Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956)

This article is an excerpt from “The Early Independent Features”, Part 1 of our video series on Stanley Kubrick

Inducted into the Criterion Collection: 2011

The release of 1955’s independently-produced KILLER’S KISS made a small splash in film circles, gaining its young director, Stanley Kubrick, a modest amount of attention in the process. An upcoming young television producer named James B. Harris found his own attention particularly captivated by this bold new voice in American cinema, and he felt compelled to help that voice grow louder. Working together as a producing team, Harris and Kubrick pored through mountains of material in search of their next story—eventually finding it in Lionel White’s crime novel “Clean Break”. After successfully licensing the film rights, Kubrick crafted the story into a script he called THE KILLING, which Harris then took to his contacts at United Artists. Only a year after the release of KILLER’S KISS, Kubrick found himself prepping his next big project with the support of a respectable studio— a development that Kubrick must have found was equal parts blessing and curse. While the budget was barely enough for Kubrick to successfully realize his vision, he had access to the studio’s expansive resource pool and was able to inflate the production value using better cameras, lenses, and production design. However, this also meant that Kubrick now had to deal with unions, permits, and all the other aggravating aspects of filmmaking that kill creativity. Despite these new challenges, Kubrick’s third feature proved the young auteur’s innate talent to a broader audience. THE KILLING may not be Kubrick’s most famous film, but it serves as a high quality genre exercise told in a challenging, unconventional way. More importantly, it marks Kubrick’s emergence as a mature filmmaker and unparalleled storyteller.

Tied together with an omniscient narrator speaking in the third person, THE KILLING weaves a fractured narrative from multiple points of view. The centerpiece character is Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), a seasoned criminal on the verge of retirement. Before he settles down and marries his beloved Fay (Coleen Gray), there’s one last score to take down: a two million dollar payday at the horse track. He assembles a team of bent cops, ace shooters, musclebound bruisers, and compromised bookies to help him orchestrate and execute the elaborate heist. It’s the perfect crime, both in conception and execution, and Kubrick’s take on the story plays like something of a procedural, detailing the actions of each team member down to the minute. Unbeknownst to Clay and his crew, however, one of his team members, George Peatty (played by Elisha Cook Jr), has leaked word of the heist to his adulterous wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor). Thinking the promise of untold riches would finally make her love him, George doesn’t anticipate that Sherry will turn right around and inform her secret lover, Val Cannon (Vince Edwards), in a bid to intercept the crew’s big payday. Kubrick’s churning narrative builds to an explosive finale that’s capped by a twist of dark irony when Clay finds that all the meticulous planning in the world can’t account for the unpredictability of chance.

THE KILLING marks the first time in which Kubrick’s cast is comprised mainly of well-known, professional actors and actresses. While this is ostensibly an ensemble film, the story belongs to Hayden, who ably portrays handsome crook Johnny Clay as cool and confident. As Johnny’s girl, Fay, Colleen Gray does a serviceable job but can’t rise above the limitations of her stereotypical “dependent, supportive love interest” archetype. Seasoned character actor Elisha Cook Jr proves just as captivating to watch as Hayden, injecting an anxious energy into his role as George Peatty, a beta male who lets his wife walk all over him. Jay C Flippen lends a warm, paternal presence as Marvin Unger, a kindly old bookkeeper and the heist’s financier. Contentious character actor Timothy Carey, in the first of multiple performances under Kubrick’s direction, plays Nikki Arcane – an expert marksman with a wild, unpredictable element to his personality. As George Peatty’s wife Sherry, Marie Windsor excels at taking advantage of her husband’s adoration and adopting a cynical, bored demeanor. The handsome, cocksure Vince Edwards rounds out the cast as Val Cannon—Sherry’s lover, a young hood, and the one development that Johnny Clay’s meticulous planning couldn’t anticipate.

THE KILLING is notable in the context of Kubrick’s early filmography by virtue of having personally shot everything that came before it. His background in photography provided him with the competency to expose film properly and his eye for visuals allowed for compelling, artistic images— essentially, he had all the hallmarks of a good DP. With THE KILLING, however, its mere existence as a United Artists film meant that the production was a union job, which further meant that Kubrick had to hire an external director of photography for the first time in his career. His choice was Lucien Ballard, a veteran cinematographer whose work he greatly admired. Their collaboration, however, was anything but harmonious. Director and cinematographer reportedly did not get along at all, with Kubrick’s pursuit of visual perfection frequently ruffling Ballard’s feathers. Despite this contentious relationship, THE KILLING’s black and white 35mm film visuals are a thing of beauty. The first of Kubrick’s works to be shot in the widescreen format, THE KILLING’s 1.66:1 aspect ratio allows ample room for the young director’s striking, depth-filled compositions. A low-key, high contrast noir lighting approach gives the film a high-end pedigree, matched by elegantly complex camera moves. In his essay “The Killing: Kubrick’s Clockwork” (included on Criterion’s 2011 Blu Ray release of the film), writer Haden Guest makes a clever observation about the hidden meaning behind the film’s fluid dolly work:

“Ballard’s gliding camera cuts a neat cross section through a series of connected rooms in its path, transforming the apartment interior into a type of controlled tunnel that exactly describes and limits the possibilities of movement—a striking illustration of entrapment that subtly parallels the camera’s and actor’s “tracks” with those of the horse race.”

Indeed, the interior sets of THE KILLING, artfully designed by Kubrick’s wife Ruth Sobotka as production designer, are reminiscent of a labyrinth—an idea that Kubrick would continue to revisit throughout his career. The layout of the rooms seem to suggest a finite number of paths for the characters to take, dictating their movements and actions while assimilating them into a complex, cosmic machinery that ultimately renders these same characters insignificant to the grand sweep of fate (or just as potently: chance). Kubrick routinely takes what would otherwise be several shots and strings them together into one fluid take, and in the process discovers a proclivity towards complicated, yet understated, camerawork that reinforces a story’s themes and that would fundamentally inform his future work.

A further innovation that THE KILLING makes potent use of is a fractured, nonlinear narrative. As assembled by editor Betty Steinberg under Kubrick’s supervision, we see the same scenes several times, but each revisit brings with it a new perspective from the vantage point of another character. As the drama and tension mount, we see conflicting details and snippets of crucial information that had previously (and strategically) been withheld. The narrator even gets in on the fun, becoming increasingly unreliable and contradictory. To their dismay, Kubrick and Steinberg were forced to go back and re-edit the film in chronological order after test audiences couldn’t follow their original edit. Thankfully for us, their “conventional” edit proved to be even more of a mess, and their nonlinear cut was reinstated and released to theatres. THE KILLING’s radical story structure proved to be highly influential in the decades since its release, with Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) in particular owing a huge debt to Kubrick’s trailblazing.

Kubrick’s career-long exploration into the psyche of violence and sex enjoys a brief respite in THE KILLING, with Kubrick toning down those fascinations to focus instead on delivering a taut genre picture. Kubrick’s film is most assuredly a crime thriller, but he frequently finds opportunities to color outside the lines and subvert our expectations. This undermining of genre while simultaneously upholding it would be a trademark of Kubrick’s for the rest of his career, a tangible method by which he could elevate the subject matter and make salient psychological points about the human condition. Additionally, Kubrick’s knack for regularly creating indelible, iconic imagery begins in earnest with THE KILLING—not so much in specific shots, but in visual ideas. One of the film’s most compelling images is the simple sight of the hauntingly-blank clown mask that Hayden wears during the heist, which one could easily see influencing Christopher Nolan’s bank heist introduction of The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). There’s also the image of a vast fortune of cash sucked up by a vortex of air and billowing away into nothing—a poetic and elegant visual metaphor for the film’s central conceit that chaos and chance will always be there to ruin our best-laid plans.

THE KILLING is revered as an indispensable classic today, but few remember that it was effectively dumped by United Artists when it made its original release on the second half of a double bill (the equivalent of today’s January/February release window). For most filmmakers, this would be death by poor box office—but Kubrick was not most filmmakers. The film didn’t make much money, but those who saw it were blown away by the 28 year-old director’s undeniable talent, and word of mouth spread through the upper echelons of Hollywood until it reached Kirk Douglas, the man who would take Kubrick’s career to the next level. Watching THE KILLING with the luxury of hindsight, it becomes immediately apparent that this is truly Kubrick’s first mature, fully realized film. More so than any other film in his canon, THE KILLING makes the case for Kubrick as the link between the old-school, consummate craftsmanship of Old Hollywood (a generation that influenced him immensely) and the radical innovation of New Hollywood (a generation that he would inspire directly).

THE KILLING is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via the Criterion Collection.

Produced by: James B. Harris
Written by: Stanley Kubrick
Director of Photography: Lucien Ballard
Production Designer: Ruth Sobotka
Edited by: Betty Steinberg
Music by: Gerald Fried