Criterion // 1956 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 16th, 2011
Like no other picture since Scarface and Little Caesar!
"You like money. You've got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart."
If the heist Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden, The Long Goodbye) has organized goes according to plan, several long-suffering individuals are going to be exceedingly wealthy for the rest of their days. It's a complex scheme requiring a lot of precise timing, but everyone involved feels the potential payoff is worth the considerable risk. Aiding Johnny in the plan: henpecked husband George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr., The Big Sleep), corrupt cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), professional muscle Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani), bartender Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer, The Grapes of Wrath), financial contributor Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen, The Wild One) and psychotic gunman Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey, Paths of Glory). One slip-up could cost everyone their freedom...or even their lives. Will this motley crew pull off the score of a lifetime?
Considering Stanley Kubrick's reputation for requiring his actors to perform endless takes of a scene and considering that his best-known films tend to be sprawling, madly ambitious endeavors with above-average running times, it's easy to forget what an efficient director he was during the early years of his career. After getting his feet wet with the little-seen Fear and Desire and the low-budget crime flick Killer's Kiss (more on the latter in a bit), Kubrick announced his arrival as a director to be reckoned with by delivering the lean, impeccably-organized, riveting thriller The Killing.
The basic outline of the film is simple: a group of men organize a heist, carry it out and deal with the aftermath. While the actual plan is engagingly complex, the inventive and flavorful manner in which the story is delivered is what turns a decent B-movie into an unforgettable classic. Tinkering with the film's timeline in a manner which is bold even by today's standards, Kubrick finds countless ways to add an element of suspense and intrigue to the film. Had the story been told in linear fashion, the only real mystery would be whether the guys would actually pull it off successfully. Kubrick's structure (largely borrowed from the Lionel White novel upon which the film is based) presents a host of cleverly-staged questions about the specifics of Johnny's plan (as the actual heist is being carried out, the exact nature of what's going on becomes thrillingly clear).
You might think the plot-driven nature of the film combined with the 84-minute running time would lead to a flick short on character development, but the skilled cast of character actors and the flavorful dialogue by esteemed crime novelist Jim Thompson join forces to deliver a film teeming with nuanced, memorable individuals. Kubrick wisely casts unmistakably distinctive faces in every key role, from the rumpled Sterling Hayden to the sad-sack Elisha Cook, Jr. to the squinty-eyed Ted de Corsia to the wild-eyed Timothy Carey. Thompson's razor-sharp dialogue provides fascinating dollops of characterization even during exposition-driven scenes, and we quickly grow to care about these desperate crooks as a result.
As in most noir, there is a sense of inevitable doom from the start, but the genre is rarely so empathetic as The Killing (it's also easy to forget what tenderness Kubrick could demonstrate when the occasion demanded it). To be sure, there are some merciless scenes present, but Kubrick refuses to treat these misguided thugs with spite (save for Carey's unnerving sharpshooter and Marie Windsor's heartless, manipulative housewife). It's the film which pulls off the rare feat of being endlessly attentive to human behavior while also managing to unspool its plot at an exhilaratingly breathless pace. The whole thing eventually winds its way to a pitch-perfect ending, containing a concluding scene which refuses to continue even one second longer than it needs to.
The Killing arrives on Blu-ray sporting a handsome 1080p/1.66:1 transfer which is just about on par with Criterion's exceptional work on Kubrick's Paths of Glory. The picture is crisp and clean throughout, boasting rich detail and considerable depth. The strong background detail allows viewers to fully appreciate the flavorful throwaway items Kubrick litters the film with (a sign offering the prices on chess games at various times of the day, a burlesque show featuring Lenny Bruce, etc.), and there's a pleasing level of natural grain throughout which retains the filmic look of the picture. Blacks are rich and inky, too. Audio is quite strong as well, with sturdy dialogue and a surprisingly crisp-sounding score from Gerald Fried (it's been considerably better-preserved than many soundtracks of the era). The scenes of gunfire and chaos benefit from considerable clarity. This track is much sharper than I expected it to be given the film's age.
The disc contains a handful of exceptional extras, the most prominent of which is a bonus movie: the aforementioned Killer's Kiss. While the film certainly has some rough spots and isn't anywhere near the level of the main feature, it's an engaging little B-movie with a handful of sequences which hint at Kubrick's considerable talent. Criterion made the right move by including this slight little feature (running a mere 67 minutes) as a glorified supplement, as it's not quite strong enough to merit its own release from the prestigious company. Still, it's a very cool addition and worth checking out if you're a fan of Kubrick or film noir. The film also does a little bit of nonlinear storytelling which foreshadows the much bolder moves The Killing would take in that department. The highlight: an extended monologue set to the imagery of a well-choreographed ballet sequence.
Additionally, you get a 22-minute interview with producer Jamie B. Harris; a 24-minute archival interview with Sterling Hayden (conducted in France during the mid-1980s); a 19-minute interview with Jim Thompson expert, Robert Polito; a 10-minute appreciation of Killer's Kiss from critic Geoffrey O'Brien; trailers for both films; a booklet featuring an essay by Haden Guest and a reprinted interview with Marie Windsor. All of this stuff is top-notch, particularly the Hayden interview (as the colorful actor talks candidly about Kubrick, his guilt over testifying before HUAC, his "downward spiral" of a career and much more).
Stanley Kubrick's first great film gets a fantastic Blu-ray release with an exceptional supplemental package. This is a must-own.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film
* Video Essay