Sunday 16 November 2014

Noir November: The Killing (1956)

An early film in the career of one Mr. Stanley Kubrick, The Killing may be a relatively low-budget, low-key movie compared to some of his later works, but it's no less enjoyable for it. Based on a novel ("Clean Break") by Lionel White, this is a tense, unhurried look at a group of criminals planning a major heist.

The main players are: Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the man with the plan, a corrupt cop named Randy Kennan (Ted De Corsia), a teller who works at the racecourse they're planning to rob (Elisha Cook Jr), a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey), and a couple of other guys who will help to distract people while the robbery occurs. Everything is planned out precisely, and onscreen details, as well as narration, help viewers to keep track of just how all of the pieces fall into place. But no plan is foolproof, is it?

Kubrick may be working on a smaller scale here, compared to his more famous works, but he shows the same attention to detail and clinical approach to the material that cinema fans would respond so well to. The script, with dialogue by Jim Thompson, nicely balances things out between the specifics of the job and the drama derived from the fluctuating dynamic of the group.

Performances are pretty great across the board, especially for a film that many would consider as nothing more than a b-movie (I guess). Hayden, Corsia, Carey and the others all do well, but I have to admit that Cook Jr. is someone I have always loved seeing onscreen, and his role here is a great one. Coleen Gray and Marie Windsor also do well, being the two main women in a film that focuses very much on the men. The fact that two make such a memorable impression, for very different reasons, is further testament to the script and their performances.

I'm not sure how audiences would have reacted to the content back in 1956, when this was first released, but it seems to have enough darker elements in there to make some people uncomfortable. There are some moments of violence, as expected from a film about an armed robbery, a healthy dollop of cynicism coating everything, and at least one outburst that uses a racial slur to shocking, though also brilliant, effect.

With it being so slight, however, it's hard to push this forward as an essential noir viewing. Yet it's easy to see how influential it has been, at least on certain people (Tarantino, I'm looking at you). It's also simply an excellent little movie that doesn't outstay its welcome. Give it a watch soon, if you've not seen it already.


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