The Killing

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Stanley Kubrick

REVIEWED: 03-15-99

This early effort from the late Stanley Kubrick is a caper film about a racetrack heist in which each member of the heist team has a specific role to play, and all the roles have to be executed in exact synchronization with each other for the operation to work. Johnny Clay (Hayden), an ex-con, is the brains of the gang, rounding up a crew of non-criminals to pull off the job and split the money. The flashback is a familiar device in film noir and crime dramas; however, The Killing uses multiple flashbacks to show the role of each member (as Resevoir Dogs would later on) as the clock counts down to the crucial moment when all the winnings are in the counting room and Johnny bursts in wielding a shotgun. A shot of draught horses pulling the starting gate into position is used again and again as a time reference to illustrate how each member of the crew does his job, eventually fitting all the pieces together like a puzzle. The plan begins to fall apart, however, when Sherry Peatty (Windsor), wife of the browbeaten teller, spills the beans to her boyfriend Vic (Edwards), and he comes to the rendezvous point with his henchmen to make off with the loot and a shootout ensues. Though the movie is based on the novel Clean Break, by Lionel White, the credits read "Dialogue by Jim Thompson," and the plot certainly bears all the fatalistic earmarks of one of Thompson's novels; a ragged cast of antihero misfits who are eventually brought down by their own avarice. Kubrick's camerawork was well on the way to finding the fluid style of his later work, and the sparse, low-budget circumstances give the film a raw, urgent sort of look. As good as the story and direction are, though, the true strength of The Killing lies in the characters and characterizations. Timothy Carey plays Nikki, the weird, stoned-acting, near-beatnik sniper hired to shoot a horse during the race as a diversion; Elisha Cook Jr. uses his slightly bug-eyed, hangdog mien to great advantage as the timid teller George Peatty; Kola Kwarian is the intellectual, chess-playing wrestler who starts a riot; Sterling Hayden is at his flinty best as the ringleader of the group. Marie Windsor is purely treacherous, tempting, traitorous trouble (all with a capital "T") as Sherry Peatty (according to Marie, Kubrick saw her performance in The Narrow Margin and said, "That's my Sherry"). James Ellroy said, "perfectly planned heists go bad because daring heist men are self-destructive losers playing out their parts in a preordained endgame with authority." 'Nuff said.

--Mike Emery

Other Films by Stanley Kubrick
A Clockwork Orange
Dr. Strangelove
Eyes Wide Shut
Paths of Glory
The Shining

Film Vault Suggested Links
Double Indemnity
Mulholland Falls
Touch of Evil

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