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"At exactly 3:45 on that Saturday afternoon in the last week of September..."
Sometimes, genius can consist of walking a wholly original artistic path, while playing the usual business games straight as an arrow. Stanley Kubrick was truly the rising star of the 1950s. Across just five films and seven years he progressed from amateur outsider to directing of one of Hollywood's biggest epics. The young New Yorker was a professional photographer with a few shorts to his name when he made his self-funded Fear and Desire, an almost one-man production. He persevered with Killer's Kiss, a sketchy noir tale short on dialogue and story but loaded with expressive images in gritty B&W.
Kubrick next teamed with producer James B. Harris on The Killing, a conceptually ambitious caper film with direct ties to the hardboiled pulp fiction of the day. They hired novelist Jim Thompson to adapt a book by Lionel White. Instead of intercutting the parallel action threads in the big racetrack robbery, White's narrative conceit was to present each crook's part in the crime one at a time, consecutively. Writer Thompson had tried out similar narrative experiments in his drugstore crime novels. His The Kill-Off changes its first-person narrator with each chapter. Hell of a Woman expresses the main character's psychosis by offering two contrasting final chapters in one, written in alternating lines of type, one standard and one italicized.
Kubrick and Harris were committed to making a bold artistic statement with White's eccentric narrative structure. When United Artists would only front them $200,000, Harris found additional funds from other sources. This do-or-die creative attitude distinguishes The Killing from other low-end United Artists films of the time, some of which look as if their producers pocketed much of the distributor's advance. Kubrick hired a cast of crime-film pros is led by Sterling Hayden of The Asphalt Jungle, Marie Windsor of Force of Evil and The Narrow Margin and Elisha Cook Jr., who appeared in more noir classics than anybody. James B. Harris brought in the relative newcomer Vince Edwards. Filming took place on the west coast, because no east-coast horse track would cooperate with the production.
The first fully realized Stanley Kubrick film, The Killing introduces his frequent theme of man's best intentions going to ruin. Habitual thief Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) gathers several pro criminals to pull off a major racetrack heist. Each has a pressing need for money. Corrupt Cop Randy Kennan (Ted De Corsia) has gambling debts, while track bartender Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer) wants to make life more comfortable for his ailing wife. Track cashier George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) needs the cash to hold onto his greedy wife Sherry (Marie Windsor). Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) contributes the seed money; he wants only to have Johnny as a friend. Massive Russian wrestler Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani) and psychotic sharpshooter Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey) are hired to create diversions during the holdup. Johnny is determined to beat the odds and escape with his loyal girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray).
The robbery is a carefully timed and coordinated series of actions, with each member of the team acting independently. This is where the intricate repeat-time narrative conceit comes into play. We see the robbery from the point of view of each individual thief, one after another. The start of the 7th race recurs every time the clock is turned back. This fragmenting of time into parallel slices attracted instant critical attention to The Killing; it's the first really daring experiment in cinematic time since Preston Sturges' overlapping flashbacks in 1933's The Power and the Glory.
"I know you like a book. You're a no-good, nosy little tramp -- you'd sell out your own mother for a piece of fudge, but you're smart along with it."
Human ambition in Kubrick films tends to be thwarted by exotic means, as with the Doomsday Device in Doctor Strangelove and the neurotic computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fly in the ointment of Johnny Clay's perfect crime is appropriately enough a classic femme fatale. Sherry Peatty badgers and humiliates her hangdog husband George to learn more about the robbery. She then sets a double-cross in motion by alerting her lover, small-time crook Val Cannon (Vince Edwards).
Sterling Hayden proves himself the master of Jim Thompson's elaborate hardboiled speeches, as when he assures Timothy Carey's weird-o gun nut Nikki Arcane that shooting a racing horse isn't a capital offense: "You'd be killing a horse. That's not first degree murder, in fact it's not murder at all, in fact I don't know what it is". Marie Windsor seems born to deliver Thompson's elaborate put-downs. Sherry bats her eyes and unloads sardonic insults faster than her husband can comprehend them: "You've never been a liar, George. You don't have enough imagination to lie."
The Killing is frequently interrupted by narration that tells us what day and time it is, adding ironic details about the characters that hint that the robbery will end in disaster. These announcements become absurd when the film's time sequence folds back on itself, and the narrator begins a new blurb by informing us that it's suddenly three hours earlier. Unforeseeable missteps crop up to highlight the fragility of the plan. To keep his appointment at the track, patrolman Randy Kennan ignores a citizen calling frantically for his help, and drives away. Marvin Unger gets drunk and shows up at the racetrack bar at the wrong time. At the racetrack, a sympathetic parking lot attendant (James Edwards) befriends Nikki Arcane, preventing him from preparing his sniper position. Johnny Clay improvises beautifully when things go awry, but the accumulation of little details and mistakes becomes almost unbearably suspenseful. Kubrick's vision of the workings of a merciless fate proves wholly compatible with film noir.
Kubrick's career rolled forward like a snowball, picking up the optimum new elements. With The Killing Stanley Kubrick found a worthy producing partner, and for their next film Paths of Glory they gained the backing of a bankable star, Kirk Douglas. When producer Douglas fired Anthony Mann from his costume epic Spartacus, the direction of the enormous super-production fell into Stanley Kubrick's lap. Each film represents an exponential leap upward in quality, achievement and professional visibility.
Arrow Academy's Region B Blu-ray of The Killing is the same immaculate transfer seen on the Criterion BD from 2011 (but note the new MGM Home Video logo, which zooms out from the Lion's eye). The 1:66 picture is clean, sharp and stable with its granularity intact. Lucien Ballard carries out Kubrick's raw lighting schemes; Gerald Fried's frantic music score pounds out a beat on the clear soundtrack.
As did the Criterion disc, the presentation includes an entire second feature, an HD transfer of Kubrick's previous thriller Killer's Kiss. A boxer (Jamie Smith) and a dance hall girl (Irene Kane) are threatened by a gangster (Frank Silvera, repeating from Kubrick's Fear and Desire). Kubrick's voiceovers are awkward but he keeps the screen alive with his Weegee-like cinematography of New York. He also finds space for a sidebar sequence with a ballerina played by his wife, artist Ruth Sobotka. One brief shot cruising down a canyon-like New York street is printed as an inverted negative. With the buildings moving in perspective, the experimental image suggests the Star Gate of 2001. The film is transferred flat full frame, but I zoomed the picture up to about 1:66 and the framing looks correct, even around the main title text blocks.
"Where's George? Where's the jerk?"
Although the Criterion disc certainly suffices for U.S. Region A fans, Kubrick fanatics will be interested in Arrow's extras. French critic and Kubrick biographer Michel Ciment gives a lengthy speech about the director's career and individual films of the 1950s. He speaks in English and comes off as very personable -- it's nice to see the face of a man I've been reading since film school. English filmmaker Ben Wheatley also supplies an interview-based video featurette. Two trailers are included, the familiar beat-up one from The Killing and a fragment of a trailer for Killer's Kiss. The beginning and ending visuals are missing, leaving us with an audio track that plays over black.
The 'killer' extra is a French interview with Sterling Hayden from a 1970 TV show called Journal de la cinéma. It's terrific. A French interviewer questions Hayden half in French, half in English while Hayden, in long beard and no shirt, putters around on a barge on the Seine! Hayden talks about parachuting into Yugoslavia (that's where he learned French), getting into the movies, shows he likes (The Asphalt Jungle) and one he for some reason doesn't, Johnny Guitar. Near the end Hayden discusses his anti-war activism, and how one of his sons may go to jail for burning his draft card. And this from a former Marine commando and OSS espionage operative. What a guy -- every piece of interview film on Sterling Hayden is sacred, as far as I am concerned.
Arrow's colorful souvenir booklet has an early career essay by Peter Krämer, a Barry Forshaw article on author Lionel White and an appreciation of Killer's Kiss by Ron Peck. After paragraph three or four, Peck is into almost all-new information on the show. A collection of contemporary review excerpts follows. Gavin Lambert's sole notice in The Monthly Film Bulletin was almost the only review Killer's Kiss received in England. Time immediately likens Kubrick to Orson Welles.
The English subtitle track spells out actor Kola Kwariani's mostly indecipherable dialogue in the chess club scene. Kwariani delivers a pretentious author's message about the artist and conformism. The Killing is a compact, artful masterpiece of thieves caught in a mechanical trap of their own making.
Arrow's disc and booklet producer is Anthony Nield.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.