Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson based on the novel by Lionel White.
Starring: Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay), Coleen Gray (Fay), Vince Edwards (Val Cannon), Jay C. Flippen (Marvin Unger), Ted de Corsia (Policeman Randy Kennan), Marie Windsor (Sherry Peatty), Elisha Cook Jr. (George Peatty), Joe Sawyer (Mike O'Reilly), James Edwards (Track Parking Attendant), Timothy Carey (Nikki Arcane), Kola Kwariani (Maurice Oboukhoff), Jay Adler (Leo the Loanshark), Tito Vuolo (Joe Piano).
Although it was his third feature, when people talk about Stanley Kubrick’s career, they usually start with 1956s The Killing. The film is a massive leap forward for Kubrick, who took everything he learned in his first two films, and ended delivering a tight, taut thrilling heist picture. Part of that is obviously because Kubrick’s collaborators were better on this film – the dialogue was written by the great crime novelist Jim Thompson, and the cast is full of professionals, who are perfectly cast – none better than Sterling Hayden, who can do more with silence than most actors could do with pages of dialogue. The Killing is a terrific film.
The film is about the planning and execution of a daring racetrack robbery. Ex-con Johnny Clay (Hayden) has gathered a group of men who will all have very specific roles in a daring robbery during a high stakes horse race. Most notable among them is George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) – the nebbish, neurotic racetrack cashier who needs money to keep his sexpot wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) around. Hayden has a very specific plan and if everyone just followed it, things would have gone off without a hitch. But of course, when a man like George is married to a woman like Sherry, he’s going to talk – and then she’s going to talk as well – and things will go horribly wrong.
The film wastes very little time setting everything up – it shows Johnny in action from the start, as he gets the various pieces of his plan set in motion. The movie moves methodically throughout the setup and execution of the robbery – often aided by an all knowing narrator, which can be slightly annoying at times, but I see no other way that Kubrick could have told his story, especially during the execution of the robbery, which at various points goes back and forth in time. The plot is complex, with so many different moving parts that right up until the end; I think only Johnny – and Kubrick – truly understands all of them, and how they will work together. That doesn’t mean the movie is confusing – far from it – Kubrick keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, and at any given moment, it’s clear precisely what is going on, even if we do not quite understand how they will fit together in the end. At one point, Johnny visits a chess club to hire a goon to start a fight at the racetrack – and chess is a good metaphor for the plan Johnny is hatching – in both, he has to think well beyond the next move to figure out the end game.
Interesting for a heist film, Kubrick doesn’t lay out the plan ahead of the actual robbery. Think of a film like Oceans 11, which does precisely that – explaining how everything is supposed work, and then showing us what worked right, and what didn’t going according to plan. In The Killing, until the actual robbery is underway, I had no real idea what anyone’s role would be – with the exception of the wrestler who is to start a fight, and a sharpshooter who is to kill a horse – both will cause confusion and chaos. We only learn anything else as it happens – right there along with the characters.
It would be tempting to compare Johnny and Kubrick together. Like Johnny, Kubrick was obsessive about the details of his movies – and on later films, would often require 100 takes of a single shot to ensure he got what he wanted. He knew what he needed everyone to do, and would do whatever possible to ensure he got that. The same is true for Johnny – who has everything planned right down to the smallest detail. When the plan goes awry – as, alas, it must – it isn’t because of the plan – but because others deviate from it, or something unexpected happens. You can plan and plan and plan, but you cannot predict the future. And sometimes things all fall apart because of a woman – or a dog.
The Killing is the first great film of Kubrick’s career. For many directors it would be a career highlight. It says more about Kubrick’s career than it does about the movie to suggest that The Killing doesn’t rank near the top of Kubrick’s filmography. It’s a great film – it’s just that he was about to make ones that were even greater.