The Killing (1956)
Stanley Kubrick's first hit film, The Killing, is a superior heist movie filled with all of what are now the standard elements. What sets it apart is Kubrick's inventive time-rearranging storytelling and excellent visual sense, along with some twists and turns that you really can't see coming, but make the film all the more compelling.
The star of the film is Sterling Hayden, who also starred in another well-known heist film, The Asphalt Jungle, a film to which I was rather indifferent. Here Hayden plays Johnny Clay, an ex-con who is arranging a complex scheme to rob approximately two million dollars from a racetrack during a horse race. (Keep in mind, this is 1956: two million bucks is an enormous sum of cash!) Johnny plans to take his share of the loot and skip town with his bride-to-be, Fay (Coleen Gray).
For the job, he hires a team of small-time crooks, including the track bartender (Mike O'Reilly) and nerve-wracked cashier (Elisha Cook Jr.), a corrupt policeman (Ted DeCorsia), a local thug (Kola Kwariani), and a sniper (Timothy Carey). To reveal the actual plan would be to spoil some of the fun of the movie, but I don't think I'm spoiling anything by telling you that things do not go as planned. One of the factors is the misguided trust that George, the cashier, places in his wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor), who is cheating on him, and reveals the planned heist to her beau, who then develops his own plan to get the money for himself and Sherry. And the other major factor is... well you'll just have to see it for yourself.
Kubrick was a master of the cinema even from his earliest work, and his best device in The Killing is the way he plays with time, and allows events to unfold slightly out of order, so that he shows us what is happening with one part of the plan, then tells us what happened thirty minutes earlier, or an hour earlier, so that we can see how the pieces are falling apart even as they appear to be coming together.
The film is in black and white, and Kubrick uses sharp contrast and complex compositions to fill his screen with beautiful imagery. I was also struck by how ahead-of-their-time the shots of the horse race were. Most films of the 1950s made you feel a bit of distance when depicting sporting events, but Kubrick manages to make you feel as if you're at the racetrack, and watching from the ground level. While this is not the best work of Kubrick's career, it is certainly an indication of the masterpieces that were to follow.
May 4, 2005