Released in 1956, just as the noir style was dying down, The Killing, based on a novel called Clean Break (the title chosen for the film is indicative of Kubrick’s homage–it could be the title of almost every noir ever made) is a heist movie. I love heist movies, and The Killing gets it all. The lead guy is a career criminal who wants to make one last score before retirement, and each of the team has their own reason for taking part. Of course, there’s also the fatal slip up by the chain’s weakest link.
The target is a race track. Sterling Hayden plays the criminal, who wants to rob the day’s receipts. He has enlisted an accountant (Jay C. Flippen) who provides the money, Elisha Cook as a ticket-window cashier, Joe Sawyer as the race track bartender, Ted de Corsia as a cop in deep to a loan shark, a professional wrestler (Kola Kwariani) and a marksman (Timothy Carey). Everything is planned down to the last second, but when weak-willed Cook blabs the plan to impress his wife (Marie Windsor), she in turn blabs to her love (Vince Edwards).
The Killing is full of noir stylistic flourishes, especially the use of light and shadow. The thieves make their plan at a table lit by a solitary hanging lamp from above, so when Hayden leans back, he’s completely in shadow. Kubrick uses tracking shots often, especially in Hayden’s railroad apartment, so that when a camera moves from room to room the camera follows him, even going through walls.
There’s also a lovely ending, which prefigures the end of such films as Ocean’s 11 and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Hayden’s last line, “Nah, what difference does it make?” is a perfect example of noir ennui. In fact, though the screenplay was written by Kubrick, the dialogue was written by Jim Thompson, who wrote a number of pulp classics. We get a lot of zippy patter, such as when Hayden tells Windsor, “You’ve got a dollar sign where your heart should be.”
The cast, including Hayden, Windsor and Cook, made a lot of noirs over the years. Hayden starred in the best heist movie ever made, The Asphalt Jungle, so to see him here is to remind one of that film. But this film is full of great faces, the kind that seem to be sculpted out of raw meat.
In many of Kubrick’s subsequent exercises in genre, he would transcend the genre and take it a new level. He doesn’t quite do that in The Killing, but it’s an still above average thriller.