Stanley Kubrick's “The Killing” happened almost by accident. The director struck up a friendship with James B. Harris over chess. The two would form a production company together. Legend had it that the team, originally, wanted to adapt “The Snatchers” by Lionel White. However, censorship at the team prevented a film about kidnapping from being made. As a last minute replacement, Kubrick and Harris decided to adapt another White novel, “Clean Break.” Kubrick butted heads with United Artist, the film's distributor, who feared the film was too confusing and didn't star a big enough name. Out of adversity emerges greatness. “The Killing” was the director's breakthrough film.
A quartet of men plan a daring daytime heist. Johnny orchestrates a scheme to steal two million dollars from a race track. It's an inside job, the teller and bartenders helping to carry out the plan. A horse will be shot on the track and a wrestler will start a fight in the bar, helping to distract the cops. One of those cops is also part of the deal. The heist goes off with only a few problems, the thieves grabbing the money and making it out of the race track. However, there are outside factors to consider. The teller's wife becomes privy to the plan, disrupting things. Fate will have its say too.
“Killer's Kiss” was Kubrick's first experiment with film noir. That movie had the look but dialed back on the genre's typically cynical worldview. “The Killer” functions in the other direction. Most of the movie is set in daylight, leaving fewer opportunities for stylish, urban shadows. (Though Kubrick still sneaks in some.) “The Killing's” opinion on humanity, however, is black as pitch. It's a movie about thieves, scoundrels, liars, and killers. The lives of animals or other humans mean little to them. The only reason the men have to trust each other is their mutual greed. Love between husband and wife is no guarantee. Betrayal is commonplace. Violence is intense. When a man attempts to reach out in friendship, he's greeted with a racial slur. In short: The world of “The Killing” is not a nice one.
Kubrick's visual design, already strong in “Killer's Kiss,” makes another huge leap forward in “The Killing.” The contrast between stillness and movement seen is further emphasized here. There are long scenes in “The Killing” devoted to people having tense conversations. Kubrick will film the talks in a wider take, showing everyone sitting at a table. These stiller moments are broken up with smooth transitional shots, the camera rolling towards the door of an apartment. Another of the director's trademarks – the Kubrick stare – appears in an embryonic form here. We see a dying man, his face spotted with bullet wounds, glare in a shadowy corner of a room. Proceeding that moment is an impressive point-of-view shot, tracking the same injured man as he walks through a room littered with dead bodies. Added to this already impressive visual mix are some noir-ish shadows, a lone lamp punctuating the darkness of a seedy room or a parrot chirping in a shaded nook.
During pre-production, Stanley Kubrick wrote an outline of “The Killing.” He then passed the outline to veteran crime writer Jim Thompson. Thompson fleshed out the characters and the dialogue, further contributing to the film's hard-boiled atmosphere. The film's memorable dialogue is obviously the work of Thompson. There's a number of quotable lines in “The Killing.” When Johnny meets a snooping Sherry, he threatens to put her head in her hands. She counters by saying it would look better “on his shoulder.” A minute later, he tells her she has “a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart.” The dirty cop is called “a funny kind of cop.” The opera “Pagiliacci” is memorably referenced at one point. It's not exactly realistic but the stylized dialogue is undeniably unforgettable.
At least, it does in all but one scene. As part of the set-up, Johnny hires Maurice, a former professional wrestler, to start a bar fight as a distraction. That fight scene is surprisingly theatrical. Maurice knocks people across the bar. Several flips are performed on the security cops, moves that wouldn't look out of place on the wrestling mat. Maurice even gets his shirt ripped off, in a moment that borders the absurd. On one hand, a fist fight this elaborate probably doesn't belong in a grounded, gritty film like “The Killing.” Yet it's such a striking sequence. Kubrick's direction is fierce, getting right into the action as blows are traded and men topple.
Sterling Hayden was the star that United Artist argued wasn't a big enough name to carry “The Killing.” Whatever his box office value, Hayden's performance is an excellent one. He plays Johnny as a hardened man with his eyes on the prize. Hayden brings a fantastic threatening power to several of his scene. Most notably, in the scene where he sticks up the race track tellers, his stern voice coming from behind a rubber hobo mask. Johnny is a hardened crook but the film attempts to humanize the character by giving him a girlfriend. Colleen Gray as Fay gets second billing and is charming enough. Despite this, she only appears in the beginning and ending scene. I honestly forgot about her by the time she reappeared. The character isn't distracting but is unnecessary. Johnny doesn't apologize for his criminal ways and neither should the movie.
The rest of the cast is solid too. Joe Sawyer plays Mike, the bartender. Mike is a sympathetic character too, caring for a bed-ridden sick wife. He also considers leaving the heist behind, in a scene where he asks Johnny if they should run off together. (Feel free to read into the romantic possibilities of that statement.) Sawyer has an everyman quality, seeming like a normal guy dragged into something frightening. Ted de Corsia as Randy, the dirty cop, is less sympathetic. De Corsia effectively cuts the shape of a scumbag. Kola Kwariani plays the wrestler, which is fitting since Kwariani was a pro-wrestler in real life. Interestingly, Kwariani actually gives off an intellectual vibe in his few scenes. Lastly, Timothy Carey is suitably sleazy as the lying, racist sharpshooter. Having Carey hold a puppy, before marching off to kill a horse, was an interesting choice.
Another tantalizing element of “The Killers” is the role luck plays in the story. In any story where a criminal plan is explained to the audience, you expect it to go wrong. It wouldn't make for a very interesting film is everything went according to plan. Yet the monkey wrenches “The Killers” throw around are especially random. Nobody could have prepared for Sherry's treachery in the last act. Bad traffic leads to Johnny arriving a few minutes too late to make a difference. The stolen money is revealed after falling off a cart at the airport, a random act no one could've prepared. Kubrick hints at this early on. A discarded horseshoe becomes a symbol of inverse luck, piercing a tire and leading to a death. This makes bad luck a theme of “The Killing,” showing how even the best laid plans can't compensate for arbitrary chance.