Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden of the precious bodily fluids) is the real criminal. He’s got a girl Fay (Coleen Gray), but he’s not going back to prison and he’s done with the small jobs. Policeman Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) needs cash to pay off his debts. He’s the one that gets the money away from the scene. Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) is a bookkeeper and the financier of the job. He doesn’t seem to have any problems except possibly being more fond of Johnny than was acceptable of the period. Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) is a bartender at the track and has a sick wife that requires a great deal of care. I’m not sure what his job is. George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) has a demanding wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) and some serious personal issues. He takes and pays the bets at the track. Sherry’s cheating with Val Cannon (Vince Edwards), a looker who toys with Sherry like she does with George. When Sherry finds out about the robbery, she comes to Val with the possibility of ripping off George’s share. It’s 12:15. Do you know where you are in the robbery?
The Killing (1956) is directed and written by Stanley Kubrick (though Jim Thompson writes the dialogue) based on the novel Clean Break (1955) by Lionel White. As for Thompson, he puts in some whoppers. “Come on, clown, sing us a song from Pagliacci.” Other lines are crammed to bursting with exposition or mobsterism. Maurice (Kola Kwariani), a hood hired for the job, rushes right past a lot of good stuff—probably the best in the movie—with a thick Russian accent and dubious skill. Windsor too gets a lot of the witty banter without really knowing what to do with it. So, all in all, it’s a pretty mess when it comes to dialogue.
The rest of the writing is also of questionable strength. I take it Kubrick and White are equally to blame for the narration. Oh, I haven’t mentioned the narration yet. That’s the “12:15” comment. The narrator brings us up to date with what’s happening with quasi-meticulousness. It is the focus of how this movie falls down. This is a robbery of independent moving parts where time is very important. Regular movie-goers will be very familiar with the phenomenon—Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Snake Eyes (1998), Snatch. (2000) are some examples. Here, there are two problems. First, the narrator tells us the time. Second, the timeline is juggled around. The two are linked.
The second problem first. In Snake Eyes, and the reason I like it so much, is that it plays out the storylines fully (and sometimes falsely) from a single point to a definite end point. Here, as I said, it’s juggled to keep the story going. But it also tries to play the same game by isolating certain character’s storylines (within the robbery) so that they weave together. It’s a great device, I think, where central characters play out their roles in the background of someone else’s story. But it’s not systematic in The Killing, it only plays out along Kubrick’s line of thought.
So, we’ve got a jumble with the glimmer of a cool device. But unless you’ve got your notepad out, they are of limited usefulness. An obvious alternative is to have a graphic either in bold or in a regular corner of the frame. I doubt it is only me who would find the visual cues more descriptive. I’m pretty sure the important race was run around four. It’s also just bad narration. “Mike O’Reilly was ready at 11:15. [Scene.] He reached the bus station at 11:29.” Others are more descriptive, like the one at the top of the movie:
At exactly 3:45 on that Saturday afternoon, in the last week of September, Marvin Unger was perhaps the only one among the hundred thousand people at the track that felt no emotion at the running of the fifth race. He was totally disinterested in horse racing and felt a life-long contempt for gambling. None the less, he had a five dollar win bet on every horse in the fifth race. He knew, of course, that this rather unique system of betting would more likely result in a loss, but he didn’t care. For, “After all,” he thought, “what would the loss of twenty or thirty dollars mean in comparison to the vast sum of money ultimately at stake?”
Presumably, this is the first paragraph of the novel. Whatever one’s taste in pulp crime novels, the style does not sound good in a movie. It certainly rings false in my ears. Especially when read by a voice out of Dragnet (1951). There are plenty of great things about the story. There’s irony, a solid underlying plot, and a well-organized ending. But that narration is just a killer. Much like in Blade Runner (1982) (though that movie is quite a bit grander in most every respect).
The performances leave much to be desired on the whole. Some, namely Hayden, Gray, and even Edwards (in a role where you wouldn’t expect much quality) are very good and pull off even the dumbest of lines. Elisha Cook has the most demanding part and makes much of it. However, because of the ‘highly acted’ way he plays it, a modern viewer (and I take myself to be one) probably wouldn’t call it objectively good or timeless. The three I named, however, do play their roles in that fashion. The second tier would be de Corsia, Cook, and Flippen. De Corsia is just given too much hard-boiled nonsense and Flippen plays drunk like he’s in vaudeville.
Why it rates an 8.1 on IMDB, I can’t rightly say. The portryal of violence is surprisingly gritty and there’s definitely a solid attempt at something good. It’s also a Kubrick movie and he’s got his fans like some (Tarantino an obvious example) who will support any Pepsi commercial the man directs. I see no auteur in this movie. I see no interesting film work. Consider that this is 1956 and by then Hitchcock had directed two movies that showed what you could do with a camera (both color and black and white). Yes, he did it with a third of the budget and without Grace Kelly, but a genius must do without. Kubrick went without, but he did not do.