Johnny Clay: 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.
I bought The Killing (1956) for three reasons: Stanley Kubrick directed it, it’s film noir, and it’s called The Killing! Stanley Kubrick was at the very least one of the greatest, most adventurous directors of the second half of the 20th century. To look at the films he made is to look at a veritable kaleidoscope of cinematic wonders. From the awe-inspiring sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the psychopathic thriller, The Shining, to the downright weird, A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick stretched the possibilities of film.
In much the same way as he approached other various genres, Kubrick decided to give his own twist to “film noir.” The Killing does not follow a linear plot; a fact that becomes evident very quickly and lasts until the very end (whenever that is…). The second noticeable oddity is the films broken, rarely present narration. The voice of the narrator doesn’t even seem to fit the film in tone or inflection. The narration comes and goes like a distant memory; appearing only after you’ve forgotten it’s there at all.
I may be giving the wrong impression; the non-linear plot and the sporadic narration are not detrimental to the film; in fact it’s the exact opposite. The Killing acts to disrupt the conventional formula of film, and surely does a good job at that.
The Killing is, in a plot summation, the story about a group of men, oppressed in their own rights, who get together to pull a heist at a racetrack. Racetrack… not cars; were talking horses. The idea is simple, during the running of the $100,000 race, shoot the horse favored to win, and steal all the money that was bet on the race (a sum totaling around $2,000,000). The beauty of the crime, as is true with all crimes, is the plan. Members of the group include the recently released conman, Johnny Clay (ringleader played by Sterling Hayden), the corrupt policeman, Randy Kennan (Ted DeCorsia), who is behind on paying a loan back to the mob, the henpecked racetrack teller George Peatty (Elisha Cook), the racetrack bartender with the ailing wife, Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer), and Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) whom we know very little about. Each given their own minor jobs that work within their occupations, together it creates “the perfect crime.”
The most substantial side-story that develops along with the main storyline is the tale of George and Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor). George is, to put it frankly, a loser, and he knows it. His wife, Sherry, treats him like something much lower than dirt. Sherry is a fascinatingly shallow woman who remains married to George if only to have some form of financial security. Apparently, when George proposed to her, he had promised her riches, which after some years has yet to befall them. George, in an effort to prove he can finally cash in on his promise, tells Sherry about the planned heist. Sherry conveys this to the man she’s had a long-time affair with (geez, not only is she mean to her husband, but she cheats on him AND ruins his million-dollar heists?!).George’s slip of the tongue would prove to be the act that puts an inhibitor on the success of the plan.
As the movie progresses, archival footage of a horserace is played over and over again. You’ll commit what the PA announcer says without even trying because you hear it so many times. These clips are patched into footage of not only the plan being executed as a whole, but also from the perspectives of each of the players.
Johnny Clay is perhaps one the most ingenious, cold-blooded, and connected conmen of all-time. He knows what he wants, and he gets it, not matter what. He enlists the help of a gunman and a jolly ol’ Russian chess player who may or may not have lifted weights a few times in his life (featured in the clip below). What is important to add is that he calls these men to work for him, tells them only what is necessary for them to perform their functions, and pays them to not ask questions or give any information (a true businessman if ever there were one).
As for how the film ends up, I will say this, in the last 10 minutes I must have said “Oh my God…” maybe, 5 times? I watched it twice in the same week because it is just so incredibly unique. I would say it is definitely worth watching at least twice if only to understand what you saw the first time.
The Reel Rating: 7
This may be the greatest fight scene ever… (don’t worry, the rest of the movie isn’t ridiculous like this):