A horseracing track, two million dollars, a heist crew of seven strangers, and a plan worked out to the last detail; what could possibly go wrong? The adage, “man plans, and God laughs,” comes to mind when watching director Stanley Kubrick’s seminal thriller “The Killing,” (1956), one of the movies featured this month on “Film Noir Features” our weekly double feature of classics of the genre selected from the MGM library every Tuesday night on MGM HD.
For his first studio-backed film, Stanley Kubrick chose to adapt Lionel White’s crime novel “Clean Break,” (beating out Frank Sinatra for the rights). Renamed “The Killing,” Kubrick collaborated with genre master Jim Thompson on the crackling screenplay. Although he would become known later in his career for his large budgets and years-long production schedules, “The Killing” was shot for little money and in only 24 days. Despite this, hallmarks of Kubrick’s style are on full display in this tale of small-time crooks with big plans. Mr. Kubrick began his career as a street photographer for Look magazine, emulating the celebrated crime photographer Weegee. The film’s milieu, actor’s faces, and hardboiled settings feel as if they sprung to life from the pages of mid-century tabloids. Elaborate single-take tracking shots follow the characters through seedy locales like dive bars, cheap apartments, and racetrack betting parlors. (A long tracking shot of horses racing recalls Eadweard Muybridge’s early studies of animal locomotion filmed seventy-five years earlier.)
Kubrick always had an eye for casting in his films and “The Killing” is no exception. Sterling Hayden, as ex-con Johnny Clay, the man with the foolproof plan to liberate two million dollars in cash from a local horse track, is the authoritative engine that propels the plot forward. But it was the actors who rounded out the cast who gave the movie its character. Veteran actor Jay C. Flippen, with his hang-dog face and alcoholic desperation brought a humanity and sadness to Clay’s friend and money man Marvin Unger. And look for cult actor Timothy Carey’s eccentric and oddball performance as the sharpshooter who plays a key role in Clay’s plan. But it is the scenes between femme fatale Marie Windsor and the diminutive Elisha Cook Jr. as too much woman for not enough man who nearly steal the movie.
In 1956, “The Killing” announced Kubrick as a director to watch. It caught the attention of Kirk Douglas with whom the director would work on his next two films. “The Killing” has, like most of Kubrick’s work, had a huge influence on the work of filmmakers who followed him. The time bending narrative style and tough-talking tone can be seen and heard in the work of Quentin Tarrantino half a century later. To watch “The Killing,” is an opportunity to enjoy a nascent master honing his craft.
Stay up late for “Film Noir Features” every Tuesday night at Midnight Eastern, 9 PM Pacific on MGM HD.