I submit that even at this late date, with director Stanley Kubrick long parked near the top of the cinematic pantheon, that we’re allowed to watch at least the first 20 minutes of the first jewel in his crown, “The Killing,” thinking “this isn’t all that.”
Voice-over narration, the crutch of many a hack and the bane of “let the pictures tell the story” guys like Kubrick, over-explains and dumbs down the movie to an almost irredeemable degree. It was added over Kubrick’s objections.
The tropes of many a gangster movie and heist picture — “assembling the team” (a collection of heavies), machine gun in a violin case and later tucked into a delivery box of long-stemmed roses — are trotted out. It’s only on reflection that we wonder if Kubrick wasn’t the first to think of the flower box bit, and other touches, way back in 1955.
The folding-in of second unit racetrack and stock footage isn’t seamlessly handled and the multiple points-of-view versions of the heist — a $2 million robbery at a California horse track — has a clumsiness about it that others (Tarantino in “Reservoir Dogs”) managed to improve on.
But about 20 minutes in, when race track cashier George, played by the iconic “little man” of many a crime drama Elisha Cook Jr. gets slapped around because his greedy, unfaithful wife (Marie Windsor) has been caught eavesdropping on the gang’s plans, “The Killing” takes off, pulls us in and earns its reputation as an inspiration to generations and the landmark thriller it is seen as today.
Classic films are always overwhelmed by their legend and the details-cluttered back-story of how they got made. Skipping over all that, ignoring the whole Rodney Dangerfield “cameo” in the brawl scene and the first of Kubrick’s uses of actor Joe Turkel, the simple evidence of what’s on the screen still holds the eye and fires the imagination.
Casting a genuine he-man among Hollywood’s “movie stars,” Sterling Hayden, pays the flintiest of dividends. As Johnny, fresh out of Alcatraz, he’s believably pitiless about abusing men in the gang, and women, and plotting a heist that depends on a strongman chess player he knows (Kola Kwariani) busting up a bar and getting arrested and an ex-military sniper (Timothy Carey, superb) killing a prized racehorse to throw a race’s results into turmoil and buy the time necessary to empty the safe in the cash counting room.
Kubrick populated his picture with mugs straight out of Hollywood’s “hard boiled” character actor collection — “faces” like Jay C. Flippen, Cooke and Ted de Corsia (playing a crooked cop).
The women (Windsor and Colleen Gray as Johnny’s “girl”) are merely stock “types,” but leave impressions.
And the heist itself, with a couple of track insiders in on the deal, a lot of moving parts dependent on precise timing, is still a clockwork marvel, even if it doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny.
I mean, even in 1955 a hulking tough (Hayden) seen toting a violin case would raise a “made man” eyebrow. Your Turturro-vulpine sharpshooter is the most conspicuous guy at the track, driving a two-tone MG-TD roadster with a showy Jaguar hood-ornament, and doing the shooting from the seat of the roadster. Let’s not fret too much over that “omnipotent” shotgun wielded by rival robber Vince Edwards.
And $2 million in mostly $10 and $20 bills? That would weigh over 500 pounds. Your strong-man starting the bar fight would have been the only one with a prayer of toting it, with or without the battered suitcase Johnny deems appropriate to hold the loot.
But the harsh, ugly exteriors and low-light interiors and brooding shadows in screen veteran Lucien Ballard’s cinematography (“True Grit,” “The Wild Bunch,” “The Getaway”) set the tone.
Lapdogs as foreshadowing, a femme fatale, “nobody knows what anybody else” has to do with their scheme, a little moment of cross-racial understanding in the track parking lot (James Edwards plays the attendant) that will be Nikki the shooter’s undoing — for an 85 minute genre picture that United Artists basically abandoned, there’s a lot to chew on here.
That’s what’s always been the great appeal of burrowing into The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (the first book of film criticism and scholarship I ever bought, followed by Alexander Walker’s Kubrick tome). There’s minutia here, details that have long attracted chess obsessives, literary deconstructionists, coin, stamp or comic book collection “completists” and the like.
The movies may have their miscalculations and flaws, like the cinema of Welles, Ford, Bigelow and Lee. But taken as a whole, they’re an insight into an artist’s thought processes and obsessions, even the misfires.
I used to think Kubrick was a filmmaker film fans matured out of, like heavy metal, Marvel comics or a devotion to the works of Ayn Rand. OK, I still think that to some degree.
But his classic films are aging better than most, even the weakest links are worth knowing, inside-and-out, because of all the filmmakers who followed who imitate him, worship him and, as artists, pound the same nail, over and over again.
MPA Rating: Approved
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Maureen Windsor, Colleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Timothy Carey, Jay C. Flippen, Kola Kwariani, Ted de Corsia, Joe Turkel and Elisha Cook Jr.
Credits: Directed by Stanley Kubrick, script by Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson, based on a novel by Lionel White.
Running time: 1:25