|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 29 June 1999|
By 1956, Stanley Kubrick had made two feature films, Fear and Desire (which he came to hate) and Killer's Kiss. He was eager to make movies his own way, but which were also commercially successful, so it was his good fortune to encounter James Harris, who wanted to team up with an ambitious director and produce his films. Harris found the novel Clean Break by Lionel White, an intricately-structured tale of a carefully-planned race track robbery.
Kubrick realized that the novel's unusual flipping back and forth in time would work well for a movie, so he and Harris bought the rights, snatching them away from an indecisive Frank Sinatra. Kubrick wrote the script outline, then asked crime writer Jim Thompson to write the movie's brittle but realistic dialog, and he did an excellent job. Thompson's bleakly hard-boiled novels, usually either about criminals or crooked cops, have formed the basis for many movies, including The Getaway, Sweet Poison, The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, The Killer Inside Me and many others. He also co-wrote Paths of Glory, Kubrick's next movie, with the director.
Sterling Hayden's career had fallen on hard times after great movies like The Asphalt Jungle (which The Killing resembles, and not accidentally); accused of Communist sympathies, he'd testified before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and so had estranged himself from people on both sides of the issue. He was glad to get the role, which led to further work with Kubrick.
When The Killing was first released, its distributor, United Artists, dumped the film, thinking it too strange for average audiences, and although it received some glowing reviews, it was considered a loss. (Until, producer Harris later mentioned, United Artists acquired all rights to the film; then it made money.) But it did establish Stanley Kubrick as someone who could make films his way that could play to other than "art house" audiences; his brilliant career really does begin with The Killing.
And it's still great fun to watch. True, the portentous narration which seems dated today is used to establish the back-and-forthing in time which kicks in later in the robbery sequence by using an occasional phrase like "...about half an hour earlier..." After it serves this function, the narration disappears.
What's left is one of the best "caper" movies ever made. Unlike most, the crooks are not stylish, handsome icons, but ordinary, blue-collar types, some of whose business simply is crime, some of whom are stepping across the line for the first time in order of sharing in the two million dollars that caper-designer Johnny Clay (Hayden) says they will snare.
Clay is unaware that one of his partners, George (Elisha Cook, Jr., the screen's greatest craven weasel), is married to sarcastic, domineeriering Sherry (Marie Windsor), who forces George to tell her all about the planned robbery. In turn, she passes it on to her tough-guy lover Val (Vince Edwards), who treats her as badly as she treats George.
The setup is in place: first Johnny and his team will steal the money, then Val and his buddies will steal from the thieves. But in a film noir, things never work out right.
The robbery sequence is still a masterpiece of structure, and is crystal-clear; the only objections to the flipping of time have to be theoretical, since Kubrick always uses the voice of the racetrack announcer and shots of the horses as references -- we never lose track. Furthermore, this structure allows suspense to be built for each character, not just for the robbery itself. Other films have borrowed Kubrick's ideas -- Tarantino did it very well in Jackie Brown, for example -- but he was there first, and Lionel White's novel led him.
The cast is excellent, rich with vivid characters and memorable faces -- and one must never underestimate Kubrick's penchant for dry humor. Windsor and Cook make a particularly amusing couple; he tries not to be dominated by her, and continually fails -- she's even bigger than he is. Then she herself is pushed around by Vince Edwards; the movies lost a great heavy when he became TV's Ben Casey. In the 1950s, even a hint of homosexuality was verboten in movies, but Kubrick makes clear that Jay C. Flippen's character is in love with Johnny Clay. The unduplicatable Timothy Carey is introduced with a shotgun blast, and sneers and snarls his way through the single most vivid character turn in The Killing as the marksman who shoots the lead horse during the race.
In terms of presentation, there's nothing remarkable about MGM's DVD of The Killing; the booklet is well-done but brief, and the only extra on the disc itself is the usual trailer. For Kubrick fans, The Killing is a must purchase; the print is excellent, with Lucien Ballard's sharp, highly detailed photography well-presented. For others, it's still an outstanding choice, one of the best low-budget crime movies ever made, and which continues to influence moviemakers to this day.