The Killing: Heisting Kubrick Style

Perfect is a very misleading word, it insinuates the divine and emphasizes the faultless nature of deity, but we humans have managed to achieve that at times. There are very few things in life that could be deemed perfect: Tim Curry’s Frank N’ Furter, Pink Floyd’s Animals, and Stanley Kubrick’s filmmaking. So it makes sense that when this legendary director decides to make a heist movie, the crime would be just as flawlessly planned and meticulous as he fundamentally is. Having directed two feature films and three documentary shorts before, Stanley Kubrick’s talent was developing staggeringly, and the sense of precision he became well-known for later saw its beginnings with his third movie, the 1956 film noir The Killing.

While the plots of Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss may not have been as complex as what we’re used to from Stanley Kubrick, the story of The Killing was anything but simple. A veteran criminal by the name of Johnny Clay, who had just served a sentence of five years in prison, comes to the conclusion that a ten-dollar theft will be punished just as severely as a multi-million-dollar heist, so the first thing he does after regaining his freedom is plan one last big operation before he goes clean and marries his sweetheart Fay. The team he assembles is a bit of an oddity however, as it consists of a corrupt cop, a betting window teller, a sniper, a wrestler, and a bartender. The betting window teller, George Peatty, confesses the plan to his wife in an effort to impress her, and an otherwise perfect plan is now troubled by the constant interventions of the greedy wife and her secret lover-boy.

Always the chess enthusiast, Stanley Kubrick met producer James B. Harris while playing, and the pair formed the Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation in 1955. They acquired the rights to Lionel White’s novel Clean Break for 10.000 dollars and secured financial support from various sources, chiefly the United Artists, who agreed to fund the film if the two were to find a high-profile actor to star, but not without a fee. The UA, who thought Sterling Hayden wasn’t a big enough star, provided a smaller amount of money than previously promised, and made Stanley Kubrick choose between being director or cinematographer, and after he naturally chose to direct, Lucien Ballard was hired to shoot, which resulted in the two clashing on a regular basis during filming, with Kubrick even threatening to fire him on one especially fiery occasion. The film’s reception wasn’t much better than its two predecessors, recording a loss of 130.000 dollars, even though it amassed critical acclaim, both at the time of its release and the decades that followed. Film critics at the time hailed Stanley Kubrick for his innovative and audacious spirit and expected the film to be a massive success, and contemporary cinema aficionados consider The Killing a cult classic, and a source of inspiration for modern heist movies such as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

The assembly of characters Stanley Kubrick devised for The Killing is unconventional to say the least, and the operation they plot to execute even more so. A veteran criminal, a betting window teller, a sniper, a wrestler, a cop, and a bartender decide to rob, out of all places, a horse racing track. The film recognizes its bizarre story and embraces it whole-heartedly, doing so in a manner that is even more unorthodox. The first hour of this 82-minutes long film hardly makes any sense at all. Yes, you know a big operation is in preparation, you see hints of what it might turn out to be, but it’s not until the climax of the heist that it all dawns on you, and the big picture is revealed. Several scenes are shot multiple times, from each of the protagonists’ perspectives, depicting the arrangements and all other measures, and this extra attention to detail is what makes both Kubrick and his films a wonder to behold, for when the operation is executed, the pieces of the puzzle fit so perfectly that it illuminates the sixty minutes that proceeded. The ending which shall stay unrevealed, for obvious reasons, is a complete detour of the film’s initial themes. Where the major part of the movie highlights the delinquent’s view on crime and social justice, the ending introduces a broader conception of justice, one that might be even dubbed divine intervention. Also, it’s shot so beautifully it gives you goosebumps.

Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is a cult classic for a reason. Just like all masterpieces that share the same attribute, the film performed very poorly upon its release, but later accumulated a massive number of devout fans, fans who praise it for its originality, its gripping story and its influence on the world of cinema.


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