Retrospective: The Killing (1956)

Stanley Kubrick is most famous for his epics, but before he was sending men into outer-space he was sending them to early graves in his 1956 noir hit The Killing. Clocking in at a brisk 84 minutes, The Killing‘s brevity is notable not just for its contrast against Kubrick’s later works, but for its ruthless efficiency in setting up and executing a clockwork heist scenario where each piece is precisely distributed among its ensemble cast. Kubrick manages to do more in under an hour and a half than most crime flicks can hope to convey in two, its pace measured and metered by the repetition of race track footage that marks the time in each of the film’s non-linear strands.

Kubrick doesn’t get all of the credit for the merits of the film’s pacing, as he was working from a sharp script from crime novel veteran Jim Thompson (adapting a screenplay from the novel Clean Break by Lionel White). From the moment the film opens, the horse track heist is already in progress. The Killing jumps back and forth in time, following each of the crooks as they carry out their part of the heist and imbuing each with a strong sense of personality. The ever-stalwart Sterling Hayden plays the unflappable leader of the crew, Johnny, and the characters only get more colorful from there.

Most memorable of the cast is Elisha Cook Jr., ever diminutive as the cuckolded and impotent husband, George, and Marie Windsor as his serpentine wife Sherry. Windsor’s scenes get the lion’s share of Thompson’s most playful and hard-boiled dialogue. Hayden memorably snarls at her: “You’ve got a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart.” Besides being an excellent deliverer, and receiver, of Thompson’s lines, Sherry is the fulcrum the whole meticulous operation begins to tremble under; best-laid plans and all that.

Despite not being as flashy or involved as some later heist films, there’s a great deal of satisfaction to be gleaned from the no-nonsense professionalism of (most of) the players in the heist, their colorful personalities disappearing once it comes time for the job they’ve been working towards. Similarly, there’s a restrained professionalism to the work behind the camera as well, as Kubrick and cinematographer Lucien Ballard lens the film with beautifully uncomplicated setups –the only ostentatious flourishes being a couple of long dolly shots tracking a character as household items flash by in the foreground– and the editing is precise and unsparing.

Watching things inevitably fall apart is nearly as satisfying as watching a good plan coming together, as the pettiest of human malice and the cruelty of random chance threaten the foundations of even the most herculean and stolidly executed efforts. There is an undercurrent of nastiness to the film by the time it ends in an abrupt show of futility as if Kubrick is having a laugh at the expense of the ants under his microscope. Sherry said it best: “It isn’t fair… just a bad joke without a punchline.”

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