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