Director: Stanley Kubrick
“You like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.”
Known for over-the-top, extravagant (yet inherently brilliant) films such as A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it seems strange to think that Stanley Kubrick started out in the world of film noir. Yet that is indeed what he did, and his main contribution, 1956’s The Killing, is one of the highlights of noir’s later years.
That said, I had a hard time deciding whether The Killing deserves to be classed as a noir or more of a ‘gangster’ movie. In a similar vein to 1949’s White Heat, The Killing was released in noir’s heyday, yet it very much fits alongside the gangster genre which, although often sharing themes and styles, is usually classed as something separate to noir. It doesn’t help that the film is often referred to as being a ‘heist’ film. So, I’ve made life easier by putting it into both categories.
Pedantic technicalities aside, the point remains that the movie is a tightly-crafted, well-directed and thoroughly enjoyable story about a loose union of several different criminals who conspire to steal $2,000,000 from a race track on the day of a highly-lucrative horse race.
Narrated in retrospect by what sounds like a news reader, the film begins by showing the careful planning of the heist by the principal members involved. Each member comes from different walks of life and have their own motives for taking part in the job. Simple-minded George (Elisha Cook Jr) is the racetrack attendant taking part to try and show his shallow, unloving and unfaithful wife the high life (who, along with her lover, have their own plans for the loot). Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) is the police officer indebted to some loan sharks he needs to pay off sharpish. Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) is a racetrack bar assistant in need of cash to get his sick wife medical treatment. Other characters, including a wrestler named Maurica (played by real-life wrestler Kola Kwariani) and a gun-runner called Nikki help complete the ensemble of characters, but the central character is that of Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), played to cynical perfection by Sterling Hayden. Fast talking and meticulous in his planning, he masterminds the entire operation and is very much the spider at the centre of the web. Recently released from a few years’ jail time, he plans one last heist to enable himself to settle down with his young fiancée Fay (Coleen Gray).
Aside from Hayden, the rest of the cast are all excellent in their roles, but particular praise has to be reserved for Elisha Cook Jr. Known for playing the ‘fall guy’ Wilma in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon and later as the character of Harry Jones in 1946’s The Big Sleep, here he gets a central role and is thrust into the spotlight. As before, he plays a fairly weak-willed character, here being cruelly taunted by his wife Sherry who mocks both his dreams of making it big as well as his efforts as a husband (and not to mention a lover), but who is central to the plot and the final unravelling of the operation. Cook’s character and his quiet, reserved approach to acting perfectly suits the nature of the character and gives him some quiet authenticity.
From O’Reilly’s sick wife to George’s naïve attempts to please his wife, you sometimes can’t help but sympathise with the characters and almost wish for the plan to succeed – especially after seeing the lengths gone through by Johnny to set it all up.
When the heist does come, it runs like a machine with relatively few hiccups (one member’s death aside). Johnny’s infiltration of the backrooms and the hold-up itself are tightly shot and the air of urgency doesn’t let up as he barks his orders while hiding under a clown’s mask (which appears to have been the basis for the clown masks used during the opening bank heist in 2008’s The Dark Knight).
The tension doesn’t let up from there on. From the gang members’ panic over where Johnny has got to with the loot before the subsequent shoot-out at the rendezvous point and Johnny’s desperate attempts to flee with the money hidden away in one suitcase, the dream plan unfolds into a nightmare with only one outcome for the players involved.
The film is shot from the viewpoints of several characters, often criss-crossing between time periods (the film was a big influence on Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which features a similar approach to storytelling), though Johnny gets the bulk of the screen time. Most of the cut-backs feature the use of voiceover from the unseen narrator, reporting on the events of the day like a news reporter reading a story for an audience (or perhaps a prosecutor reporting the events to a jury…), and it is effective in building up the tension which the film relies on.
The heist underpinning the story is pretty well-crafted, and it pans out with what could almost be termed success. However, there are two slight plot points (spoiler alert) which seem to stick out in my mind following a recent re-watching:
- The plan is almost flawed in that it relies on the cop to take the money to the agreed storage place rather than abscond with it. Granted, he may not have known the true extent of the plot, but it seems highly unlikely that he wouldn’t have figured out what might have been in there. Given there was $2,000,000 at hand, there seems very little to have stopped him from being able to just run off with the whole loot.
- Although Jonny’s morale is completely shot by the end of the movie once the money has been lost, is the ending actually as bleak for him as it initially seems? All the other gang members are dead, so putting the pieces together would have been hard if Johnny kept quiet,. Also what actual evidence is there against him? Granted he had money, but this was only seen from afar by the witnesses and was being blown away by the wind. Is there actually anything left to pin Johnny to the actual crime at the race track?
But maybe that’s just me being pedantic…
Still, the film brims with memorable scenes, dialogue and dramatic music serving to keep tensions high. Despite only being 85 minutes long, it fits quite a lot of action into that short time. Despite the complexion of the plot, nothing seems to be particularly unexplained or any loose ends left hanging. As far as heist and gangster films go, the film fits together and flows beautifully. As an example of film noir, it shines equally bright. Marie Windsor is superb as the film’s femme fatale, and the voiceover by the unseen narrator (as opposed to using one of the characters on the screen) means you can never be too sure until the very end about how the plot will plan out and who will be left alive by the end of it.
The Killing has certainly proven to be an inspirational film, and few could dispute its brilliance. It’s also an excellence snapshot of the career of a young director who is now remembered for an influential and diverse filmography. The intricacies of some of Kubrick’s later films can be seen in the details that go into The Killing, while avoiding the more over-the-top mind tricks that some of them would employ. It may not be as remembered when placed against those later films, but there’s no denying the film’s brilliance. It’s a ride not to be missed.