The Killing (1956)

8.5 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 8/10
Visual: 8/10

Fun to watch early Kubrick to see where he goes

Rather flat acting, strange narration, and an out of place wrestling scene

Movie Info

Movie Name:  The Killing

Studio:  Harris-Kubrick Productions

Genre(s):  Mystery/Suspense/Drama

Release Date(s):

MPAA Rating: Movie Rating


It’s a high stakes robbery…what can go wrong?

A race track heist is planned with a number of players…orchestrated by convict Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the pieces must come together precisely to pull it off.  Every crime has flaws and unexpected events that can throw-off a plan.  No crime is perfect, and not everyone will get away clean.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, The Killing is the film version of 1955 novel Clean Break by Lionel White and which was adapted by Kubrick and famed crime novelist Jim Thompson.  The film bombed at the box office, but The Killing did help establish Kubrick as a director to watch among critics.  The film has been released on Blu-Ray by Criterion (Criterion #575).


I’m kind of like Krusty the Clown right now…

The Killing followed Stanley Kubrick’s second full length 1955 film Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick really caught the eye of critics with this film.  Despite faring poorly and partially due to Kubrick’s later success it became a cult classic.  The nice crime noir has a lot of what made Kubrick famous (even in later years) and also has a very Hitchcockian feel to it (it felt like I should see a Hitchcock cameo at the train track or something at points).

The script by Jim Thompson is a bit odd.  I like Jim Thompson as an author and have read a few of his books (The Killer Inside Me and The Grifters among others), but the narration aspect of this story is odd.  With the shortness of the film, and the number of characters in the story, it becomes necessary.  The movie’s non-linear style also helps keep clear with the narration, but it almost comes off as an episode of Dragnet or something from a ’50s cop show (but more violent).


I’m a what? I’ve got a lucky horseshoe for you, and I’ll tell you where to shove it!

There are a lot of Kubrick moments in the movie…especially nearing the end.  The odd woman with the problematic dog (saw that coming a mile away), the scary clown mask heist, and the talking bird show signs of what Kubrick will become.  This is Kubrick, but these scenes are also part of what reminds me of Hitchcock.  The odd (and extremely interesting) exchange between the rifleman (Timothy Carey) and an African-American veteran attendant (James Edwards) is very unsettling and reminds me a lot of the uncomfortable bathroom scene in The Shining between Jack Nicholson and Phillip Stone (here, Carey’s view of Edwards is questionable…does he use the N-word just to get rid of him or because he believes it).


Wimpy guy + wife in lingerie = femme fatale

The actors in the film are very no nonsense characters who play their roles for the most part flat.  Despite the generic characters, the script is infused with strange moments like the oddly almost homosexual indications of Jay C. Flippen’s Marvin Unger encouraging Johnny to leave with him after the heist instead of his girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray).  Maybe the two meatiest roles of the film are played by the browbeaten Elisha Cook Jr. and his femme fatale, promiscuous wife Marie Windsor.  While Cook Jr.’s emotions rage, Windsor plays her character rather straight line and feels like she could have gotten more out of it.


And now WWE as presented by Stanley Kubrick…

Visually, the movie also resembles an Alfred Hitchcock film a bit more than a Kubrick film.  The sets, the use of Chroma key shots at the race tracks, and minimal live shots I’m sure were mainly money savers, but were all techniques used in Hitchcock’s crime thrillers (more of the earlier ones).  Still the film looks great, and Criterion’s cleaned up version is worth checking out.  I do kind of question the rather goofy “wrestling” scene which has Kola Kwariani (aka Nick the Wrestler) torn completely out of his shirt and pretty much perform wrestling moves…the movie is better than this scene which looks rather cheap.

The Killing is a nice short film which needs to be seen by fans of Kubrick.  The movie was influential and the style of the multi criminals coming together to perform a heist has become common place now with movies like Ocean’s Eleven and Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino listed this film as an inspiration).  Kubrick followed The Killing with the 1957 World War I film Paths of Glory.


Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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