The Killing (1956)
Film noir done right by a director who never did film noir again.
The Killing is about a guy who gets out of jail after putting in some serious time at Alcatraz and gathers up his trusty team of lowlife sonsabitches to pull off one last heist at a horse track so that he can split town for good and live the good life with his gal ’til their dying days. But since heists rarely end up being the flawless operations that one hopes they would be (going off of personal experience here), our mastermind of the hour finds himself struggling to stay afloat in a bloody mess that’s rapidly spiraling down the shitter.
Alrighty then. So he made a couple pet projects in the years leading up to good ol’ ’56, but this here was Stanley Kubrick’s big Hollywood feature debut. Didn’t make much of splash at the box office and its claim to fame these days probably stems from the legendary career Kubrick made for himself along with having Quentin Tarantino cite this bad boy as a major influence on Reservoir Dogs, but make no mistake, this is some pure, old school gangster goodness that should have gotten more respect back in the day and holds up damn well over 50 years later.
From a directorial standpoint, Kubrick gets it done. It doesn’t have the same kind of polish as something like 2001 or even his follow-up to this, Paths of Glory, but it looks the way you’d think an early Kubrick effort would look, and that, folks, is a good thing. But the biggest strength Kubrick has going for him is the script he co-wrote with pulp fiction novelist Jim Thompson. The extent of my Jim Thompson knowledge starts and ends with the film adaptation of his book The Killer Inside Me, and as outrageously effed up as that movie was, the writing was out of sight and the same is true in The Killing. Only this isn’t very effed up, I’d say it’s just a teeny bit effed up.
It’s a story about bad dudes doing bad shit with zero remorse and they all call women “broads” or “dames” like the James Cagney fans they are. Awesome. It’s stone cold, dirty stuff filled with the toughest guys in town and the most emasculating woman on the planet who’s married to the most pathetic guy in the universe, and that’s exactly the kind of movie I always want to see.
And while the dialogue, the characters and the story are all good and dandy, the non-linear way in which the plot unfolds as it revisits the same scenes from the various viewpoints of everyone involved might be the most lasting effect. Like I said, it’s very Tarantino (or Tarantino is very it), it’s a stellar way to connect the audience to a whole slew of different characters equally, and though it might seem like a knockoff approach these days, it was brand spankin’ new back then.
But even if 99% of the script was garbage, it would still be a winner if only for Sterling Hayden’s final line. Loved that “Eh, fuck it” attitude of his that sends the movie out on this perfect, dire note. Was not expecting it whatsoever, but could not have imagined a better ending.
Except for that lady at the airport and her stupid-freakin’-mutt. If Sterling turned around and whaled on those two, that would have been a better ending.
And let’s just get to Sterling Hayden already. He’s one cool mother effer as seasoned crook Johnny Clay (what a name), he was one cool mother effer in general and I feel like a jackass for just coming to that realization over the past few weeks. Dude had some serious presence, one hell of a jawline and it’s too bad he apparently hated acting enough not to take more roles because he was a great leading man. But Timothy Carey (did that guy have lockjaw or something?) is good as the hired gun of the job, Elisha Cook, Jr. is good as the infuriatingly pathetic weak link of the gang, and Marie Windsor is good as Cook’s two-timing, ball-crushing wife. Good cast all around actually.
Debut or not, The Killing is a really good, really badass movie that deserves to be regarded with some of Kubrick’s best. The heist isn’t on the level with Heat and the occasional pacing lulls are noticable, but for something that was made over half-a-Century ago, I admit, these are stupid complaints. If film noirs were still made like this, I don’t think they ever would have gone out of style.