The Killing (1956)
03/23/2016 - The first film by Stanley Kubrick with a professional cast, and the one he considered his first "mature" feature, The Killing is almost impossible to review without reflection or reference to the rest of Kubrick's catalog. He is undeniably a master of cinema; each of his films is marked by his proficiency in technique and expression. Yes, I'm biased and I'm not afraid to admit it. After doing some Google-Fu, I've confirmed my suspicions: many reviews of The Killing lavish unrelenting praise and unbridled analysis because, hey, it's Kubrick. I'd like to avoid that, but I'll surely fail; I think Ebert said best in his review, so I'll just quote him here:
Shot in beautiful, high-contrast black and white, The Killing is a heist film about, well, a heist. It's somewhat unique in that it doesn't spell out the plan completely until you're watching it happen, and it is further complicated because the execution of that plan happens on-screen several times, each time from a different perspective: a non-linear narrative. Tarantino has claimed this film as an inspiration for his own directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs, and one can safely implicate The Killing for other influences as well - a scene from Nolan's The Dark Knight comes to mind, for example. The question, however, remains: is The Killing on-par with other, surely more well-known, Kubrick masterpieces?
Stanley Kubrick and producer James B. Harris (beginning a partnership that would last nearly a decade) acquired the rights to the novel Clean Break by Lionel White, having found it while searching for a story to tell together. They were particularly drawn to the non-linear framework of the book, a device they wanted to use in the film. Jim Thompson, a novelist well-known for his own use of unique storytelling structures, was brought in to help adapt the book into a screenplay (Thompson was later appalled to have been credited only with "dialogue"). Kubrick had planned to photograph it himself, but doing so was not allowed by the cinematographer's union, so Lucien Ballard was brought on as director of photography. Ballard and the then-unknown director reportedly did not get along well, and Kubrick threatened to fire the photographer on at least one occasion of disobedience.
Sterling Hayden leads the cast as Johnny Clay, a tough ex-con and mastermind behind the heist. Hayden plays the part well, tough and withdrawn, cold and precise. Other members of the cast were popular figures in heist and noir films, although they are largely unknown to me. There are some standout performances: Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty, the unhappy and high-maintenance wife; Elisha Cook as George Peatty, the timid and desperate husband; Timothy Carey as Nikki Arcane, the sharpshooting recluse. It's an ensemble cast of character types, mostly because heist films lend themselves to such things. No one is meant to stand out, but each is expected to pull his or her weight in order for the whole thing to work.
Kubrick was a fan of chess, he'd developed a fondness for the game at an early age. Although I'm far from the first to suggest this, I'll happily concede that The Killing goes a bit out of its way to exhort a particular idea: the delicate strategy and forethought necessary in chess are also smartly applied when pulling off a grand heist. Even in its non-linear structure, the plot is thoroughly detailed in its precision; like the inner workings of a clock, one wonders how it was ever thought up in the first place. The architects of such a plan would have had to think of everything, every variable, every possible misstep that might need to be corrected. In watching the plan unfold, you eventually sort of give up trying to understand the bigger picture; what must happen will happen, whether or not you are ready for it. The Killing becomes a jigsaw puzzle you may or may not be able to assemble, but one you trust will unify as its makers intended.
Without giving anything away (because you've no option but to see this for yourself), it's true that even the greatest masters of chess cannot predict their potential obstacles ad infinitum. In The Killing, it is only human errors in reasoning that become stumbling blocks - the untrustworthy decisions of men and women in desperate need. Each player here has their motivation for involvement, as none of them are wanting only to be richer: each one has a pain or a fear which begs for resolve, and a quick and hearty payday is the obvious solution. This unpredictability is not unknown to Johnny Clay, he makes every attempt to avoid it from the start. In fact, one might assume Clay's own bit of narcissism is a result of knowing firsthand what trust pays. By the end it's all ferociously ironic and darkly funny, but less a word of warning than a commentary on the human experience.
I really cannot answer Ebert's question. There's a theme here, but it's a theme that should ultimately ground every good story, not just those told by Kubrick. There's a style and a look and a feel, but it's no more or less "Kubrick" than any other of his films. It is a great heist film, although not the most fun and certainly not the easiest to follow: is that good, or bad? It is not a film I immediately associate with Stanley Kubrick, although each time I've watched it I've found more reason to appreciate it: is that an objective observation, or a subjective one?
I absolutely do recommend watching this movie, and it deserves a place on your shelf. It is, if nothing else, essential to understanding the journey and the work of Stanley Kubrick. It is the first (in many ways, at least) from the mind of a genius, whose impact on the world, on art, and on film could not possibly be understated. The Killing dives deeper than expected and reveals more with each visit, an energetic and determined debut from a master of the form.