'The Killing' Still Kills

by Terry Lawson

22 August 2011

The Killing marks a decided growth spurt on Stanley Kubrick's directorial chart.
cover art

The Killing

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Jr.

US DVD: 16 Aug 2011

Look twice before you press “Buy” for The Killing on Amazon and other DVD sites; the new release of that title does not contain the first-season episodes of the well-made if dramatically frustrating AMC TV serial of the same name, nor, perhaps more lamentably, is it the US release of the supposedly-superior Danish television mini-series that inspired that rain-drenched crime procedural, the longer Forbrydelsen. But you if you have erred, you may want think twice before you send it back, because this movie, The Killing is something far more extraordinary .

The Killing, released theatrically in 1956, is the Stanley Kubrick film you can safely recommend to your movie-loving friends who think the late Kubrick was a pretentious asthete who never read a gripping story he wasn’t inclined to turn into a three-hour head-scratcher. It’s a bad rap, but understandable to anyone who endured his psychosexual swan song Eyes Wide Shut, or assumed Steven Spielberg had lost his grip when, as an expensive tribute, he brought Kubrick’s on-again-off again ‘90s-era project A.I.: Artificial Intelligence to fruition in a hybrid adaptation that only proved how dissimilar the two directors actually were.

The Killing was previously available in a passable tape transfer from MGM, but is now getting the Criterion Collection treatment, which means it has achieved classic, or at least, serious collector’s status. But as inferred above, what makes The Killing a great film is its unabashed pulpiness, and while it has been digitally done up and cleaned-up by Criterion, it still looks suitably sleazy. It’s also available in BluRay (not supplied for this review), but since the soundtrack has been rightfully restored to original mono, it’s difficult to believe it could be a great improvement over this set.

The Killing was Kubrick’s third feature film, preceded by the amateurish if earnest warriors-under-pressure Fear and Desire (barely released theatrically in 1953 and still officially unavailable per Kubrick’s wishes, though it circulates on bootleg), and the streets-of-New York melodrama Killer’s Kiss (1955). The latter, running less than 67 minutes, is included as a bonus on the second disc in this set, looking better than it ever did in theaters. But mostly it provides evidence that Kubrick, who shot the film, was a great photographer, and that his nascent directing skills were improving. The Killing, though, marks a decided growth spurt on his directorial chart.

One reason is that he was able to employ some fine B-movie actors, most notably Sterling Hayden who plays the mastermind of a race track heist (a well-known name was a condition of a distribution deal with MGM), Elisha Cook Jr., the ever-crazed Timothy Carey and sultry Marie Windsor. Second, he was working with one of the era’s two best writers of the Hard-Boiled School in the unsentimental Jim Thompson. (His only competition being the comparatively romantic James Cain.) Though many of Thompson’s own books were filmed, the only one that can stand beside The Killing is Bertrand Tavernier’s adaptation of Pop. 1280, which reset Thompson’s story from the segregated US South to colonial West Africa. Though Thompson is generally acknowledged to have written most of the screenplay, Kubrick took writer’s credit, (consigning Thompson’s role to Additional Dialogue, a heist he would pull off again with Kubrick’s first true classic, Paths of Glory (1958).

Finally, Kubrick secured the services of early-TV-trained cinematographer Lucien Ballard, already adept at giving small-budget and quickly-made projects a decided estethetic that would have been deemed too raw for studio A-films. (When Sam Peckinpah, with whom Ballard would work extensively, attempted to turn the Thompson-written The Getaway into a big-budget studio showcase for Steve McQueen in 1972, Ballard was complicit in sucking the surliness out of it.).

The plotting in The Killing is as complex as the story itself is simple. Ex-con Johnny Clay (Hayden, at his most menacing) has meticulously mapped out his big score, a San Francisco racetrack heist as audacious as it is dependent on interconnected actions and exquisitely-timed events. Nothing can possibly go wrong, but of course it will, as both nature (an errant horseshoe, for one) and human nature intervene. One crooked cog in the cosmic machinery is, of course, a duplicitous dame, played by the sexy Windsor in full femme fatale fury.

Ballard’s black-and-white, ever-moving, constantly-prying, camerawork may be most responsible for The Killing‘s rediscovery, and future admirers claiming it as one of the classic film noirs. While it superficially fulfills that billing better than most latter-day efforts to recapture ‘40s’ Hollywood condensation of visual expressionism. But it’s more directly influenced by ‘50s crime films and westerns most obvious inspiration, the emergence of network television.

The least satisfying element of The Killing, in fact, is that TV short-cut staple, purposely uninvolved narration, which makes Jack Webb’s Dragnet voiceovers sound excitable. (The inevitable overly-intellectualized essay by Harvard lecturer Haden Guest in the accompanying booklet tries mightily if unconvincingly to connect it’s emotionally neutral tone with that of Hal the Computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Amid the usual Criterion extras (interviews with the film’s producer James B. Harris, the late Hayden, and Thompson biographer Robert Polito) is a short interview with Windsor, who cuts through all the revisionism: “I didn’t know I was doing film noir; I thought they were doing detective stories with low lighting!” Don’t feel so in the dark, Marie. They were.

The Killing


Extras rating:

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