When talking about Stanley Kubrick films conversations often gravitate towards “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “The Shining”, and “A Clockwork Orange” to name a few. While these films have been called masterpieces by many, I have always resisted portions of them (all of “A Clockwork Orange” if I were to be honest). I’ve tended to be a bit dismissive of claims to Kubrick’s greatness, but that was before discovering what may be the biggest strength of his filmography – his early movies.
In 1955 Kubrick met a young film producer James B. Harris and the two formed their own production company. Their first film together was a tight classical noir titled “The Killing”. Built around a documentary-ish structure and nonlinear narrative, “The Killing” is actually a fairly straightforward heist picture but one brimming with an effervescent style and craft.
Popular crime noir novelist Jim Thompson was brought in to handle the dialogue and an assortment of actors familiar with film noir were cast. Sterling Hayden plays a career criminal named Johnny who wants to settle down and marry his girl (Coleen Gray). Before tying the knot he sets out to pull the familiar ‘one final heist’ – an elaborate plan to swipe $2 million from a racetrack. To pull it off he brings in an assortment of characters who each have their own unique role to play in the heist.
Kubrick put a heavy emphasis on characterization and he takes just enough time to show each of the motivations for signing on to Johnny’s plan. Elisha Cook plays a weak-minded cashier at the track who needs the money to satisfy his insulting gold digger of a wife (Marie Windsor). Ted de Corsia plays a boozing crooked cop. Joe Sawyer plays the racetrack bartender who needs money to help his sick wife. Jay C. Flippen plays an old friend of Johnny’s who funds the heist. Toss in a gunrunning sharpshooter (Timothy Carey) and a brutish wrestler (Kola Kwariani).
Johnny’s plan works like one big puzzle where every man serves as a piece. If one piece is missing the puzzle is incomplete. None of the players other than Johnny know the entire plan. They know their roles and outside of that they are in the dark. In a sense Kubrick leaves the audience in the same boat. We know the individual parts people play but we don’t know how they all fit together.
One method Kubrick uses to keep us in the dark is his fractured storytelling. The narrative bounces back and forth feeding us bits of the timeline but not in chronological order. This nonlinear approach makes it tough for us to fully realize the plan until the job is underway. It is a crafty bit of tension building that was incredibly effective despite its unorthodoxy. Kubrick would become famous for his dabbling in unorthodox forms of moviemaking. “The Killing” is his creative approach at its simplest but also its best.
“The Killing” isn’t a highly polished film. It feels raw and a bit crude. That’s one thing I love about it. It also highlights one of the shining (no pun intended) characteristics of Stanley Kubrick. Like him or not, he was a filmmaker determined to make each film different than the other. Think of the vast differences between “2001”, “Dr. Strangelove”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “The Shining”, “Full Metal Jacket”, etc. “The Killing” sticks to that trend by giving us a superb crime noir that holds a unique place in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
I loved watching The Killing. Loved Sterling Hayden in all his fast talking glory. Loved every moment Elisha Cook Jr and Marie Windsor were on screen, and Timothy Carey always blows me away. But the ending? That was like a punch in the stomach. I might dig out the Blu-ray and watch it again.
I bought the Criterion Blu-Ray before I had seen it. I’ve watched it twice since getting it. Rock solid in every regard. I’m not the biggest fan of some of Kubrick’s later stuff but this really blew me away. Such raw but precise filmmaking.
Spot on! Love how you describe it. Raw and crude. The non-linear narrative adds to it for me. One of my favorite Kubrick flicks.
Same here! The non-linear narrative really works. At first it comes across as a bit messy, but when it all comes together…WOW!
Are you a big Kubrick fan?
Yup huge fan of his work. Love pretty much everything
Oh ok. Well keep an eye out. He is also in my February Blind Spot!
Have you watched his second film Killers Kiss? It’s a bonus on the Criterion version. Very raw. Def an amateur effort but you can see where his skills jumped from that to The Killing.
I haven’t seen that one yet. I’ll actually be featuring Paths of Glory in February (actually have already watched it an written the review).
Nice review Keith. I’m amongst the crowd who absolutely adores everything Kubrick does and I’m a huge fan of The Killing. I completely agree that its lack of polish adds to its charm, and I think it really holds up today.
I was thinking Kubrick was among your very favorites. I’ll be honest, I juggled a 4.5 and a 5 star rating for this one. I went back and forth. I was that impressed. Such a great buildup especially once you connect with how Kubrick is telling his story. Love it.
I remember this one from a long time ago. I enjoyed your review. Kubrick’s fractured tales are joy to behold!
Big, big fan of it Cindy. I’ve watched it twice now and it is a fascinating picture.
Well, I haven’t seen this one. I guess I have to add it to my to-watch list.
Nice review Keith.
Absolutely! So many good things to say about this one. And Kubrick’s budding filmmaking genius is easy to recognize.
This is one of the finest films ever as it indicates everything about Kubrick that I love and as a heist film, it is one of the best.
Its fabulous isn’t it? You truly see a young filmmaker with so much talent and a willingness to buck trends. Great movie.
This is one of my favorite Kubrick films.soo ingenious.
great review Keith
Isn’t it great? Can’t believe it took me so long to see it.
Been a favorie of mine for yrs. Has influenced so many directors especially QT
You can see why. I love the raw, anti-norm approach that is literally all through the film.
I have to say I don’t really get Stanley Kubrick though I appreciate a few of his films. I do like a heist flick though, so I might give this a shot. Nice that you gave it such a high praise too, Keith.
I just posted my Blindspot review too btw, totally different in terms of genre from yours, but glad I saw it.
I’m with you on Kubrick particularly his later stuff. But I’ve found his early to work to be pretty fantastic. He will be in my February Blind Spot as well.
Never seen this, but looks like a great watch!
It’s superb Zoe, an excellent crime noir that does a lot of unique things. Check it out!
I am one who thinks Kubrick is great, even though I despise 2001 nor am I particularly fond of Dr. Strangelove. Some of his other work floors me, though, including ACO. I really enjoyed The Killing. Happy you found it to be well worth your time.
I love it. And I love the way movies have different effects on different people. I really like Dr. Strangelove. I do like 2001 but not on the level of most people. As for ACO, I can’t stand it. In fact I have tried multiple times to make it all the way through the movie and just can’t. But we definitely agree on The Killing!
Pingback: 2016 Blind Spot Lineup | Keith & the Movies
Pingback: Top 10 controversial or banned movies ever | The Gagism
Pingback: Movie Review – Arrival