I first saw The Killing when I was in high school. I had a great video store and one of the employees–lots of the employees were film school students–recommended the film to me, raving about Kubrick’s use of fractured narrative. He didn’t call it a fractured narrative, I don’t remember what he called it, maybe he just described it; I rented it and watched it and loved it. In some ways, it’s the most lovable of Kubrick’s films because it’s so good and requires so little from the viewer. Years later–I learned Kubrick didn’t come up with the fractured narrative. The source novel had it and he liked the structure.
The heist scene, where The Killing (seemingly–did anyone else use a fractured structure to elucidate a heist before this film?) sets such a precedent, comes after the film’s already wowed. The heist scene, beautifully paced, exquisitely directed (I love the way the camera moves at the bus station, with Kubrick using camera movement akin to sentence or paragraph structure), is a blast. Like all good heist scenes, it’s all about the precision and The Killing doesn’t disappoint. It’s a great heist scene–maybe not the best ever (it gets a tad long as Sterling Hayden gets ready in the locker room), but the best stuff in The Killing isn’t the heist. It’s Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor.
Oh, there’s some other great stuff in the film. Coleen Gray as Hayden’s crestfallen fiancée–with The Killing, Kubrick gives a lot more time to characters than he usually does. It’s a large cast with people having different levels of involvement in the story overall, but the texture of the characters–look at the relationship between James Edwards and Timothy Carey. It takes up maybe four minutes of screen time but it’s exceptional; it has its own arc. Or Jay C. Flippen’s–unspoken–melancholia. It’s all just so amazing, because it’s so un-Kubrick. The Killing runs less than ninety minutes and it’s boiling over with material.
But Cook and Windsor… their relationship–their scenes together–is amazing. Windsor’s performance is spectacular, because she infuses it with such intelligence and evil, but is also able to make the viewer believe other people can buy it when she’s acting coy. Cook’s got the film’s best role and he gives the performance of his career–and Kubrick seems to know it. The Killing‘s got great sound design, both at the race track during the fractured heist scene, but also during the conversations between Cook and Windsor (Jim Thompson’s dialogue is fantastic). Kubrick holds the camera on Cook, letting him go through a whole range of emotions and thoughts in just thirty or forty seconds. It’s a brilliant moment of cinema.
Then the heist goes on too long and the film starts to slip a little.
Kubrick brings it all back together at the end though, as he infuses an action-oriented sequence with the characters’ unspoken misery. It’s a great big downer, but it’s such a beautifully made film–and it’s near impossible to truly identify with any of the characters outside of enjoying their actions–it works.
Hayden’s great, Ted de Corsia’s good, Joe Sawyer’s good. Gray’s very good in the few minutes she has of screen time. Kola Kwariani’s hilarious in a smaller part. He’s got these great monologues and, with his thick Russian accent, it’s hard to understand what he’s saying, but he’s foreshadowing the entire story for the viewer.
It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick and Jim Thompson, based on a novel by Lionel White; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Betty Steinberg; music by Gerald Fried; produced by James B. Harris; released by United Artists.
Starring Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay), Coleen Gray (Fay), Vince Edwards (Val Cannon), Jay C. Flippen (Marvin Unger), Elisha Cook Jr. (George Peatty), Marie Windsor (Sherry Peatty), Ted de Corsia (Policeman Randy Kennan), Joe Sawyer (Mike O’Reilly), James Edwards (Track Parking Attendant), Timothy Carey (Nikki Arcane), Joe Turkel (Tiny), Jay Adler (Leo the Loanshark), Kola Kwariani (Maurice Oboukhoff), Tito Vuolo (Joe Piano) and Dorothy Adams (Mrs. Ruthie O’Reilly).