Before Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange there was The Killing. Stanley Kubrick’s second foray into film noir instantly became a classic and ultimately, Kubrick’s springboard into Hollywood. The story is simple–a group of small-time criminals, including a corrupt cop in debt to a mobster, a sharp shooter, and an inside man, all led by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) pull off the perfect heist of the winnings from a race track.
Kubrick constructs the film in a series of vignettes which follow each member of the gang and culminates at the race track narrated by a disembodied voice. During one vignette, the film follows the cinematic equivalent of Biff Loman, George Peatty (Maltese Falcon veteran Elisha Cook Jr.) and his two timing wife, Fay. Fay coerces her husband into telling her about the heist. In typical film-noir fashion, Fay’s knowledge results in disastrous consequences for those involved in the heist. The fallibility of man, like in Dr. Strangelove is the theme that prevails in The Killing.
Kubrick combines cinematic elements with a newsreel motif that creates a realistic mise-en scene and quickened pace. The Killing is not about the story, but of the experience. You feel that you are really there with Johnny pulling on rubber clown masks and robbing a race track. This is the first instance in Kubrick’s repertoire were he starts to immerse the viewer into the world that he creates. Kubrick is one of the cinemas most immersive filmmakers making the audience feel that they are in the War Room, or a dystopian London, or in a haunted hotel, or in a crummy race track in Los Angeles. The Killing is Kubrick’s early masterpiece.