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March 02, 2011

THE KILLING — CLASSIC FILM PICK

 
 
KillingStanley Kubrick's early experiences working as a photographer for Look magazine informed his signature one-point perspective for filmic compositions. Kubrick’s shrewd technical skills with a camera were naturally suited to fulfilling the detailed demands of the noir genre, as evidenced in “The Killing,” a gutsy heist thriller with atmosphere to spare.

Based on the Lionel White novel "Clean Break," Kubrick co-wrote "The Killing" with pulp writer Jim Thompson. It was Kubrick's first feature-length film.

Interweaving a documentary editorial style, the caper storyline follows a group of tough guys who rob New Jersey's Meadowlands racetrack while the ponies run. Sterling Hayden plays the film’s criminal mastermind Johnny Clay with a ferocity that seethes with palpable heat. Hayden's burly good looks and tenacious demeanor make him an ideal anti-hero. Fresh out of prison, the financially ambitious Johnny depends on the involvement of shady racetrack teller George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) to pull off the robbery. George's troubled marriage to Sherry (Marie Windsor), a domineering money-hungry adulteress, causes him to spill the beans to her about the possible riches that wait. He desperately wants to win her approval, if not her potential for showing some affection. The mean-spirited Sherry overreaches when she tries to involve her secret boyfriend in the action. Here’s a new twist on noir’s backstabbing femme fatale trope.

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Stanley Kubrick infuses a dry voice-over narration to put a clinical stamp of observation over the carefully orchestrated raid. The methodic filmmaker employs a then-groundbreaking time-flipping device to evaluate simultaneous action from different perspectives.

The filmmaker was a lifelong chess player. Loving attention is given to subtle details inside the dingy chess parlor where Johnny attracts the complicity of the Russian boxer who misdirects attention. The boxing lout is appointed to start a fight at the racetrack bar. The violent event is replayed to give context as to how the manufactured brawl masks the robbery in progress.

Social cues are everywhere. Provocative ‘50s era stand-up comic Lenny Bruce's name adorns a burlesque parlor to silently place the public environment of the story. Thoughtful touches, like the monstrous clown masks the robbers wear, later became cliché touchstones for heist movies made 30 years later.

There's a gloomy urgency in "The Killing" that speaks to unseen economic pressures roiling through the country during the mid ‘50s. The film's impressive airport location climax lends a contemporary note of realism to the action. Getting an oversized suitcase on a commercial flight was always a problem. Greed must take its toll on those dumb and daring enough to pursue it.

Thekilling

Not Rated. 85 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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