It’s odd to watch The Killing knowing the mind behind the camera. There are certain recognizable traits in this early Stanley Kubrick crime drama, traits which Kubrick would later define all the way to the point where “Kubrickian” is a word accepted in the dialogue of film analysis and theory. Right next to “Hitchcockian.” And yet, it still feels static or undefined when it is considered as a film from Kubrick. He had directed one smaller noir picture (Killer’s Kiss) before The Killing, co-directed another film that was a bit of a disaster, but this is widely accepted as Stanley Kubrick’s movie to get him recognized and get him into the system of Hollywood; to get him to the point where he could call his own shots. As we now know, it worked, but in 1955 The Killing surely must have been an odd film for the general public.
Kubrick’s caper film functions like a machine of plot and technical mastery, where the characters are no more than chess pieces in a match. The board in this case is a horse-racing track, where a group of men devise a plan to nab $2 million cash on one of the biggest race days of the year. Sterling Hayden, who would appear later in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as General Jack Ripper, plays idea man Johnny Clay. He has a money man, Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippin), a crooked cop on his side, and a few contacts on the inside. One of Clay’s inside men is a cashier played by Elishia Cook, a man destined to play cuckolds and fools his entire career. Cook is George, who’s married to Fay (Colleen Gray), a tramp and a money-hungry floozy who runs roughshod over George on a regular basis.
Clay dispatches the plan of the heist which involves a great number of moving parts. Outside of the five main men, Clay has hired individual contractors to pull off various jobs on the day of the robbery, including a sniper shot at a horse and a fist fight with security. The pieces are set in place and put in motion, if only Fay didn’t overhear the planned heist and tell her lover, a hood named Val (Vince Edwards) who plans on making his own luck.
The Killing moves briefly, at an 83-minute clip, as it exists to show this heist in and of itself. There is no time wasted on development, as Kubrick sees these men not as characters but, as I have said, pieces. Puzzle pieces, chess pieces, parts of a whole. The narration is direct, seemingly ripped from the Dragnet TV series as it divulges times and places more than thoughts or actions. Some may see The Killing as strictly robotic, but this is Kubrick’s plan all along. Even in his later career, when he was directing masterpieces more frequently than most directors were making films, Kubrick used his characters more than he allowed them to grow or move organically, outside the restrictions of the narrative. Think about the pitch and tone of Barry Lyndon's voice, or the conversations in 2001. The early use of this mechanical technique Kubrick later mastered is evident in The Killing.
I almost think The Killing ends too quickly, only I don’t know what else there is to say about the story. We have been there, seen the robbery, the aftermath, and here we rest. The pieces have been put into place. Endgame has been achieved.