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The Killing, 1956

Famed Kubrick film that has been borrowed from by many modern film-makers.

The Killing is Stanley Kubrick's second film, and generally considered his first real pro movie, is a fast-action, 84 minute analytical story of a racetrack robbery.

Kubrick's onscreen tale uses shifting time periods, back and forth, to completely chronicle from start to finish the exploits of a team of crooks led by Sterling Hayden, who have worked out a perfect plan to heist $2 million dollars from the Landsdowne Racetrack in California.

"Crime does not pay" doesn't adequately cover what goes horribly wrong with the execution of the plan, which moves with clock-like precision up until the point it runs head-on into a few minor details involving a cuckolded husband, petty crooks who want to get in on the take, cheap pawn-shop luggage goods, an innocuous little poodle dog, and wind.

Sterling Hayden (as Johnny Clay) and Coleen Gray (as girlfriend Fay) are the story leads, but the rest of the cast get a lot of screen time in Kubrick's script co-written with Jim Thompson and adapted from the novel Clean Break by Lionel White.

Marie Windsor appears as Sherry Peatty, the wife of nervous racetrack employee Elisha Cook Jr (as George Peatty). Windsor looks to be about 6 inches taller than Cook, and she turns and twists him like a cat with a mostly uninteresting mouse caught in her claws. She's a bored wife with bigger plans in mind involving another man, and when she learns her husband may have a hand in a lucrative robbery, she thinks the cash will be her way to get free. Her dialogue is loaded with irony, most of which sails over the head of Cook's character. The double irony is that her secret paramour has her twisted up more or less the same way she has Cook.

Kubrick uses a flat and straight-forward narrative voice (supplied by Art Gilmore) which notes the passage of time, the shifts backwards into flashback, and to confirm obvious scenes much like a caption box does on a comic book page. The style is slightly stentorian and reminds one of the TV show Dragnet.

Though now categorized as a film noir, The Killing is really a straight-forward gangster movie, but without the gangsters. Hayden's robbers all seem like generally likeable characters (well, not horse-assassin Nikki Arcane, played by an off-kilter Timothy Carey), but the rest are simple men who are corrupt in a simple way and treat the heist like an odd job that will hopefully help them pay off bills, improve things with their spouses, etc.

The photography by Lucien Ballard is a different matter, as a lot of interior scenes are shot with single light sources, creating black, boxed-in scenes that registers immediately to our eyes as true film noir according to modern fashion. But Kubricks story is really as old as Greek tragedy.

Original Page September 2006 | Aug 1, 2012

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