Heist Gone Wrong (& Right): On Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956)

A stylized black-and-white shot of a gunman from Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing".

Rare is it that a heist film could yield success through failure. No, I am not talking about the film itself, as The Killing is a near-perfect suspense noir that in many ways transcends its genre, but rather that this perfectly plotted undertaking not only goes awry but still satisfies its viewers. Too often audiences are spoon-fed the suspense, wherein we witness the anti-hero tackle the battle through luck and cleverness, only to get away with it in the end. This, we’ve been trained to believe, is the only way to indulge an audience. Well, Kubrick killed all that with this film (no pun). Indeed, there is no grand sigh at the film’s end.

As his third full-length feature, Stanley Kubrick’s first two films contained varying degrees of quality that, despite their convention, were needed for him to achieve the tautness herein. Finishing at 84 minutes, with the use of perfunctory voiceover, the tone is unemotional, detached. (Rendered by radio announcer Art Gilmore, his voice is 180 from the later 1990s trailers that begin with, ‘In a world…’) Throughout, every move is plotted and carefully crafted. Roger Ebert noted this in his review and correlated the film’s intricacy with that of Kubrick’s chess ability. “The game of chess involves holding in your mind several alternate possibilities. The shifting of one piece can result in a radically different game,” Ebert says.

While the characters do serve as pieces that move the plot—their individuality is not so important given their archetypal nature. George is a gullible, dopey husband who is married to his manipulative, money-hungry wife Sherry who is engaging in an affair with a loser named Val. Johnny (Sterling Hayden) is the plan’s executor who remains steadfast and pugnacious when it suits him, and Nikki, who is paid five grand for rubbing out a horse from the sidelines, is a dope who resorts to racism before he too gets shot while seated within his sports car. We meet the other characters upon being told what their agreements are, and each learns his role as The Killing unfolds—careful deliberation and participation within every motive.

Based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White, one cannot help but wonder if Kubrick took a mediocre book and made it into a well-executed masterwork. (The Shining, anyone?) Given I have not read the novel, I cannot comment, but The Killing is not only a brilliant title but one that works on both the literal and literary levels. Rather, this is a film about controlled risk and those who wish to engage in it. After all, one can’t be a gambler if one doesn’t love risk, and those who frequent the tracks are most definitely not doing it because of their love of horses.

The character of Johnny, rendered by Sterling Hayden, is effective as Hayden himself who, despite moving cautiously and aggressively, carries his weapon in a large flower box. (Which James Cameron would later utilize in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.) When Johnny finally manages to obtain the money, the bills are treated haphazardly, as many fall to the side of the wide laundry bag. Later, when he stuffs the bills into a large suitcase, the same occurs. It’s as though the prize itself isn’t worth the care and caution of the execution—is it merely about the love of the chase or the love of the dollar bill? How does one operate amid $2 million in cash? Note the final scene at the airport and you will see what I mean.

Criterion is featuring what they call ‘50s Kubrick,’ which consists of four films—his final being his great early achievement, Paths of Glory. Kubrick was only 28 when he directed The Killing and yet this has all the hallmarks of a mature, coherent film. While it does not reach the great emotional depths of the Kirk Douglas classic, The Killing is a masterwork of form and storytelling, and does not, for a moment, hesitate. If you want a film with no fat—this is it. As Ebert eloquently notes, ‘The writing and editing are the keys to how this film never seems to be the deceptive assembly that it is, but appears to be proceeding on schedule, whatever that schedule is.’

Indeed, schedules. The characters punctually do make their time, albeit not always successfully. As example, Nikki proves himself a successful sharpshooter who only gets his demise shortly afterwards. Who are we rooting for, anyway? Should we even care? While I plan to review all four of Kubrick’s ’50s films, I watched The Killing one weekend when I needed something detachable and unemotional. This is not to imply I didn’t care—quite the contrary. Rather, I needed something intricate, and something to study. This, coupled with my love for film noir, deemed it the perfect film for this occasion.

As I noted in my review regarding Kubrick’s first two films, he had to undergo patchwork mediocrity to reach his later ability. Ironically, on the same day of my re-watching The Killing, I also re-watched the 1988 film Die Hard, which is a decently executed thriller with all the ostentatious special effects and annoying character quips. There is no real depth, only a handful of good exchanges, and the contrast between the two films exists within the intelligence—The Killing most certainly has dumb characters, but the mind behind them never deviates from skill. And because The Killing relies heavily on the unfolding of events over the internal doubts of any one character, this is what ranks this film as great, albeit within the noir genre.

The final scene is one to not go overlooked, as Johnny appears at the airport with his wife Fay, and upon not being allowed to carry his suitcase on the plane, he is forced to check it. It is as though we have been waiting for this moment—when the suitcase accidentally opens, and the bills fly about like lost black and white birds. Johnny can’t escape, as the police are onto him. When Fay tells him to run, he responds with, ‘What’s the difference?’ For once, he is without a plan and so he turns around, helpless. The men exit the building and the film ends before they approach him. Johnny, while no longer in control, still maintains his cool. Like losing a game of chess, he will inevitably be rethinking his moves while in jail (presumably) and wondering what he could have done better. Perhaps not booking a flight from California to Boston with the evidence in hand might be a good start.

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More from Jessica Schneider: Celebration of Failure: Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire” (1953) & “Killer’s Kiss” (1955), 12 Decisions, 1 Life: On Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” (1957)An Underrated Gem: On Frank Whaley’s “The Jimmy Show” (2001)