The Killing (1956)
“These 5 Men Had a $2,000,000 Secret Until One of them told this Woman!”
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards
Synopsis: Crooks plan and execute a daring race-track robbery.
The first thing to catch your eye about Stanley Kubrick’s heist thriller The Killing is the knockout cast: first off, you’ve got Sterling Hayden, who also starred in The Asphalt Jungle, another classic caper movie, and who spent most of the 1950s alternating between crime thrillers and Westerns. Supporting him are such established character names as Elisha Cook Jr., Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, Joe Sawyer and Timothy Carey, while the feminine interest is provided by Coleen Gray and the ultimate B-movie femme fatale, Marie Windsor. I’d be willing to watch a cast like that in a movie I knew to be a dud, so to see them doing their thing in a bona fide classic like The Killing is all the more precious.
The plot of The Killing unfolds in a non-linear chronology which Quentin Tarantino adopted for Pulp Fiction in 1994. A voice of God narrator ties together all the various strands as we follow the members of a gang as they prepare and carry out a robbery at a racetrack. The heist is led by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), a career criminal not long out of prison, who hires a group of men who don’t know one another to help him carry out the heist. George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) is a teller at the track who is taking part in the robbery in the hope of scooping enough cash to win the affection of his brassy wife Sherry (an agreeably slutty Marie Windsor); Joe Sawyer, a bartender at the track, hopes to afford a better life for his ailing wife (Dorothy Adams); policeman Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) needs money to pay off his debts, while money man Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) has something of a gay crush on lead man Johnny.
Each has his part to play, and if the heist is to work, each must play his part with precision timing, so Clay plans everything down to the last second. To be honest, the plan is pretty low-tech, relying mostly on Clay’s chess-playing wrestler friend (real-life wrestler Kola Kwariani, whose accent is practically unintelligible) distracting the racetrack cops by starting a fight at the bar tended by Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) so that George can let Clay into the counting office unseen. Naturally, in the time-honoured tradition of heist movies, all that precision planning counts for nothing in the face of blind fate (or bad luck).
Filming in black-and-white, Kubrick creates a nicely dark and Noir-ish atmosphere, particularly in telling the story of George and Sherry, the one relationship you just know is going to end badly. George is so desperate to impress the wife he thinks is so far out of his league that he can’t stop himself from filling her in on what’s going to happen at the track, and she runs straight to her lover (Vince Edwards) so that he can muscle in and steal from the thieves once they meet to split the loot. To be honest, Cook’s performance is the weakest of the movie; his acting style seems stuck in the early 1940s and he speaks too many of his lines as if in some kind of daze. Windsor, though, fully justifies Kubrick’s decision to hold up filming until she had completed shooting Swamp Woman for Roger Corman. The rest of the cast also perform admirably. Hayden, who was more than capable of sleep-walking through a role he didn’t appear to believe in, seems galvanised by the quality of the script, which was written by the legendary pulp Noir scribe Jim Thompson, and does a good job of communicating Clay’s increasing frustration as his carefully laid plans slowly start to unravel. But it’s Timothy Carey, in the relatively small role of a marksman hired to shoot the favourite during a race to ensure there’s no post-race rush for the tote windows, who makes the biggest impression. Carey was the definition of a loose cannon, known to unsettle even fellow eccentrics like Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, but in a few short scenes he manages to deliver the film’s most memorable performance.
While the story told in The Killing is fast-moving and wholly absorbing from the outset, much of what takes place stretches incredulity when you think about it. I won’t go into detail here, but it’s a mark of the story’s quality that many of these flaws don’t occur to the viewer until after the credits have rolled. The film does stand out in some of the small details that tacitly imply much about the characters: for example, Unger’s speech to Clay which points towards his homosexual crush, and which thus makes sense of his drunken demeanour late in the film; and simply by having Fay (Coleen Gray) tightening her belt in the opening scene between her and Clay, Kubrick communicates exactly what has going on between them and how deeply they feel for one another. And even though The Killing is a dark movie, there’s still room for some humour — albeit equally dark — when the duplicitous Sherry finally gets her come-uppance. The Killing is one of those movies you should make a point of catching every time it shows up on your TV.
(Reviewed 21st May 2013)