The Stanley Kubrick Project: The Killing (1956)

One of the very positive things to come out of Killer’s Kiss is Kubrick’s meeting with Jack B. Harris, a young TV producer looking to break into movie production. The result of that partnership was what both men felt would be their calling card in Hollywood, The Killing.

Please note – this scene does not appear in the movie. Sorry to disappoint.

Based on a paperback Harris found one evening, it’s a story about a well-planned robbery at a horse track, and how it still goes wrong. Having a bit of a budget to work with – admittedly, a small one, but much more than he ever had to work with before – Kubrick starts assembling a dream crew. A crime writer he’s always admired, Jim Thompson, works on the screenplay. Once Sterling Hayden signs on, Kubrick calls on his encyclopedic knowledge of film and pulls together a gang of interesting, reliable character actors – Elisha Cook, Jr., Marie Windsor, Timothy Carey. He gets a real Hollywood cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, though that was largely a result of film union rules. Predictably, the two did not get along very well.

The result: a quantum leap forward.

Sterling Hayden is Johnny Clay, a small-time hood just out of the pen. He’s spent the time planning out a way to rob a horse racing track and get away with two million dollars. He puts together a group of “not exactly criminals” but guys in the right positions to make his plan work, and moreover, reasons to make it work: a ticket clerk with a greedy wife, a bartender caring for a sickly spouse, a cop who owes a loan shark big time. There are also two actual criminals, who will handle the distractions necessary for the plan. Clay pays them a flat fee, knowing they’re professionals and will carry out their part without many questions and aren’t likely to give the cops the time of day.

Clay’s plan is complex, but not so complicated there’s room for things to go wrong. Part of the draw of the movie is that time becomes more fractured as we get closer to the heist, going back in the day over and over again to see the disparate parts come together. Of course, there’s one big kink in the plan, and of course, it’s a dame. This is noir we’re talkin’, after all. The ticket clerk (Elisha Cook Jr. at his Elisa Cook-iest) makes the mistake of mouthing off about upcoming big money to his feckless wife (Marie Windsor), who in turn tells her boyfriend, small-time hood wannabe Vince Edwards.

I still think of Vince Edwards as Ben Casey. Seeing him in roles like this always disorients me.

Crime fiction lives and dies on its character work; the very best employs unique takes on this end of human potential and the shapes it takes. I’m a very bad completist, I didn’t seek out a copy of Lionel White’s novel to find out how much of the final product is him and how much is Thompson; the extras on the Criterion disc indicate that the framework is mainly White, but things like the relationship between Cook and Windsor gained greater prominence under Thompson. The guy who Clay hires to start a one-man riot in the racetrack bar, a nigh-incomprehensible Kola Kwariani, is practically a movie in himself, a thoughtful bruiser Clay tracks down at his job in an “Academy of Chess and Checkers”.

I do think, however, the weirdness of the sniper character Timothy Carey brought with him.

The ability to actually build sets gives Kubrick the freedom to move the camera in ways he never could before, when he was trapped in actual apartments or forests where he couldn’t lay track, even if he could have afforded it.  A long dolly shot  the length of an apartment, through several rooms, the camera apparently passing through walls, is so damned good it gets used twice, once in daytime, once at night. There is one pretty obvious rear projection shot, but it’s 1956, and those were the norm.

It was the non-linear quality of the heist that the suits did not much care for and that animosity was likely the reason it didn’t open well, without much of an ad campaign or chance to build word of mouth. It wouldn’t be the last time that the powers that be not only didn’t get Kubrick, but were openly dismissive. Critically, the film was a success, though, and got Kubrick and Harris the calling card they needed.  The next stop would be Paths of Glory, and a legend would begin to unfold.

So, yeah, short version: I dug it.


  1. […] the critical, if not box office, success of The Killing, Kubrick and producer Jack Harris decided they wanted to do a war movie; Kubrick apparently read […]

  2. […] of Jackie’s plan, Tarantino does the same thing Kubrick caught so much shit for doing in The Killing, fracturing time and repeating the scene over and over from different characters’ […]

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