Today! Because you’d be killing a horse, that’s not first degree murder. In fact it’s not murder at all, in fact I don’t know what it is –
The Killing (1956)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick (x2)
Starring Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr. (x2), Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Marie Windsor, Joe Sawyer, Timothy Carey, Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, Kola Kwariani, James Edwards
The first great Stanley Kubrick movie, The Killing came directly on the heels of the slight, interestingly photographed Killer’s Kiss (1955) and Fear and Desire (1953), but represented such a massive uptick in quality as to render these early films obsolete in the canon. For the longest time, this was also the earliest Kubrick film you could find – the other two having fallen out circulation to an extreme degree, so The Killing is sometimes even now still referred to (or maybe just thought of) as his first film.
Such an avant garde filmmaker was Kubrick that it’s interesting to watch his good 1950’s films – this and Paths of Glory – to see how he operates in the technical limitations of the time. Lolita and Strangelove still have some of this going on, too, but it’s more pronounced here, pre-Spartacus, when Kubrick didn’t yet have free reign to make movies however he liked. The Killing is a touch hindered by the overbearing narration that, while probably keeping the run time down, doesn’t feel 100% necessary (Kubrick was apparently forced to include it by the studio). Some of the acting in the early going is a little jangly, too – Hayden and Cook do most of the heavy lifting throughout, but especially in the run up to the heist.
The film is a race track robbery caper, with all the intricate little roles everyone needs to play, and the precision timing necessary to pull it off. The first half of the film sees Hayden’s Johnny getting all the players together, the second quickly shows the heist itself and the swift, brutal aftermath. It doesn’t lay out in complete linearity, but isn’t jumping all over the place in too gimmicky a fashion either. The structure plays to the film’s strengths quite brilliantly, as the action rips along in spurts, only shifting focus to explain the other aspects when absolutely necessary.
And as uneven as some elements of the film’s first half are – Cook’s sad sack George and his awful, scheming wife Sherry have some fun scenes, but they’re a bit clunky in the dialogue – the second half is a masterpiece, with the final fifteen of the film’s tight 84 minutes breathtakingly tense and nerve-wracking. Even if you know how it plays out at the airplane tarmac finale, after all the long build-up and the desperate rush to get there, it’s still a sublimely crushing thing to watch. “What’s the difference?” Devastating.
Kubrick occupies a lot of space going forward on this list, but by then we’re really into the “Stanley Kubrick movie” phase of things. I like The Killing because it gives a bit of a glimmer into his future awesome visual storytelling, but also is a very sound, very ’50s feeling crime flick, shot very quickly (allegedly 24 days), and of course starring future Gen. Ripper/Capt. McCluskey Hayden. It doesn’t have the grandeur or the extreme degree of difficulty that his later movies would, but it’s still incredibly impressive given the limitations he was operating under.
Film MVP is going to chess playing/bar brawling diversionary tactic Maurice, played by wrestler Kola Kwariani – a George “the Animal” Steele lookalike who kicks off the race track melee by having his shirt torn from his body, as per usual.
And the only new Two-Timer we’ve got (besides Kubrick in the directing wing for #245 Lolita) is#294 1941 alum Elisha Cook Jr.! Poor George!