This picture looks as modern and radical as anything from Italy in the 1960s, yet it’s a tough-talking take on hardboiled crime caper fiction. In three pictures Stanley Kubrick went from amateur to contender: now he has a like-minded producer, a top-flight cast, and the help of the legendary pulp author Jim Thompson. Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr., Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards peg the cynical film noir style, and Kubrick maintains the source book’s splintered chronology for the tense racetrack heist. All Hollywood took notice — at least that part of the industry looking out for daring, progressive storytelling. Now in 4K, Kubrick’s superb B&W images look better than ever.
4K Ultra HD
KL Studio Classics
1956 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 84 min. / Street Date July 26, 2022 / available through Kino Lorber / 39.95
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr., Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, Joe Sawyer, James Edwards, Timothy Carey, Kola Kwariani, Jay Adler, Tito Vuolo, Dorothy Adams, Joe Turkel.
Narration: Art Gilmore
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Director: Ruth Sobotka
Film Editor: Betty Steinberg
Original Music: Gerald Fried
Written by Stanley Kubrick from the book Clean Break by Lionel White
Dialogue by Jim Thompson
Produced by James B. Harris
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Some movies do indeed deliver ‘diamond bullet to the brain’ moments that expand what cinema can do. This show soon crosses the boundary from standard filmmaking to something revelatory. It comes with a standard stentorian narrator, whose frequent interruptions are VERY important:
“At exactly 3:45 on that Saturday afternoon in the last week of September…”
We remember first seeing this picture at the old Beverly Canon theater in Beverly Hills, sometime around 1973. Following the basic story wasn’t too difficult until the actual crime caper began to unspool … a point at which time became un-glued. We’re now accustomed to trick narrative structures that jump about in time and space. One excellent example plays ‘reality’ in reverse. The notion is now so familiar that it can become tiresome … how many limp permutations of the wonderful Groundhog Day are really needed?
1956 was very early for disorienting narrative games. Remember, this was when Alfred Hitchcock decided he needed to put 7th-inning pauses in his thrillers, to re-cap the story for what was presumed to be an inattentive audience. When the time sequence began shifting during the heist, many viewers must have been completely lost. We’re told that United Artists asked Stanley Kubrick and his producer James B. Harris to put the scenes back into chronological order. Leaving them as they were made film history.
‘Genius’ director Stanley Kubrick was engineering a brilliant career ascent. Across just five films and seven years he progressed from amateur outsider to director 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 for The Killing, a conceptually ambitious caper film plugged directly into 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 after another, consecutively. Writer Thompson had tried out similar narrative experiments in his own drugstore crime novels. The first-person narrator of his The Kill-Off changes with each new 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 made a bold artistic statement by retaining 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. Kubriok put everything into making the picture as good as it could be. His 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.
Deemed 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 non-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, and 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 play out 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; The Killing is one of the mmost daring experiments with ‘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 narration frequently interrupts to tell us what day and time it is, and to add ironic facts 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.
The disorientating time-shifts impart a sensation of controlled panic that might accompany being involved in such a crazy crime. The narrator begins a new blurb by informing us that it’s suddenly three hours earlier. Unforeseeable missteps 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 has been told to simply stay home, but he instead gets drunk and comes to the track. A sympathetic racetrack parking lot attendant (James Edwards) befriends Nikki Arcane, preventing him from preparing his sniper position. Johnny Clay improvises beautifully when things go awry, at one point taking advantage of a complete accident. But the accumulation of mistakes and little deviations from the plan becomes almost unbearably suspenseful.
Kubrick’s vision proves wholly compatible with the workings of a merciless noir Fate; the result is a seamless fusion of commercial moviemaking and cinema art.
Kubrick’s career rolled forward like a snowball, with each new film achieving exactly what was needed to progress to the next level. On The Killing he 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 Spartacus, the epic super-production fell into Stanley Kubrick’s lap. Each film represents an exponential leap upward in quality, achievement and professional visibility. And The Killing is where Kubrick’s directing genius first found traction.
The KL Studio Classics 4K Ultra HD of The Killing is a new Dolby Vision HDR Master taken, Kino tells us, from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. As with the recent 4K release of Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss the BW images are immaculate. We really appreciate Kubrick’s attention to detail, and his creative ways of making scenes play in fluid shots — as with the tight camera trucks in Johnny Clay’s apartment. The audio track is just as creative. Finally working with 100% live synch sound recording, Kubrick gets the most from his actors’ eccentric line deliveries. Sterling Hayden’s hardboiled speeches crackle. Marie Windsor’s sly put-downs feel like cold acid, a Jim Thompson specialty.
This may also be the best use of composer Gerald Fried on film. His blaring, insistent music score feels like a March of Doom bearing down on the entire cast. Kubrick cuts the cues in brilliantly.
“Where’s George? Where’s the jerk?”
We admired the archival extras on an earlier Arrow Blu-ray. Kino’s disc fixates on the improved transfer in the higher-resolution format, but they do give us Alan K. Rode’s nearly perfect commentary. He gives The Killing a full-on film noir analysis, as opposed to a Kubrick-centric track. I think we end up learning more about Kubrick this way, hearing how the show came together, how it was filmed and especially how Kubrick and Harris got their ‘experimental’ non-linear cut past the UA front office.
Rode has the documentation that establishes what was shot when and where — I’m surprised to learn that some locations are in parts of Los Angeles I traverse at least once a week (although Bunker Hill is long gone, of course). We do remember well the long-gone bus station up on Vine Street, as that was there up into the 1980s. Rode’s assessment of Kubrick’s ace cast is also excellent; he admires the leading ladies and stands in awe of Sterling Hayden, who didn’t seem aware of how great an actor he was. Alan can only guess at what made Timothy Carey so weird — he was a real nut, a loose cannon who could enhance a movie or drive a director insane.
Alan highlights the contribution of Kubrick’s school friend Alexander Singer, who connected him with ideal collaborators and even grabbed some needed racetrack footage on the sly. Rode also covers the clash with ace cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Stanley Kubrick insisted that Ballard let him make all the visual decisions: lighting, lenses, filters, everything. Few directors were that capable; was there any element of film craft at which Kubrick wasn’t fully proficient? Alan mentions ‘slow motion’ for the finish of the show. I think he means that the two plainclothes police approaching Johnny Clay in the last shot are just moving slowly.
The welcome English subtitles help us understand actor Kola Kwariani’s indecipherable dialogue in the chess club scene. Kwariani delivers an author’s motto about artists and conformism, which Alan Rode caps with the wrestler-intellectual’s tragic biographical details. The curious foreign cover art doesn’t connect with the film at all, but it is colorful.
The Killing gets better with each viewing. It’s a superb, artful masterpiece of thieves caught in a mechanical trap of their own making.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
4K Ultra HD rates:
New audio commentary by Alan K. Rode
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD in Keep case
Reviewed: July 27, 2022
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