← Back to Reviews

The Killing

The Killing -

This early Stanley Kubrick effort may be the best "best laid plans" noir I've seen. Its centerpiece is a horse track heist that is the brainchild of Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), a man who is as meticulous as the director himself. His plan about who on his team needs to do what and when could not be any more precise. If you assume that complications arise when Clay and company put their plan into action, you would be correct.

From his intimidating presence to his husky, staccato delivery of the hard-boiled dialogue - courtesy of legendary crime novelist Jim Thompson - Hayden could not have been better cast. I almost envy him for the lines he got to say and how he said them, my favorite being "you got a great big dollar sign there, where most women have a heart," which he tells Sherry (Marie Windsor), the opportunistic and not-so-loyal wife of George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), the team's biggest sad sack. Speaking of his teammates, none of their performers are slouches either, and in addition to veteran "that guys" like Cook, there are faces that may be familiar to Kubrick fans like Timothy Carey, who succeeds at making his wounded veteran and sharpshooter one loathsome guy. My favorite, though, is Kola Kwariani's wrestler and, appropriately, chess player Maurice, whose fight scene would make Tor Johnson blush. Besides the performances, there's something praiseworthy in each aspect of the filmmaking, particularly Gerald Fried's brassy score, which fittingly resembles Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for how each heist preparation smacks of impending doom. I also approve of something Kubrick had to include against his wishes: the voiceover narration, which I believe enhances the movie's fatalistic atmosphere. You also have to love the nonlinear structure, which expectedly confused '50s audiences, but wouldn't be out of place today given that Tarantino, Soderbergh, etc. normalized it.

Just like Paths of Glory could be described as a "thinking person's war movie" and 2001: A Space Odyssey a "thinking person's science fiction movie," the descriptor also applies to this heist movie. Specifically, it demonstrates that Johnny, like the rest of us, can expect a clock to show 1:02 PM when it is indeed 1:02 PM, but you should not expect even the most loyal person - or not to spoil it too much, creature - to show up at that time when requested. In other words, Kubrick revealed his fascination with dehumanizing forces much earlier than you may have thought. It ends up being a noir that is bound to make fans of the genre even bigger fans, and for those who are lukewarm on it and are just in the mood for something Kubrickian, it is certainly that. With all that said, I would easily trade this movie in for a one-man play in which Sterling Hayden reads all of the parts.