Killing, The (1956)
Release Date: June 6th, 1956 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Stanley Kubrick Actors: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Ted DeCorsia, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr.
he Killing” is one of the most hilariously morbid heist movies of all time, featuring a clever story, a large cast of engaging characters (one of the roles sports a now iconic clown mask), and a darkly funny conclusion (on par with the droll pessimism of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”). The film is intriguingly told with heavy narration and a timeline that overlaps upon itself from different perspectives – an idea that probably influenced a great many future filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. Although it has a low budget and no big-name stars, it’s incredibly fast-paced, with zero unnecessary padding, and, thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s sharp direction and writing, is thrilling, gritty, unique, and wholly entertaining.
It’s September when Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) arrives at the track with absolutely no interest in horseracing – and even a lifelong disdain for gambling (as explained by the narrator with a deep, noirish voice). His presence is simply to deliver a note for a meeting location to several carefully selected people, each one chosen to participate in an elaborate and cagey heist of the racetrack office’s receipts. Some are employees, others are gunmen, but each has their own motivations for a cut of the potential $2,000,000 robbery.
In another part of town, policeman Randy Kennan (Ted DeCorsia) reveals his influences to partake in the caper, while the third part of the puzzle, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), is introduced talking to his girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray) about his 5-year incarceration. It didn’t deter him enough, however, as he’s immediately back to rustling up a crime. Meanwhile, track bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) comes home to his sick wife Ruth, and George Peatty (Elisha Cook), the track cashier, arrives at his own house that holds cruelly sarcastic and unfaithful wife Sherry (Marie Windsor). She’s the catalyst for complications (described as someone who would sell out her mother for a piece of fudge) as she spills details about the job to her secret lover Val (Vince Edwards), who immediately gets greedy. The final two crooks are hired for specific jobs for a flat price: Maurice, a muscular foreigner with a nearly unintelligible accented speech, is supposed to start a fight at the bar, while Nicki (Timothy Carey), a sniper, is assigned to shoot the lead horse Red Lightning – both as distractions from the real crime.
With so many characters, it’s one of the few times that a narrator feels absolutely essential, initially, even when it isn’t. But the omnipotent speaker proceeds to intrude regularly with comments on exact times and locations (such as “he reached the bus station at 8:45” or “at 12:10, as was his custom, he arrived at the track”), which audiences can clearly see for themselves. Those details have little impact on the caper and, as the movie wears on, the voiceover gets continually more annoying. Toward the conclusion, the narrator even explains conditions of the heist that were never discussed previously, as if he overheard the plotting men deliberate before the movie started. Outside of that single aspect, “The Killing” is top-notch excitement, with intelligent characters, a singular plot, and a practically perfect ending, representing a brilliant early entry for one of cinema’s most influential directors.
– Mike Massie