Background: Stanley Kubrick’s noir masterpiece is his oldest in the Criterion Collection, predating such films as Paths of Glory and Spartacus. Despite being one of his earlier works, The Killing is Kubrick at his undeniable best. He unites a stellar ensemble cast, pits them against one another and allows the story to flow through their dialogue. What ensues is an ambitious narrative that swats away the notion of sequential time structure for a plot that twists at any given moment. This is one of Kubrick’s five films in the Criterion slate, spine #575.
Story: The Killing follows the story of ex-con Johnny Clay, a man embarking on an illegal journey to make a few quick bucks. His intention is to never work a day in his life again, while also satisfying his innocent lover. He and his ex-prisoner friends happen upon a plan to rob a racetrack.
The Film: Despite being released decades before his more recognised pictures, The Killing is trademark Kubrick. It is laced with the type of irony we came to love in A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut, simultaneously displaying directorial mastery many years before The Shining. Kubrick explores the nastiness and desperation of humanity – staples in his filmography – while also lacing the entirety of the film with genuine comedy.
Kubrick deploys a constant narration that gives the film a documentarian façade that highlights the complex, extensive planning involved in this heist. A brawl at the bar, the shooting of a horse and chaos are mushed together to create a distraction. Meanwhile, the heist— entirely conducted by one robber (Johnny Clay)—is in motion. You can’t help but admire the banal nature, yet smooth execution, of this heist.
The inventive storytelling and chemistry between the cast is the biggest, most integral influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Kubrick travels back and forth in time with every character, allowing us to see their journey and assignment before conjoining everything together in the end for a heart-stopping finale. In showing us every character’s journey to this one moment, Kubrick allows for each player to develop and grow a connection with the audience. It is tough to connect with a band of criminals unless they are either funny, or their motivations somewhat understood; The Killing boasts both.
Marie Windsor and Elijah Cook Jr., playing a married couple, turn in perhaps the best performances. They are distrusting of one another, Windsor physically out of the nimble Cook Jr’s league. He’s a reluctant fly-on-the-wall, nervous but expectant of his big payday. Windsor is the complete opposite – a detached, cheating, horrible lady. Windsor’s poisonous dialogue, crafted powerfully by Jim Thompson (with Kubrick’s approval), turns her into an undeniable queen femme fatale of cinema. Her existence alone subverts the noir cliché, which is a product of Kubrick going against the grain. Just seeing her tower over her husband, physically and emotionally, is quite funny. It’s by no mistake funny, either. Kubrick’s deadpan, sardonic humour that would eventually flourish in Dr. Strangelove and Spartacus, essentially begins here.
Kubrick’s long, breathtaking tracking shots are juxtaposed with Lucien Ballard’s high-contrast cinematography to bring a real desperation to the screen. The image feels hot and forces the audience to bask in that discomfort, especially as the characters are seen swatting their sweat away with cloths and tissue. In a meta way, those lengthy shots and cinematography mirror the head-over-heels plot.
In all of Kubrick’s films (at least, in the ones where a plan is being concocted) it is always the small detail that unravels everything. In The Killing’s heist, it is possibly the toxic marriage between Windsor and Cook Jr. In the same vein that HAL 9000 turns against the operators in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the hotel itself engulfs Jack Torrance in The Shining, the heist here is possibly undone by the toxicity of a relationship. Out of all the variables considered – time, weapons, personnel – this is the downfall of the operation. It is a hallmark of Kubrick’s oeuvre that, undoubtedly, began here.
Every single set-piece deployed by Kubrick, every ounce of witty dialogue spoken by a character, leads to one of the most climactic conclusions to any film ever created. Kubrick was no stranger to great endings but The Killing remains his magnum opus. One expects things to go wrong and, whether they do or do not, we are forced to bask in that negative feeling. Every beat, every minute that passes by, the escape becomes more probable and our tenseness begins to loosen. At that precise moment, Kubrick sticks the knife in and proceeds to maniacally laugh at Johnny Clay and his other half, Fay, stare gormlessly at the aftermath.
The Killing often operates as a film about making movies. Johnny Clay is Kubrick in this reading. Both assemble teams, both decide on an end-goal and both craft a plan to get from point A to point B. Much like filmmaking, Clay needs his counterparts to pull their own weight. His wrestler friend has to instigate the bar brawl, Cook Jr. has to ensure that every door remains open. Without their collaboration, Clay cannot carry out his heist. Without the collaboration of his actors and writers, Kubrick cannot assemble his story. As aforementioned, it is the small unconsidered details that can derail a heist. The same can be said about filmmaking. You consider all the variables, but then it may rain on set – at that point, your period of filmmaking for the day is, effectively, over.
Kubrick spent a lifetime creating outstanding genre films. The Killing is no different. This gorgeous melange of noir and action is both a stellar addition to the genre, but a small insight into the future of Kubrick’s directorial trajectory. He goes against the grain, subverting tropes of a genre, and reinvents it in the process. That is the true hallmark of a master.
Supplements: The Killing is amongst Criterion’s most stacked in regards to special features. Not only are we given a fresh interview with James B. Harris, we are also granted a fascinating insight into the writing of Jim Thompson through the words of Roberto Polito. Above all else, and aside from the stunning restoration, Criterion offers its most special supplement: a high-definition transfer of Kubrick’s 2nd film Killer’s Kiss – a noir akin to The Killing, widely believed to be the film that granted him the ability to make The Killing. Lastly, Geoffrey O’Brien delivers a studious video essay on Killer’s Kiss. All in all, the supplements here allow you to understand the film better, appreciate the filmmaking behind it as well as watching an entirely new movie.
Overall: The Killing is this writer’s favourite Kubrick film, and it could very well become yours too. It is accessible, easily digestible at 84 minutes in runtime, and a pulsating finale vindicates the decision to watch it.
Film grade: A+
Criterion grade: A