Synopsis: Stanley Kubrick’s account of an ambitious racetrack robbery is one of Hollywood’s tautest, twistiest noirs. Aided by a radically time-shuffling narrative, razor-sharp dialogue from pulp novelist Jim Thompson, and a phenomenal cast of character actors, including Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Timothy Carey, and Elisha Cook Jr., The Killing is both a jaunty thriller and a cold-blooded punch to the gut. And with its precise tracking shots and gratifying sense of irony, it’s Kubrick to the core.
The Killing 8.5
I remember picking up ‘The Killing’ from the local library over 15 years ago and not knowing what it was or even having an inkling of just how much it would impress me. If I recall correctly, I only picked it up because it had been released by Criterion (remember those laserdiscs? ), and that usually meant it was something worth seeing.
I had seen some Stanley Kubrick films, such as ‘The Shining’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Full Metal Jacket’, and parts of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, but I had not yet been awed by his work. ‘The Killing’ really got the ball rolling for me. Following this, I saw my first real viewing of ‘2001’ (on the big screen – the ONLY way to see it!), and then ‘Dr. Strangelove’. And I was hooked, a convert.
What I truly like about ‘The Killing’ is its combination of intricate caper, wry humour and sharp character development.
Kubrick tends to be more psychological or methodical than emotional, and this comes through clearly in this picture. In fact, it has a coldness that one can easily attribute to all his films. But his method in telling this story is exactly what I loved: it’s all very structured, giving us all the pieces bit by bit, but not letting us know where it leads until the last few moments. His systematic approach works well for this type of story.
As for the humour, one would be very hard-pressed to call this film a comedy. If anything, the humour is derived from the situations, from the irony in what is being said or done. I suspect that this was intentional, based on the fact that Kubrick often brought in subtle, but dark, humour in his films. It’s also quite possible that I’m simply colouring it with my own sensibilities. But I like to think not.
This particular brand of humour ties in closely with the character development because it lifts the veil on a bunch of desperate and/or opportunistic men and women who are riffing off of each other, trying to better their current situation. As they dream of finally clawing their way out of their respective holes, they can be mean, if not cruel, in their exchanges, regurgitating unpleasantries, but ones which can be quite funny at times. Case-in-point:
“It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line.”
Not only is the whole picture meticulously staged by Kubrick, but even the dialogue has a purposeful quality about it that is quite theatrical. It’s not out of character for the period, but at no point do we get the impression that we are looking at real people, speaking the way real people do. If anything, we are probably meant to be impressed with clever turns of phrases and the way writer Jim Thompson puts words together – which, admittedly, could also be a trait of the original novel.
Similarly, the acting isn’t naturalistic. Whether that’s due to the director’s approach, the dialogue, or the cast’s limitations is hard to assess. But we are treated to performances here, some more impressive than others: Sterling Hayden gave his ring leader an essential focus and raw determination, Elisha Cook infected the screen with the right amount of desperation and lament, and Timothy Carey, while overtly colourful, had a knife’s edge that rendered his portrayal unforgettable.
Every single time that I see ‘The Killing’, it’s a real pleasure watching the plan unfold. I love to see how much thought was put into every detail in order for the scheme to work – and then seeing human weakness rot it away. I couldn’t say if the plan would have made sense or been possible to pull off back in the ’50s, as conceived here, but I know that the frailties on display are absolutely true and could easily put the whole plan in jeopardy. In that respect, the whole set-up works well.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
I don’t know that I would recommend ‘The Killing’ to just about anyone, being a black and white film with a dated style. However, anybody who likes bank heist films would enjoy this – it’s pretty much a gritty version of the original ‘Ocean’s Eleven’. And, for Stanley Kubrick fans, I’d say it’s a must-see; this is his first truly accomplished film. He hadn’t yet fully developed his skill or his style, but one can finally see the true potential of one of the masters of cinema.