Filmsite Movie Review
The Killing (1956)
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The Killing (1956) is a stylish but stark film noir crime drama, and the definitive heist-caper movie - a story of greed and infidelity. The classic, dark-edged black and white film was 28 year-old writer/director Stanley Kubrick's third film - and first successful one, although highly under-rated when released. The doom-laden, voice-over dialogue (by co-writer Jim Thompson) in the script was derived from the film's main source - crime fiction writer Lionel White's 1955 novel Clean Break. [Note: Although most of the script was actually written by Thompson, Kubrick took the on-screen credit, while Thompson received only additional dialogue credit.]

United Artists' low-budget, unconventional movie was deliberately presented non-chronologically in a disorienting and winding fashion (with an overlapping and interweaving jigsaw puzzle of flash-forwards and flashbacks), and played out in a series of tense, black-comedy scenes with swift transitions.

The film's off-screen, sometimes unreliable, semi-documentary voice-over narration (by Art Gilmore) was so despised by Kubrick that he modified much of the dialogue so that its information was mostly misleading or inaccurate. Shot in a sparse 24 days, the 1950s B-picture was budgeted at only $320,000. The racetrack in the film was known as Lansdowne, but it was actually the San Francisco Bay Area's Bay Meadows (that closed in 2008) in San Mateo, California.

Taglines on film posters compared the film to classic gangster films:

  • In All Its Fury and Violence ...Like No Other Picture Since Scarface and Little Caesar!
  • Daring Hold-Up Nets $2,000,000! Police Baffled by Fantastic Crime! Masked Bandit Escapes with Fabulous Race Track Loot!
  • These 5 Men Had a $2,000,000 Secret Until One of them told this Woman!

One of the posters had insets that described each of the stars and the main characters:

  • JOE SAWYER as 'The race track bartender with an ailing wife'
  • MARIE WINDSOR as 'The two-timing dame who couldn't keep her mouth shut'
  • TED DeCORSIA as 'The racketeering racetrack cop'
  • ELISHA COOK as 'The little man with the big ideas'
  • STERLING HAYDEN as 'The brains of the mob'
  • J.C. FLIPPEN as 'The reformed alcoholic'

The 84-minute dramatic tale was about a desperate gang of anti-hero misfits and lowlifes (in an ensemble cast) led by a grim, determined, and recently-released-from-jail ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden). The group devised and executed a complex, carefully-timed, but doomed-to-fail horse race-track heist of $2 million - that went terribly wrong, similar to Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (also with Hayden). The plan was to cause simultaneous, diversionary confusion by shooting one of the racehorses ("Red Lightning") in mid-race, instigating a racetrack bar fight, while colluding with a betting-window teller and corrupt police patrolman, thereby allowing Johnny to rob the main track offices and seize the day's takings. As a result of the heist and other incidents, the total number of 'killings' in the film amounted to eight (8 humans - and 1 horse).

The disparate group of criminals in the gang included racetrack teller George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a pathetic wimp and loser who was easily tricked by his devious, scheming femme fatale wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) into revealing the details of the heist to pass to her adulterous lover Val Cannon (Vince Edwards, the future doctor in the popular TV series Ben Casey (1961-1966)). He planned to steal the loot at the rendezvous point once the robbery had been accomplished.

The heist film followed on the heels of two other French heist films: Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955, Fr.) and Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur (1956, Fr.).

Although the film was not a financial success, it became a widely-regarded 'cult film' that would influence filmmakers for decades after - most notably Guy Ritchie and crime drama auteur Quentin Tarantino and his films Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). It has since influenced many heist films, including the original Ocean's Eleven (1960) (also remade in 2001). It featured excellent high-contrast B/W cinematography by Lucien Ballard, but was ignored completely by the Motion Picture Academy, with no Oscar nominations.

Plot Synopsis

Opening Titles Sequence:

The film's titles were presented superimposed over docu-styled preparations being made for race day at the Lansdowne track. Trainers and jockeys rode their race horses from the corrals to the race track as crowds gathered. The starting gate was moved into place and the lined-up jockeys were steered into the blocks. The initial race was followed to its conclusion - and in a telling moment, the winning horse was Stopwatch. [Note: Kubrick was hinting that the sometimes confusing or unclear non-linear narrative of the film would hinge on time-frames being started, stopped, and restarted again.]

In the film's opening scenes, many of the characters (see below) involved in the heist were introduced through their interactions and personal situations.

Saturday - (One Week Before Heist) in the Last Week of September

The Introduction of Characters - At the Race Track:

The entire film - with a fractured narrative - was peppered with notifications by a supposedly-omniscient, Dragnet-styled Narrator (Art Gilmore) providing voice-overs:

"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 five-dollar 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 $20 or $30 mean in comparison to the vast sum of money ultimately at stake?"

From the documentary-styled credits, the film imperceptibly cut to the interior of the Lansdowne race-track during the 5th horse race of the day at 3:45 pm. There, disinterested older betting client Marvin Unger (J.C. Flippen) discreetly slipped a notification - the time and address of an undisclosed meeting - to the race-track bartender Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer) after ordering a ginger ale. The address was written on the back of Marvin's race roster (he had bet $5 dollars on all eight horses in the 5th race!).

504 W. Olive, Apt. 4B, 8 pm

After the 5th race, Marvin wrote the similar address notification on the back of his winning bet ticket for horse # 8, and took it to the cashier/teller window of George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.) (seated behind bars) to cash in, where he received a payoff of $25.00 for one of the winning bets - on the first place finisher Stopwatch.

The off-screen narrator described how the pieces of a metaphoric "jumbo jigsaw puzzle" were coming together for an unspecified "operation" - although the "predetermined final design" had yet to be revealed:

"....he began to feel as if he had as much effect on the final outcome of the operation as a single piece of a jumbo jigsaw puzzle has to its predetermined final design. Only the addition of the missing fragments of the puzzle would reveal whether the picture was as he guessed it would be."

The Introduction of Characters - At A Restaurant:

Meanwhile about an hour earlier that same afternoon, at a city restaurant, Patrolman First Class Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) at one of the tables discussed "personal business" with his loan shark Leo (Jay Adler), who demanded that an honest mistake must have been made, since Kennan had overlooked his most recent "obligation" to his creditor. The new amount would now be $1,000 - a new loan to establish a "fresh start." The high-living Kennan claimed that he was "flat broke," but that he expected some big money in a few weeks, but could not reveal the source: ("It's a plenty sweet deal and I'll be able to pay off like a slot machine"). He requested carry-over for the interim. It was stipulated that his new total loan amount would be $2,600 (plus $400 extra interest), with two weeks to pay back the amount. As he was leaving, Kennan warned about how he was self-interested: "I'll take care of myself, mister. That's my specialty."

The Introduction of Characters - At the Heist Leader's Apartment:

The main protagonist was next introduced at 7 pm that same day - ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), who was heading up the criminal "operation" with other low-life accomplices - he was according to the narrator:

"...the most important thread in the unfinished fabric, furthered its design."

Veteran criminal Johnny was in his friend Marvin Unger's apartment for the time-being. He was the head organizer of the 'operation' - to be carried out with four other gang members. While drinking from a bottle of beer he opened in the kitchen, he briefly described the group of hard-working, normal folks, his accomplices, who were motivated to join him due to personal money problems:

"None of these men are criminals in the usual sense. They've all got jobs, they all live seemingly normal, decent lives, but they got their problems, and they've all got a little larceny in 'em."

Johnny was speaking to his trusting and dependent girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray), who was dressing in the bedroom - after having had sex (off-screen) with him. Johnny would be staying at Unger's apartment during the 'operation' (to occur the next Saturday). Fay and Johnny had been together since childhood. He had just been released after a five-year sentence for robbery, and knew he had to quell her fears about his involvement in another crime. He promised her that his final big heist would be worth it:

"You know, Fay, the biggest mistake I made before was shooting for peanuts. Five years have taught me one thing, if nothin' else. Anytime you take a chance, you better be sure the reward's are worth the risk, because they can put you away just as fast for a ten-dollar heist as they can for a million dollar job."

She confided in him:

"You don't have to sell it to me, Johnny. You know I'll go along with anything you say. I always have, you know, ever since we were kids. I've always believed you, everything you've ever told me. Those five years you been away, I know they must've been terrible for you. I mean, being locked up must be a terrible thing. You know something? This may sound funny, but waiting for you all those years and staying by myself, it was like, not that you were locked in, but I was locked out. Well, look at me. First time we've been together in five years and I'm making speeches."

He assured her that everything would work out: ("Everything is gonna be all right. I promise you"). She begged to not be left alone again: "Make sure you're right about it, Johnny. I'm no good for anybody else. I'm not pretty and I'm not very smart, so please don't leave me alone any more." Again he calmed her: "Nothing is gonna happen, not this time." But he urged her to "stay out of the way" and not be involved during the next week's heist, and mentioned that they couldn't see each other until then. After the big operation was accomplished, they were planning to meet at the airport and fly away (with her pre-purchased plane reservation-tickets) after she told her office that she was quitting her job - en route to getting married.

The chart below summarizes the gang members - who would be slowly introduced and delineated in the coming scenes, in overlapping vignettes, as the Narrator had earlier described - as a giant jigsaw puzzle with many pieces:

Gang Member Individuals
Motivation for Participation
Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen)
  • an older bookkeeper
  • the financier for the operation
  • Johnny's friend
  • an ex-alcoholic
  • to acquire a large amount of cash from the haul that he had financed, by paying two pros in advance to create diversions during the heist (see below)
* Michael "Mike" O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer)
  • the big-city race-track bartender
  • to provide better medical care for his sickly, bedridden invalid wife Ruthie (Dorothy Adams)
Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden)
  • leader, a veteran criminal
  • an ex-convict, just released
  • to guarantee a future life (marriage) for himself and his longtime girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray)
* George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.)
  • the meek and emasculated race-track window teller/cashier
  • to satisfy his demanding, sultry, trampish and nagging wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) of five years who continually complained about their life of poverty
Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia)
  • a Patrolman First Class
  • a crooked cop
  • to pay off his debts to loan sharks and bookies, such as Leo (Jay Adler)
*inside men

Half an hour earlier, at 6:30 pm after his work-day as the Lansdowne trackside bartender, Mike O'Reilly returned home to his sleeping, invalid, bed-ridden wife Ruthie (Dorothy Adams). He gently daubed her forehead with a handkerchief - and then to remind himself of the upcoming plan, he went to a window where he glanced at the address (on the paper) that Unger had given him at the bar.

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