United Artists, 83m 54s
Estimable writer/director Stanley Kubrick went on to accomplish so much after THE KILLING that his quintessential noir heist film tends to get short shrift when critics discuss his oeuvre, especially from an auteur perspective. With THE KILLING, Kubrick proved at the age of 27 he understood Hollywood genre conventions as well as anyone, which is to say he could pull off a standard genre film just as well or better than any of his contemporaries. His later films demonstrated he could make films like nobody else. So many have tried to emulate his trademark themes (filmmaking at an emotional distance, human characters as borderline mechanical entities, and above all else, a pessimistic view of human progress, which happens exclusively in violent terms) that the Kubrick style has become an obvious cliché of the indie film, especially when filmmakers emphasize the space between spoken words. Perhaps Kubrick's most accessible film, THE KILLING also stands as one of the most intense film noir thrillers on record, with ambitious detail compressed into a runtime just shy of 84 minutes.
Like any effective heist film, and this one certainly qualifies, Kubrick gives emphasis to distinct character types through a cast more than up to the task. His crime story is constructed around Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), who just served five years in prison and is anxious to test his ability to orchestrate a crime with a different end result. Of course that notion is the fatal flaw of the career criminal; the thought that next time will be different than the last time. Interestingly the crew assembled by Johnny is not exactly composed of hardened criminals, but rather an assortment of average people, some with bigger problems than others, but all with some sort of motivation for taking the risk of the robbery. The hard-luck lead protagonist Johnny and the people he surrounds himself with all are in one sense or another infected by a stubborn post-WWII social paralysis in which no one is quite happy where they are or with what they have.
Johnny's girl Fay (Coleen Gray), a demure young lady of limited self-esteem, has known her man since childhood. The metric of morality but also a byproduct of entrenched patriarchal authority, Fay embodies the wholesome female counterbalance to the threat posed to society by the scheming femme fatale (more on that person later). Fay is submissive, lacks confidence and appears 100% dependent on Johnny. Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), a bookkeeper who owns the apartment where Johnny and Fay stay, fronts the money necessary to execute the elaborate racetrack heist. He seems to have personal reasons for his involvement in the job; the hints are numerous and not all that subtle that he is in love with Johnny. Notice the way Marvin interrupts the embrace between Johnny and Fay when he walks into their apartment early in the film. Far more suggestive is a later sequence, which features Marvin lying in bed while talking with Johnny, who sits in bed with him. Marvin suggests he and Johnny get away together after the caper in the most romantic of terms: "Wouldn't it be great if we could just go away, the two of us, and let the old world take a couple of turns..." That fantasy of Marvin's has no possibility of happening and he realizes it. That is the only reasonable explanation for why he gets drunk at the track the day of the heist after Johnny had cautioned him to stay away.
The narrative's other relationship given significant screen time involves track cashier George Peatty (has anyone been slapped around in the movies more than Elisha Cook Jr.?) and his statuesque wife Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor), one of the greediest bitches in cinematic history. A most unlikely couple in terms of appearances, George and Sherry have been married five years. Not coincidentally, that happens to be the identical amount of time Johnny spent behind bars; the noir film seldom paints a flattering portrait of the institution of marriage. As Sherry repeatedly registers objections to the life she has reduced herself to through her wedding vow to George ("This crummy apartment and a hamburger for dinner."), one gets the feeling she has voiced similar complaints since the first day of their relationship. In terms of more recent developments, she recurringly makes her bullied husband feel small for allowing himself to be roughed up by his associates (which naturally was mostly her fault). When not looking in the mirror, Sherry's favorite hobby apparently, she is two-timing George with Val Cannon (Vince Edwards), who treats her like the tramp she is and is very up front about his need for an open relationship. The dangerous female Sherry causes the gears of the heist to seize not long after she learns her husband has a big score in the making. Her unwelcome presence outside Johnny's apartment instantly creates doubt about the viability of the crime while in its planning stages.
Less time is devoted to the other characters, yet all of them make an impact and nobody seems extraneous. Probably the most sympathetic among them is Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer), a racetrack bartender devoted to his invalid wife Ruthie O'Reilly (Dorothy Adams), a woman even more reliant on a man to take care of her than Fay. Patrolman Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) is a dirty cop and Leo (Jay Adler) is Randy's no-nonsense creditor. Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey never moves his teeth when he talks) is the heist crew's weapons man who shares a WWII injury connection with a track parking attendant (James Edwards). Kubrick regular Joe Turkel (THE SHINING ) makes an appearance as Tiny. Most memorable of the heist team's specialty guys is Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani), both an intellectual (a chess player) and a brute (a hairy pro wrestler). In fact the same could be said about Kwariani.
As Kubrick shifts his film back and forth in time in the interest of illustrating each heist member's contribution to the crime, the narrative can be followed easily and every plot thread is simple to understand. The time element is a recurring motif that begins with the narration supplied by Art Gilmore (a real-life radio announcer), who makes the viewer aware of dates and times. Reminders of the film's time-sensitive nature include time ticking away at the Peattys' breakfast the day of the heist. After the heist takes place, a delay due to heavy traffic causes Johnny to be 15 minutes late for the post-heist rendezvous, enough time for a devastating gun battle to finish off everyone present. And talk about a tense moment with an inflexible deadline: Johnny and Fay at the American Airlines service desk discussing the rules that govern carry-on luggage!
As the film progresses, noir ironies accumulate while the not-quite-perfect plan reveals its limitations. Consider the film's early moments, when Randy informs his impatient creditor Leo that he soon will make good on his obligations. "I'll be able to pay off like a slot machine," boasts Randy. He ends up being right about that, but definitely not the way he thought. As any slot player will tell you, the most probable result is the machine gets the better of you, especially when you could benefit most from some winnings. Randy also stresses, "I'll take care of myself...that's my specialty." In the long run that philosophy does not pan out for him, though he proves his commitment to that logic when he ignores a citizen's plea for help. Rather than follow up on a distraught woman's story as any dutiful law enforcement official should, Randy remains committed to a doomed script designed to enrich himself. Another sequence steeped in irony involves a car tire punctured by a gifted horseshoe, a rejected symbol of racial harmony that symbolizes Nikki's demise. And of course the concluding sequence is imbued with ironic meaning, with Johnny enveloped by the absurd forces for which the noir universe is characterized. Despite the "methodically executed" heist, Johnny fails to recognize the second-hand suitcase he purchases that is bulky enough to handle $2 million in cash makes for inappropriate carry-on luggage. That error in judgment gives rise to the film's major theme: the futility of an elaborate plan in a random world. The numerous ironies that populate THE KILLING find close association with an irrepressible element of fatalism, a concept that provides the foundational ideological premise of film noir. A seemingly innocuous lady (Cecil Elliott) who fusses over her little dog at the airport hardly seems likely to become a significant factor on heist day, yet her presence leads to the exposure of the heist's architect (is there a woman in the film who is helpful to masculine endeavors?). Johnny stands helplessly at the airport, positioned perfectly to watch his score escape his grasp. "What's the difference?" he summarizes as he sees no point in even attempting to escape the hand of fate. The concluding shot recalls the final moments of NOTORIOUS (1946), with the condemned villain completely out of options. The most pure instances of the noir formula tend to wrap up accordingly, with at least one major character fully aware of his (or sometimes her) irreversible situation.
THE KILLING was based on the novel CLEAN BREAK by Lionel White. The adaptation's various working titles included “Bed of Fear,” “Clean Break” and “Day of Violence.” Kubrick's screenplay was seasoned with dialogue by Jim Thompson (witness the terrific hard-boiled language when Johnny breaks down Sherry, also when Johnny explains to Nikki why killing a horse is no big deal). The $330K budget was attached to a 28-day shooting schedule. Director of photography Lucien Ballard's studio-shot material meshes well with the stock footage assembled from the Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo, California. Location footage was filmed in Bunker Hill, Culver City and Los Angeles International Airport. Leading man Sterling Hayden delivered a fascinating performance in director John Huston's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), the original noir heist classic. Hayden would return to work in a major role for Kubrick in DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964). With those bedroom eyes and her tall, erotic body, actress Marie Windsor was born to portray femme fatales, and Sherry is about as caustic an example of one as the noir aficionado is likely to encounter. It is impossible not to sympathize with her bullied husband. Similarly, Elisha Cook Jr. was predestined to play the milquetoast (my favorite instance that leaps to mind is SHANE ). Fittingly, the two would be reunited for the television mini-series SALEM'S LOT (1979). After THE KILLING was sold to United Artists, Kubrick and producer James B. Harris formed their own production company. Harris co-produced Kubrick's antiwar vehicle PATHS OF GLORY (1957) along with that film's star Kirk Douglas. Later Harris-Kubrick Productions released LOLITA (1962), based on Vladimir Nabokov's controversial 1955 novel. It also should be mentioned THE KILLING surely influenced Quentin Tarantino's terrific throwback crime film RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). And the element of a mature woman with a love for dogs would be inserted into A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988), my favorite of all heist films, for terrific comedic effect.
THE KILLING joins the 4K UHD club by way of the Kino Lorber Studio Classics product line. The new Dolby Vision HDR Master derived from a 4K scan of the original camera negative looks razor sharp and stands with confidence alongside the very best transfers of noir films currently available on physical media. Framing is at the intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Grain level is superb and should please anyone who purchases this release as a collection upgrade, no question. Below is a screen snapshot of the new Kino Lorber 4K edition:
The freshly recorded audio commentary track was contributed by incisive film historian and author Alan K. Rode, who is among the most accomplished voices when it comes to commentaries. He is always at the ready with everything one possibly could hope to learn about each sequence in terms of filming locations then and now, as well as contributions of everyone in front of and behind the camera. His best attribute is his ability to tell entertaining stories about contributors he either knew directly or understood from conversations with people who knew them well. Rode's coverage includes the peaks and valleys of Vince Edwards, who struggled with addictions to gambling and alcohol. Timothy Carey was fired off the set of ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) for the sort of scene-stealing antics he had on full display in CRIME WAVE (1953). Carey was fired from PATHS OF GLORY as well and had to be doubled. James Edwards was noted for being the first black actor to break away from long-entrenched stereotypes, most notably with his portrayal of Private Peter Moss in HOME OF THE BRAVE (1949). He set the stage for Sidney Poitier's emergence in the social problem film noir NO WAY OUT (1950). Real-life pro wrestler Kola Kwariani was a chess partner of Kubrick's. Together with Sterling Hayden they appeared on the cover of CHESS REVIEW (March 1956). A tough guy all his life, Kwariani died at the age of 77 after a brawl with five youths. Sterling Hayden, a member of the Communist Party for a short period of time, named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee to ensure he could continue working, though his testimony bothered him the remainder of his life. Rode also discusses the amputation of Jay C. Flippen's leg due to an infection and the career of Tito Vuolo, an ethnic character specialist and film noir fixture. Rode also identifies Rodney Dangerfield in an uncredited role as an extra at the racetrack (in those days Dangerfield was known as Jack Roy).
Kubrick's main obsessions as a young man were watching movies, photography (he was a LOOK photographer for 4 years) and playing chess (he would become a tournament-level player). He maintained creative involvement in every detail of his films, which in this case created tension with cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Rode notes Kubrick's camera moves only when necessary, a trait he probably picked up from watching the work of German-French filmmaker Max Ophüls (LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN , LA RONDE ). Despite the fact Kubrick did not take a salary, THE KILLING was not a profitable title for United Artists, though the gritty noir absolutely cemented Kubrick's reputation as a young filmmaker to watch.
A theatrical trailer (1m 46s) is the only other supplement.
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, the screen captures above were snapped from the Criterion DVD released in 2011. For 4K screen captures of the Kino Lorber Studio Classics version of THE KILLING, visit Gary Tooze's DVDBeaver website: THE KILLING