Masterfully told heist film has become a blueprint for countless other movies
By Jimmy Gillman
Stanley Kubrick’s first major motion picture is a top-notch, masterfully told heist film that’s become a blueprint for countless other movies. And while The Killing wasn’t the first to use the formula of disparate characters united in a complicated criminal enterprise, Kubrick’s version perfected the American form.
In The Killing the object of interest is a horse racing track and its bounty of cash. The mastermind of the plan is lifelong criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden). Clay wants to make the proverbial “one last score,” and afterwards marry his sweetheart and live a respectable life.
The intricate plan calls for a variety of special skills, sending Clay (and viewers) on a fascinating recruitment mission as the team is assembled one by one. That brings with it lots of interesting backstory as each character is revealed, setting up basic elements that will later prove crucial to the plot.
With the team in place, the film’s second act is devoted to ratcheting up the tension, which develops organically as the characters begin to play off one another, exposing their individual strengths and weaknesses. This also gives rise to backroom alliances and calls into question whether some members of the crew are really up to the job. And every bit of it is convincing, expertly performed by a terrific cast working from a razor-sharp screenplay by Kubrick and pulp novelist Jim Thompson.
The final act plays out the robbery in tantalizing style; Kubrick displaying his total command of the filmmaking medium, turning almost every shot and every sequence into something special. Using multiple timelines, inventive camera angles (even in close-ups), menacing dolly shots and inventive lighting, all minimally edited and with many scenes played out at length, Kubrick has compacted more suspense and emotion into 83 minutes than most directors can wring out of twice that time.
From the corrosive dialogue to its technical virtuosity, The Killing is a fast running thoroughbred that may not contain today’s pervasive profanity, graphic violence or special effects, but that doesn’t keep it from being taut adult entertainment from the opening gate right through the finish line.