race. Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Clay is the leader with the perennial one-last-heist-before-settling-down motive, and he’s abetted by an unsavory menagerie of character actors (Timothy Carey, Elisha Cook Jr., Ted de Corsia, Jay Flippen, and wrestler Kola Kwariani). Cook Jr. can pantomime henpecked and cuckolded better than any actor in history, and the hen here is the astringent Marie Windsor’s Sherry. With “a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart,” her contempt for her cashier husband and scheming with guido boyfriend Vince Edwards ultimately torpedoes the heist’s success.
Kubrick’s crucial early booster (and great director in his own right) James B. Harris added his own $120,000 to United Artists’ $200,000, and the director maximized this small budget with elegant gliding pans and zooms through cheap sets, and superb location footage from San Mateo’s Bay Meadows Racetrack. Crosscutting and rapid shots create tension, never more so than in the final heist, in which scenarios at multiple locations must interrelate. Hayden’s fleshy clown mask, Flippen’s infelicitous drunkenness, the troll-like Kwariani’s hairy torso, and Carey’s alarming mumbling of forced pleasantries, and then a racial epithet, through clenched teeth are all unforgettable here, as is some unwitting foiling courtesy a toy poodle. More than a warm-up, The Killing announced a talent that had already arrived.