Killing, The (1956): Kubrick’s Breakthrough–Great Film Noir

The Killing, director Stanley Kubrick’s breakthrough film, was made after two ultra-modest features. A much beloved film noir, it has become a classic, imitated to death by many directors.

Before tackling grander projects (“2001: Space Odyssey”), Kubrick made well-executed, modest, realistic films, such as the immensely satisfying crimer “The Killing.”
An adaptation of Lionel White’s novel “Inside Straight,” the film was completed for only $320,000.
The cast, especially Sterling Hayden and Timothy Carey, is cool.
The tough-guy talk is hard-boiled noir, and the plot is cleverly constructed, jumping back and forth in time to reveal a racetrack heist as each participant saw it go down.
Ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), a small-time criminal, plans one last job before going straight. To steal the takings from the local racetrack, Clay assembles his crew, including hen-pecked track cashier George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), a psychotic marksman, and a chess-playing brawler (Kola Kwariani).
For the plan to work, each and every member of the team has a specific role to play at precisely the right time. If a minor detail goes wrong, the whole thing would fall apart.
Things go tragically awry. The robbery is conducted successfully until the robbers are robbed following betrayal by the femme fatale, Sherry Peaty, the adulterous wife of one of the participants in the crime.
Famous Ending (Spoiler Alert)

The heist is successful, but the results are unanticipated–and ironic.  The sharpshooter is shot and killed by the police, while trying to drive away from the site. The members wait in an apartment for Johnny to come and divide the money. But Val appears and in the shootout that ensues George is the sole survivor. Badly wounded, he goes home and shoots his wife before collapsing dead.

Meanwhile, Johnny buys a big suitcase for the money and struggles to lock it with the right key. At the airport, Johnny and Fay aren’t allowed to take the suitcase as hand luggage, and after arguments they reluctantly check it in.

While waiting to board their plane, an eccentric old lady, who all along had been talking to her tiny dog, gets upset at the restlessness of her pet, who rushes in the field.  The cart’s driver, trying to avoid killing the dog, veers rapidly and the suitcase falls off, breaking open with the numerous banknotes swept away by the wind.

The couple leave the airport but cannot get a cab quickly enough.  Fay urges Johnny to run away, prompting him to utter one of the most cynical lines in film history, “What’s the difference?”

The last shot depicts two officers (in civilian clothes) pulling their guns and moving to arrest Johnny (though we do not see the act).

Using flashbacks and flash-forwards, Kubrick rejects the conventional beginning, middle and end narrative style. Instead he picks up  characters, takes them a certain way, drops them and then introduces another one. The masterful way in which Kubrick plays out the pieces of the puzzle was innovative at the time and is still impressive today.
“The Killing” has a doom voice-over and back-to-front narrative structure, found in many of the best film noirs (such as Billy Wilder’s 1944 “Double Indemnity” and 1950 “Sunset Boulevard”).
In this work, Kubrick deals with what will become a recurrent issue in all of his future work: the fallibility of human nature, particularly unbridled ambition and greed.
In “Dr. Strangelove,” the supposedly fail-safe devices go awry and hasten the end of the world.
In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Hal, the ultimate computer, rebels.
In “The Killing,” the perfect crime goes to pieces due to human error and unbridled greed.  In the end, most of the participants are dead.
There are some memorable images, such as the grotesque rubber clown mask Hayden is wearing, or the offbeat puppy-loving sharpshooter played by Timothy Carey. Who can forget the shrieking parrot, persistently heard during a marital fight?
Lucien Ballard’s crisp, black-and-white cinematography creates a claustrophobic world.
A brilliant film, “The Killing” is worth seeing as an early Kubrick masterwork, and one of the movies, which Tarantino has drawn from for his 1991 debut, “Reservoir Dogs.”
Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden)
Fay (Colleen Gray)
Val Cannon (Vince Edwards)
Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen)
Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor)
Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia)
George Peatty (Elisha Cook)
Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer)
Nikki Arane (Timothy Carey)
Leo (Jay Adler)
Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwarian)
Tiny (Joseph Turkell)
Parking Attendant (James Edwards)
Harris-Kubrick Production
Produced by James B. Harris
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Kubrick, with additional dialogue by Jim Thompson, from the novel “The Clean Break,” by Lionel White
Camera; Lucien Ballard
Art direction: Ruth Sobotka Kubrick
Editing: Betty Steinberg
Running time: 84 Minutes