The Killing (1956)

The Killing is a classic 1950s heist film and the first major film from director Stanley Kubrick. 

The film stars Sterling Hayden as Johnny Clay, the mastermind of a plan to steal $2 million from a racetrack. Among his gang are inside man George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), corrupt and indebted cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) and Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer), a bartender with a seriously ill wife. 

Clay also hires two men to create diversions at the racetrack. These are gun dealer and crack shot Nikki (Timothy Carey), who is to shoot the favourite horse during the race, and an old friend, wrestler Maurice (Kola Kwariani), to start a fight at the track. 

But the plan is complicated by the unexpected involvement of Peatty's duplicitous wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), who plots with her lover (Vince Edwards) to get their hands on the cash themselves. 

Sterling Hayden with mask and shotgun in The Killing
Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) in disguise for the hold up 

The Killing was based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White. It was Stanley Kubrick's third feature after another crime film, Killer's Kiss (1955), and the semi-professional war drama Fear and Desire (1953). 

Kubrick hadn't served much of an apprenticeship in the film industry and instead had gone straight into directing feature films after making a few commercial and documentary shorts. The Killing was his first feature that could really be considered a success, after the self-consciously meaningful war film Fear and Desire and the more commercial but derivative Killer's Kiss

Kubrick had raised the funding for Fear and Desire himself, mostly from his family and well-off relatives. The film had not done much for him and it struggled to find a release, although there were encouraging words from some contemporary reviewers. 

His follow up, the hard-boiled thriller Killer's Kiss, was bought for distribution by United Artists but mostly ignored by critics and the public. Ironically, this deliberately more commercial film received even less attention from reviewers than his first, more "artistic" one and barely made a ripple among a sea of similar 'B' movies. 

It was James B. Harris who helped to change Kubrick's fortunes. Harris had set up a TV distribution company, Flamingo Films, with Sy Weintraub and David Wolper, and Kubrick asked him to help him sell Fear and Desire to television. Harris saw Kubrick's potential, but felt that neither of his two previous features had done him justice. He believed that what Kubrick needed was an existing property to adapt and translate for the screen. This was clearly perceptive, as from The Killing onwards all of Kubrick's films would be adaptations of others' works. 

Original US poster for The Killing (1956)
Original US poster for The Killing

Harris's attention was eventually caught by mention in the New York Post of Lionel White's novel Clean Break, with the book praised for its authentic racetrack atmosphere. Harris and Kubrick formed their own company, Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation, and bought the rights for $10,000. According to John Baxter in his Kubrick biography, they beat Frank Sinatra in the process, as he was also interested in the book. 

The film was at one time intended to have the more prosaic title "Day of Violence", before eventually being changed to the ironic The Killing. It was intended to shoot nearer Kubrick's home territory on the east coast, but the local race courses were reluctant to co-operate with a film about robbing a racetrack. The production relocated to California where it found the local tracks more receptive. Kubrick employed his then wife Ruth Subotka as the film's set designer. 

Originally offered $200,000 by United Artists to make the film, this soon proved to be inadequate and, according to Baxter, Harris had to dig into $80,000 of his own savings and borrow another $50,000 from his father to make up the shortfall. 

The Killing came very late in the film noir cycle, but it has reasonably solid genre credentials. There are criminals, a heist, cops in trench coats, a patsy with a cheating wife, a double cross and plenty of essential film noir fatalism. There is more influence from the 1950s crime pulps though, and the style is less moody and shadowy than in classic noir. Lucien Ballard's photography gives The Killing a starker, crisper look and there's an authoritative voice-over, Naked City-style, to convince the audience of the plausibility of the characters and story.

Unusually for a film of this type, in The Killing Johnny Clay is never seen rounding up his gang, casing out the racetrack or even outlining the plan. The audience is only shown Timothy Carey and Kola Kwariani being recruited, while the details of the heist itself remain unknown until it actually takes place on screen. This helps the film to keep audience interest, despite its lack of background information and the rather undeveloped characters. Aside from Kola Kwariani as Maurice and the inimitable Timothy Carey, the gang members are all no more than "types", including Elisha Cook Jr. as another of his familiar put-upon little men. 

The gang in The Killing (1956)
Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden, right) with some of his gang

Sterling Hayden is authoritative and seemingly in control as the determined, but not entirely unsympathetic Clay, although admittedly it's no more than a variation on roles he had played before. He had played a similar part in The Asphalt Jungle and was not the most original or daring casting, but was apparently top of Kubrick's list for the film's lead. Hayden agreed to play the part for a fee of $40,000.

Sterling Hayden was not very popular with United Artists, his decision to "name names" at the HUAC hearings in 1951 having tainted him in the eyes of the industry. He had recently been starring in low grade westerns that UA could barely give away. Hayden would later be used again by Kubrick as the deranged Air Force General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, opposite Peter Sellers in 1963. 

Johnny Clay is humanised in the film in his scenes with his older friend Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), who puts up the money for the job and whose interest in Clay is ambiguous. There's also a characterful performance from Kola Kwariani as Maurice, a veteran heavy who is hired by Clay to start a brawl at the racetrack - although it can be difficult to understand his strong accent at times. Kwariani was an old chess buddy of Kubrick's from New York. When he gets into the fight at the track, the fact that the two security men manage to rip his shirt off and split it in two, revealing cinema's hairiest back in the process, is an unexpectedly and probably unintentionally comical moment in the film.

The supporting cast is a feast of familiar crime and 'B' movie players, including Elisha Cook Jr, Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor, Ted de Corsia and Jay Adler. Johnny's girl Fay was played by Coleen Gray, who just happened to be the mistress of UA production chief Max Youngstein. Also among the cast in a minor role was Joe Turkel, who would also appear in Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) and The Shining (1980).

Timothy Carey and Sterling Hayden on a firing range
Nikki (Timothy Carey) and Johnny Clay on the firing range

Timothy Carey gets one of the film's few non-essential vignettes, when he tries to get into the race track to get into position to shoot the favourite horse in the next race as part of a diversion. He befriends the black parking attendant on the gate (played by James Edwards), by pretending to be a paraplegic, so he will allow him to park his car in exactly the right spot. But then he finds that he can't get rid of the other man when he needs him gone, so has to tell him to get lost.

It's only a minor scene, but the audience feels sympathy for the security man, who thinks he's just made a friend. This being fifties America, the racial angle adds an edge to this encounter, with the parking attendant thinking that Nikki is just prejudiced against him. The always memorable Carey would give another oddball character performance in Kubrick's next film, the World War I drama Paths of Glory.

Otherwise, the film wastes very little time and just gets on with its plot, which is very lean - as it has to be with a scant running time of just 83 minutes. Without the provision of any background information on the characters or even knowledge of the details of the heist itself before it actually happens, the audience just has to wait to see exactly how it's all going to go wrong. As it inevitably does with this type of film, at least in this era.

That things aren't going to work out is pretty much a given, so the game for the audience is to guess where Clay and his gang will slip up. The scenes towards the end, where the fugitive Clay is carrying a suitcase full of money around with him, is a particularly obvious example of this, where we are just waiting for something to go disastrously wrong.

Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor
George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) and his unfaithful wife Sherry (Marie Windsor)

As this is film noir, or something not a million miles away from it, there has to be a femme fatale and a double cross. This comes in the form of Sherry (Marie Windsor), the grasping wife of put-upon George (Elisha Cook Jr), the latter in a typical role as a meek clerk at the racetrack. She is a dissatisfied, unfaithful and rather mocking wife who is cheating on him with Val Cannon (Vince Edwards). In a desperate attempt to win favour with her, George spills the beans about the upcoming robbery. This encourages Sherry to make plans of her own to take the money off of him with the aid of Cannon. 

When Sherry is caught spying on the gang, Clay questions her alone in an attempt to find out what she was up to. With the support of her husband, she claims that she suspected that he was cheating on her, although Clay remains unconvinced. 

This leads to one of the film's most curious extraneous moments, when Sherry tells her husband after the meeting that Clay attacked her, implying a rape or sexual assault. It's unclear why she would make this claim on the day of the job, since it's most likely to put George off or make him back out. Presumably, Kubrick just wanted to emphasise how scheming and untrustworthy she is, although that is evident already. Those who believe that Kubrick was essentially a misogynist would probably point to Windsor's character as being 'Exhibit A'.

The stentorian narration is provided by veteran radio announcer Art Gilmore, and is used to give a sense of significance and authenticity, but it can sometimes be a little intrusive. Voice over like this is a less sophisticated form of storytelling and one that's often used to paper over any cracks in a film's narrative. The Killing is a little too reliant on this voice over for comfort or elegance, with the narrator still filling the audience in on salient plot points, of the kind that a stronger script would have dealt with much earlier, only fifteen minutes from the end of the film. 

More interesting and unusual is the film's playing with the chronology of events, with one scene shown more than once from different viewpoints. Kubrick and Harris were urged by UA to use a more linear narrative, but Kubrick was convinced that this playing with the chronology was one of the strengths of the novel and the script. The film - and this element in particular - was an obvious influence on Quentin Tarantino's 1992 crime film Reservoir Dogs

Sterling Hayden in The Killing
Johnny Clay at the racetrack

Some elements of the narrative are left unexplained and others seem unlikely. It's not clear how quite so many people manage to get themselves killed in the final shoot out. George only appeared to be shooting at one other character and he only fired once. The final result, though, is a roomful of dead bodies. 

In an earlier scene, the director's ironic positioning of a supposedly lucky horseshoe, lying just out of reach of the dead man and propped against the wheel of a car, is just a little too obvious. It's also unclear how this ended up conveniently propped against the car, when it was lying on the ground before. In another scene, a character's final words are that it seems like a "bad joke without the punchline". As with his first dramatic film, Fear and Desire, in these scenes Kubrick is straining just a little bit too hard for effect, a tendency he would soon rein in. 

The presence of Sterling Hayden and Timothy Carey notwithstanding, The Killing's relationship to Kubrick's subsequent films is not particularly apparent, this being his last foray into crime films or thrillers of this sort. There is still the director's obvious interest in how people and plans fit together, like a machine - machines gone awry being a recurrent Kubrick theme. There is also Kubrick's cynicism and the familiar detached attitude to his characters, his directorial eye viewing them as not much more than interesting specimens.

Although the film is not very original dramatically, and owes a clear debt to the likes of John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and others, The Killing is generally well made and punchy, with a lean, terse style. Kubrick's mostly assured handling of the material displays his growing confidence as a film maker at this time. The result is an efficient thriller, a lean, well-oiled machine that does its job, makes its points and winds everything up satisfactorily, all in less than 85 minutes. 

Sterling Hayden punching a security guard in The Killing (1956)
Clay in action during the robbery

The film got a good review in Time magazine and brought Kubrick some attention in Europe, but it wasn't a great commercial success. After a brief run in a cinema in New York, it was released as the bottom half of a double bill with Richard Fleischer's western Bandido, starring Robert Mitchum. In the UK it was double-billed with another Mitchum film, Foreign Intrigue. Harris and Kubrick later sold their 50% share of The Killing to UA in order to acquire the rights to Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, which would be their last film together. 

The script for The Killing was credited to Kubrick, with dialogue written by the crime novelist Jim M. Thompson. Thompson was the author of The Killer Inside Me, a novel that Kubrick had considered filming, before deciding that its story of a murdering, psychopathic sheriff, told from the murderer's point of view, would be unlikely to find a backer at that time. The novel was eventually filmed by Burt Kennedy in 1976 and by Michael Winterbottom in 2010. 

The structure of The Killing's story came from Clean Break, but Kubrick particularly wanted to use Thompson to adapt it because of his facility for dialogue. Always broke, Thompson constantly needed advances from Harris-Kubrick Pictures, leading the pair to commission him to write a crime novel as well in order to recoup their costs. This was provisionally titled "Lunatic at Large" and it was hoped that it might form the basis of their next film. Harris and Kubrick, however, were unhappy with it and it was never finished.

According to his daughter, Jim Thompson was furious when he learned that Kubrick had taken the film's screenplay credit for himself, while he was relegated to a dialogue credit only. But Thompson wouldn't be Kubrick's last collaborator to have an unhappy tussle with him over credit. James B. Harris later admitted that Thompson could expect a co-writer credit if the film had been made today. But Thompson's alcoholism and unreliability had left his career in a dire state and he was dissuaded from complaining by the offer of another much needed job; scripting Harris-Kubrick's next film Paths of Glory

The Killing

Year: 1956
Genre: Crime Thriller
Country: USA
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay), Coleen Gray (Fay), Vince Edwards (Val Cannon), Jay C. Flippen (Marvin Unger), Ted de Corsia (Randy Kennan), Marie Windsor (Sherry Peatty), Elisha Cook Jr. (George Peatty), Joe Sawyer (Mike O'Reilly), Timothy Carey (Nikki Arane), Kola Kwariani (Maurice Oboukhoff), James Edwards (Car park attendant), Jay Adler (Leo), Tito Vuolo (Joe Piano), Dorothy Adams (Ruth O'Reilly), Herbert Ellis (American Airlines clerk), James Griffith (Mr Grimes), Joseph Turkel (Tiny), Steve Mitchell (Brown), William Benedict (American Airlines ticket clerk), Charles R. Cane and Robert B. Williams (Policemen at airport), Art Gilmore (Narrator)

Screenplay Stanley Kubrick, dialogue by Jim Thompson, based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White  Producer James B. Harris  Cinematography Lucien Ballard  Art director Ruth Subotka  Editor Betty Steinberg  Music Gerald Fried

Running time 83 mins (black & white)

Production company Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation  Distributor United Artists


  1. I like The Killing though it's far from my favorite Noir. By 1956 it could only be derivative when it comes to Noir elements, and of course we've seen it all before, most notably The Asphalt Jungle which I consider the better film.

    The cast is good, Marie Windsor makes for a deliciously trampy floozy who - for reasons hard to fathom - ended up with Elisha Cook. Did that guy ever have any luck?

    1. There's definitely a backstory there. That's somewhere where The Killing could perhaps benefit from being a bit less lean, taking some time to hint at how they ended up together.

  2. Funny how you mention the use chronology in this film and Reservoir Dogs, because I thought the same thing about Pulp fiction.

    1. Tarantino has always been fond of that. He's never quite let it go, but he relied on it a lot in the 90s. True Romance was originally meant to be non-chronological as well.

  3. Marie Windsor sounds like the perfect casting choice in this role. Can't believe I haven't yet seen this film. I'll certainly be looking for it soon!

  4. I love the film (I quite liked Killer's Kiss too). It's very stylish despite the small budget. BTW, it was fun to see Cook Jr. and Windsor together again in Salem's Lot (I'm assuming director Tobe Hooper was a fan of Kubrick's movie).

    1. I didnt remember them both being in that. I would quite like to see the full mini-series, I've only ever seen the edited movie version.

    2. They are essentially reprising their roles (from The Killing): Cook is the weakling husband of domineering Windsor! I always assumed it was an in-joke. :)

    3. I guess it must be! I'm going to have to look out for that now.


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