Directed by Stanley Kubrick; produced by James B. Harris; screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, based on Clean Break by Lionel White; dialogue by Jim Thompson; cinematography by Lucien Ballard; art direction by Ruth Sobotka; edited by Betty Steinberg; music by Gerald Fried; starring Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Ted DeCorsia, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Joe Sawyer, James Edwards, Timothy Carey, Kola Kwariani, Jay Adler, Tito Vuolo, Dorothy Adams, Herbert Ellis, James Griffith, Cecil Elliott, Joseph Turkel, Steve Mitchell, and William Benedict. Blu-ray and DVD, B&W, 85 min., 1956. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment, www.Image-Entertainment.com.
The heist's ringleader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) with Sherry Peaty (Marie Windsor), an unfaithful wife
The Killing made its critically middling, financially awful debut in 1956, when United Artists launched it in a cavernous Times Square theater that couldn’t have been less appropriate for its intimate scale and precisely modulated tone. By contrast, the new Blu-ray and DVD edition from The Criterion Collection puts the film across with a clarity and immediacy that almost match the impact of a big-screen theatrical viewing. This opens a welcome opportunity to reassess the picture, especially since it has gotten such large amounts of ink over the last fifty-five years.
The main points made by commentators are easily reprised. First and most important, this lean, sardonic thriller about a motley crew of thieves and a complicated racetrack heist was the first “real movie” directed by Stanley Kubrick, introducing him to the public and the industry as a seriously talented filmmaker with style and inventiveness to spare. Second and also important, The Killing is a key work in the late phase of the original film noir cycle, released at a time when such great auteurs as Fritz Lang (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, While the City Sleeps) and Alfred Hitchcock (The Wrong Man) and Budd Boetticher (The Killer Is Loose) were extending and revitalizing noir style in intriguing ways. The reputation of The Killing has reaped further dividends from the rising stock of novelist Jim Thompson, whose substantial work on the screenplay met with a fate ironic enough for the film itself when Kubrick rewarded him with a meager “additional dialogue” screen credit, later upgraded to “dialogue by,” which isn’t much better. Critics have also dwelled on the story’s time-bending structure, which comes directly from the novel on which it’s based—the clever 1955 potboiler Clean Break by Lionel White—and works on the screen with split-second effectiveness, which is exactly what Kubrick counted on. And the cast is as superb as any in even the biggest Fifties productions, from Sterling Hayden as the ringleader and Jay C. Flippen as a lonely old-timer to Elisha Cook as a lifelong loser, Marie Windsor as his slutty wife, and Timothy Carey in the performance of his career as a sharpshooter with a trashy mouth.
All these interesting angles notwithstanding, even admirers of The Killing sometimes seem eager to praise it, analyze it, and then jump quickly ahead to the greater challenges of grander, more sophisticated Kubrick films that followed, starting with the social-conscience drama Paths of Glory in 1957 and proceeding to more obviously momentous epics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980). I don’t place The Killing on the same lofty pinnacle as the latter two films, but I think it offers greater esthetic, philosophical, and entertainment rewards than several other Kubrick works, including the overwrought Paths of Glory, the sprawling Spartacus (1960)—not Kubrick’s fault, since Kirk Douglas pulled rank on him—and parts of his last two pictures, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
The meticulously planned robbery underway
Exhibit A is the social conscience of The Killing, expressed with a subtlety that leaps over Paths of Glory to prefigure the razor-sharp cultural satire of Lolita (1962) and the surrealistic politics of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Its withering critique of American Dream ideology comes through most directly in the lust for money that drives the characters, all grossly materialistic failures seized by the notion that cash and cash alone can cure Mike’s ailing spouse, get the loan sharks off Randy’s back, persuade George’s wife to show him some affection, let Johnny and his girl fly off to paradise, and so on, each fantasy as banal and foredoomed as the last. As the so-called mastermind of the scheme, Johnny organizes the quasigang into a platoon of ridiculously self-absorbed soldiers, hoping to focus their wobbly little minds with a plethora of maps, schedules, timetables, and to-do lists that comprise a grimly hilarious parody of the dehumanization and mechanization built into industrial capitalism—the very system they burrow more deeply into while enjoying the temporary illusion that they’re getting out.
The film’s ideology critique has a somewhat different slant when Johnny meets his friend Maurice, a middle-aged Russian with the build of a jukebox, in the run-down chess club where Maurice hangs out. The thing Johnny needs to learn, Maurice says, is that to live a decent life “you have to be like everyone else, the perfect mediocrity—no better, no worse.” The individualism that society claims to treasure is actually a “monster” that must be “strangled in its cradle” so others won’t fear or hate us. Maurice concludes with the observation that gangsters and artists are the same in ordinary people’s eyes. Both are “admired and hero-worshipped,” he says, “but there is always…an underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.” This speech doesn’t come from White’s novel, and it’s reasonable to wonder why Kubrick, an artist with a passion for chess, would offer such a dim view of the prospects of those pursuits in his first “real movie.” An answer lies in the fascination with paradoxes and conundrums that artists and chess players must cultivate. Questioning his own drives and desires is a Kubrick specialty—for just one illustration, think of how he poured his love of images and music into A Clockwork Orange (1971), a subversive thought experiment of a movie that renders those art forms as stimulators of violence, tools for social control, and instruments for purging the pesky individuality whose threat Maurice understands so well.
George Peaty (Elisha Cook, Jr.) with his wife
In this respect The Killing is another thought experiment, merging artistry and chess into a labyrinthine movie about a labyrinthine robbery plot. In an excellent Criterion booklet essay, film scholar Haden Guest shows how intricately Kubrick weaves together the filmmaking process and the heist-planning process, the racetrack and the tracking shot, gates and doors, interlocking boxes, galloping horses and running poodle, cash under control and money gone with the wind, single-source lighting and claustrophobic lives, and, of course, the polyphonic voices—of the announcer, the narrator, and the filmmaker—that counterpoint Gerald Fried’s compelling music score. Haden errs only when he suggests that the horse assassin seems like a social liberal when he’s sympathetic with a black man, revealing his true colors only when he lets a racial slur slip out; in fact, the character’s nasty artifice is obvious from the start, and his epithet is an instance of racism purposefully deployed as a strategic weapon by a white man who relishes its vicious power.
The race around which the heist centers
The package’s other extras include a fascinating video essay about Thompson, who worked with Kubrick again despite their quarrel over credits, and two French television interviews with Hayden, who muses about everything from his incompetence as a young actor to his cooperation with Congressional commie-hunters in the McCarthy era, a shameful episode of which he is properly ashamed. The most valuable extra is actually the second feature of a double bill: the complete Killer’s Kiss, a sixty-seven-minute thriller that Kubrick directed, produced, cowrote, photographed, and edited in 1955. The story centers on a minor-league boxer (Jamie Smith), an imperiled dance-hall girl (Irene Kane), and her off-putting boss (Frank Silvera), but the stars of the show are the New York City locations that Kubrick uses to stunning effect from first scene to last. He intended the film as a Hollywood calling card, and it did the job well, impressing UA executives so much that they provided The Killing with most of its modest budget. But it’s a rough-and-ready treat in its own right, another “real movie” crammed with evidence of Kubrick’s early brilliance.
David Sterritt is chair of the National Society of Film Critics and film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.