Saturday 18 September 2021

Movie Review: The Killing (1956)

A high-tension heist movie, The Killing counts down the hours towards an audacious robbery from the perspective of the gang members. Attention to detail collides with a strained domestic relationship, yielding exquisite drama.

Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) was only recently released from prison. He promises his devoted girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray) that his next heist will be a big one, allowing them to start a new life together: he plans to rob $2 million from the racetrack on the day of a high-stakes race.

Johnny's assembled gang includes veteran con man Marvin (Jay C. Flippen) and two racetrack insiders: cashier George (Elisha Cook Jr.) is desperate to buy nice things for his demanding wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), and bartender Mike (Joe Sawyer) needs money to help care for his sick wife. Police officer Randy (Ted DeCorsia) is also involved, and he plans to use his cut to pay-off debts to ruthless mobsters.

Johnny also hires brawler Maurice (wrestler Kola Kwariani) and sharp-shooter Nikki (Tim Carey) to cause distractions on the day of the robbery. The plans appears solid, but Sherry is ambitious, deeply unsatisfied in her marriage, and having an affair. She extracts information from George and provides it to her boyfriend Val (Vince Edwards), jeopardising all of Johnny's plotting.

An adaptation of the book Clean Break by Lionel White, The Killing is written and directed by Stanley Kubrick as a tight and crisp exposition of heist planning. Using documentary-style narration and subtle jumps in time to sharply define the characters and cover their actions leading up to the all-important seventh race at the track, Kubrick weaves a gripping tale of crooks coming together to execute the perfect robbery, except that the criminals themselves are far from perfect.

Cramped sets, stark light sources, dark shadows, sweaty, crumpled close-ups and remarkably fluid camera movements define a visual style coiled with tension and a sense of doom. For all the meticulous planning leading up to the robbery, this group of men is simply too flawed to pull off a heist of this magnitude, and their character weaknesses create an undercurrent of pending calamity. Johnny is going for a much larger haul than any of his previous jobs, now with the understanding that prison is prison so he might as well aim big. Marvin is small time, cashier George is meek and insecure, police officer Randy is dense enough to get into debt with the mob, and bartender Mike is no criminal.

Notwithstanding exceptions like Fay, men like this tend to attract the wrong kind of woman, and sure enough Sherry instigates the rot. George is too stupid to notice that contempt is the only emotion his wife feels for him, and she senses an irresistible opportunity to get rid of him and get rich doing it. As the pathetic George, Elisha Cook Jr. is a doleful presence, emerging from behind his cashier window to create a black hole of creeping ruin.

The 85 minutes of running time are perfectly paced. On several occasions Kubrick stops the clock just as the seventh race is about to start, and rewinds to fill in more preparation details and further increase expectations. By the time the gang swings into action and every man plays his role, all the groundwork appears to pay off, with the added bonus of one racist meeting quick justice. 

But the final act is the anarchy of the universe descending upon Johnny, mundane rules and an agitated small dog having never factored into his planning. The beauty of a plan coming together is only surpassed by the potency of unanticipated randomness.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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