As with the proto-New Wave French gangster epics of the period, the heist's the thing in this early Kubrick film
Reviewed by Wells Dunbar, Fri., Aug. 19, 2011
The KillingCriterion Collection, $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)
"Everything else runs on a timetable – then the timetable breaks down." Those words near the end of The Killing, Stanley Kubrick's 1956 noir, describe the disintegration of the painstakingly plotted racetrack heist that the film centers around. But it also describes Kubrick's aggressive, counterintuitive editing and sequencing choices that keep viewers off balance.
As with the proto-New Wave French gangster epics of the period, the heist's the thing. But unlike Bob le Flambeur or Rififi, both of which methodically walk viewers through the mechanics of a robbery for reels at a time, The Killing careens back and forth between points on a timeline, reorganizing the heist's components – a bar brawl staged to distract security, the execution of a racehorse, and the actual stickup – to elicit maximum cringing. Besides the obvious debts owed to it by the nonlinear, post-Tarantino school, the film also marks a turning point for Kubrick himself, as his first major production after the comparatively straightforward Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss (the latter also bundled as a second disc on this characteristically sumptuous Criterion reissue). Tension is also ratcheted up by the constrast between Kubrick's photojournalism-informed documentary footage of the racetrack and the fourth-wall-collapsing narration accompanying the film. The effect, noted in a Criterion-commissioned essay by Haden Guest, parallels the motions of characters to the race announcements humming throughout the film's final stretch: man as animal, shuffled around a track by capricious forces barely glimpsed, a telling foreshadowing of Kubrick's austere assessment of humanity.
Between the inventive pacing, camerawork, and inky, single-source lighting, you can lose track of the performances propelling The Killing. Dominated by Sterling Hayden's breathless delivery (that stick-straight demeanor would be channeled into pitch-black comedy eight years later in Dr. Strangelove), the assorted heist archetypes are all subtly shaded: the aging thief going for one last score, the crooked cop, the weaselly specialist, and the femme fatale (a head-turning Marie Windsor). But every trope Kubrick inserts is one he masterfully subverts throughout The Killing's race to its thrilling, emptying denouement.