Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, much like the racetrack heist is portrays, is a finely tuned machine – an intricate meshing of myriad moving parts, some big, some small, and all of them integral to its success. Although not Kubrick’s first film, The Killing was his true arrival on the scene as a cinematic force to be reckoned with.
The Killing is the story of ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), who assembles a make-shift crew of would-be crooks to rob the Bay Meadows racetrack of $2 million dollars during a big money stakes race. In addition to the Hayden, who starred in another classic film noir caper, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Kubrick assembles a fantastic group of underutilized character actors to round out the gang.
Jay C. Flippen is memorable as Marvin Unger, the older member of the crew who gives Johnny a place to stay and helps him assemble the group. It’s clear Unger is also harboring an unrequited homosexual crush on Johnny, which is spelled out when he suggests Johnny ditch his fiancée, Fay (Coleen Gray) after the heist and go away somewhere with him. Johnny’s not buying, whether he senses the nature of Marvin’s attachment to him or not. Ted DeCorsia makes a convincing crooked cop, behind on his payments to a local shylock.
The always fascinating and bizarre Timothy Carey shows up as the marksman Johnny needs to make the heist possible. (Watch the way Carey says “Red Lightning” to the parking attendant. It’s one of the strangest line-readings in the history of American film. Carey is perhaps the only actor who can connect Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes and Frank Zappa.) Professional wrestler Kola Kwariani adds depth to the film as the chess-hustling philosopher-goon Maurice.
As uniformly good as the cast is, the show is nearly stolen by Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor. Cook is George, a nebbish of a track cashier who’s married to Sherry (Windsor), a no-good, greedy, two-timing slut. He’s obsessed with his wife and cannot bring himself to understand or accept her true evil nature. Windsor is terrific at creating a truly loathsome character and, well, no one plays a sad, little man like Elisha Cook Jr. It’s George’s weakness for his wife and his wife’s arrogance that causes the plan to unravel for several of its participants.
Looking back from the vantage point of Kubrick’s entire body of work, a small-scale caper film like The Killing seems slightly out of place at first. However, while the film looks and feels like your standard issue, black-hearted film noir, there’s more at work here, most noticeably Kubrick’s deft manipulation of time and his stunning travelling shots. The film is told in overlapping segments, announced via voice-over, and as the heist gets underway, the segments get shorter and the flashbacks tighter and terser. As we watch one member of the gang after another, we see exactly how the plan works and where it fails. Of course, as in any true film noir, the failure feels guaranteed with the first frames of the film, and Kubrick makes things go wrong in a couple of truly stunning sequences that I won’t give away. Suffice to say, if this movie doesn’t make you hate rich old ladies with small dogs, nothing will.
Kubrick is credited with the script, with a second credit to the famed pulp writer Jim Thompson for dialogue. One imagines Kubrick was the source of the split-second timing and dark, fatalistic tone and Thompson provided gems like “You’d sell out your own mother for a piece of fudge” to put in Hayden’s mouth. However, the film’s last line of dialogue may be its best, and in my opinion, one of the great final lines in movie history. The money gone, his cover blown, the authorities start to make a move towards Johnny. Fay urges Johnny to run to which he responds, defeated, “Eh. What’s the difference?”