Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing may not have been responsible for putting the great director on the map — that honor rightfully belongs to Killer’s Kiss, also included on this disc — but at the very least it’s the film in which one can first chart Kubrick’s ultimate course. An equine noir with a broken heart and a mess of hollow dreams, The Killing is the exactingly told story of a group of petty criminals tortured by their own mediocrity, convinced that they can escape into self-satisfaction by robbing a local racetrack of $2 million. Their scheme is precisely devised and meticulously detailed, but you know what they say about the best laid plans: They’re always ruined by a greedy woman. Wait, that’s not right… well, it’s a good thing that Kubrick’s jet-black third feature doesn’t rely on its gender politics.
It begins on a note as cold and clinical as Kubrick would ever achieve, as newsreel footage of a horserace is submitted the dispassionate voice of an anonymous narrator: “At exactly 3:45 on that Saturday afternoon in the last week of September, Marvin Unger was, perhaps, the only one among the hundred thousand people at the track who felt no thrill at the running of the fifth race.” Marvin Unger is just one of the cogs in Johnny Clay’s (Sterling Hayden) plan, all of whom are convinced that a load of dough would somehow satisfy their potential, as if stolen worth might prove their own. It’s on that level of abstract male yearning that the film is at its most powerful and enduringly relevant, as Hayden’s follies speak to a primitive desire for greater glory that hasn’t evolved over the years, only been subject to inflation.
The Killing is the first film in which Kubrick had the budget and studio support to realize his perfectionist genius, and this feels like the work of a matured master rather than a 28 year-old kid. Kubrick — tickled by the exactitude of Clay’s plan — is giddy to have material that suits his darkly unreal precision, swooping the camera through the seams of his sets, training its merciless eye on his characters’ every nervous wrinkle, and exploding a story that predominantly transpires in only two locations into an endless dark night of the soul. Kubrick’s script bungles the early goings, laboriously reducing the married couple at the center of this tale into gross caricatures, but Jim Thompson’s hot-poker dialogue keeps things moving, the heist itself is a breathless caper, and the way the film holds together as everything falls apart is as thrilling as anything its director would later accomplish. A criminally under-seen minor masterpiece.
“At exactly 3:45 on that Saturday afternoon in the last week of September, Marvin Unger was, perhaps, the only one among the hundred thousand people at the track who felt no thrill at the running of the fifth race. He was totally disinterested in horse racing and held a lifelong contempt for gambling. Nevertheless, he had a $5 win bet on every horse in the fifth race. He knew, of course, that this rather unique system of betting would more than likely result in a loss, but he didn’t care. For after all, he thought, what would the loss of twenty or thirty dollars mean in comparison to the vast sum of money ultimately at stake.”