The Killing, USA, 1956
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook
The Killing is a 1956 heist film written and directed by a 28-year old Stanley Kubrick. It was his first studio-funded picture and landed him acclaim from critics and peers all around. It signaled the beginning of a Hollywood career that lasted until his death in 1999.
In 1955, Kubrick was still a young filmmaker from the Bronx, and just completed a mini-featured called Killer’s Kiss. He sold it to United Artists for $75,000 and a promise that his next project would be backed by the studio. Around this time, Kubrick befriended a budding producer named James Harris. The two teamed up and decided on adapting Lionel White’s crime novel Clean Break as their first collaboration together.
Kubrick’s background was in photography, and his keen sense of visuals helped sell Killer’s Kiss. What he lacked though, was a mastery of dialogue and language. Kubrick and Harris then hired notable crime novelist Jim Thompson to help with the screenplay. Kubrick used his deep knowledge of TV character actors to compile an impressive cast that included Sterling Hayden, who later played Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, Timothy Carey who starred in Kubrick’s next masterpiece, Paths of Glory a year later, and Joe Turkel who later played the part of the butler in The Shining almost 25 years later. Also notable among the cast is Marie Windsor, who played a devious and heartless femme fatale.
The Killing was completed and released in 1956, although it received very little campaign management from United Artists and the film ended up a flop at the box office. Kubrick, however, landed much praise from critics including Time Magazine and the trio of Harris, Kubrick, and Thompson landed an opportunity to make Paths of Glory, a powerful and visceral World War I drama starring Kirk Douglas, who was impressed with The Killing and wanted to work with the creative team behind it.
Fifty-five years later, the film’s influence and attraction is still heavy in weight. In 2011, The Criterion Collection honored The Killing with a special edition release with interviews featuring Harris, as well as a TV special with Sterling Hayden from 1984, just before his death.
The Killing tells the story of Johnny Clay, a recently released con artist who orchestrates a racetrack robbery with several employees of the track.
Modeled after Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon, the story unfolds in a unique and stylized non-linear fashion, essentially telling the same story several different times from several different perspectives. This approach would later influence many films including Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.
Kubrick eventually became a force in the movie industry, scoring 13 Oscar Nominations for films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket. When considering his legacy, few tend to think of his early work like Killer’s Kiss, shot entirely on location in New York City, and The Killing, one of the last, great true film noirs. Only 84 minutes in length, the film is deliberately fast-paced and consistently suspenseful until its ironic, bittersweet conclusion.
The Killing remains one of the best noir films of the 1950s. Full of surprises and great characters, it’s a highly inspired and brilliant piece of filmmaking.