Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
You don’t need a whole bunch of Easter Eggs and clumsy sequel set-ups to establish an expansive world within a single film. Think about the likes of Do the Right Thing or Lady Bird, those movies create seemingly endless worlds out of everyday cities simply by making every single one of their characters immediately feel like human beings. It doesn’t matter if they have one line or a hundred, when the characters in those movies speak, you get a sense of their entire life. A similar quality is found in The Killing, which goes through great pains to flesh out its lead characters and in the process creates an engrossing world I could have stayed in for days on end.
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Jim Thompson and directed by Kubrick, The Killing is a 1957 motion picture that gives you both a noir picture and a heist film for the price of one movie ticket! The influence of the former genre is used to incorporate voice-over narration that helps to introduce the audience to the central characters. Crime novel veteran Thompson, who was apparently responsible for all of the dialogue, immediately grips you with his lively descriptions of the character of Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen). What is a guy who the narration makes clear doesn’t like betting doing at a horse racetrack? Well, after hooking you in from the get-go, The Killing proceeds to fill viewers in on what’s brought Unger to this specific location.
Unger is a part of a gaggle of dudes planning to pull off a robbery at this racetrack. Among this crew is meek window teller George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), indebted police officer Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) and their leader, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden). The screenplay for The Killing nicely allows scenes introducing us to these characters plenty of time to breathe so that we can get to know each of them well. A scene where Randy meets with a mob boss he owes money to is a great example of this, ditto for a later sequence where we see Mike O’Reilly tending to his sickly partner. Through these well-paced scenes, the motivations for the leads of The Killing are perfectly established and we also get a chance to enjoy plenty of memorable hardboiled dialogue!
Complications for the heist crew in The Killing emerge once George’s wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor), with the aid of her secret lover, tries to snoop on the planning process for this heist. Eventually, though, we come to the day of the robbery, which see’s the script further embracing bold tendencies as it proceeds to play certain events, particularly a planned fight that breaks out at Mike’s bar, numerous times from differing perspectives. This Rashamon-esque storytelling tactic allows for the distinctly-rendered personalities of the different characters to be entertainingly reinforced while also providing plenty of tension for the viewer. There’s always more going on in a single frame than you can see from just one perspective and The Killing has plenty of fun in unearthing new revelations that were hiding in plain sight all along.
The Killing’s script is an utterly amazing creation, there’s just no other descriptor for it. It’s impressive how well Kubrick and Thompson juggle so many different perspectives without undercutting the tension of the piece. To boot, in just the span of 96 minutes, they’re able to make the individual members of the ensemble cast fully fleshed-out, there isn’t a dud character to be found in this piece. It’s the same quality aforementioned films like Do the Right Thing and Lady Bird employed so well. You don’t need expansive screentime to make a character stand out, you just need sharp writing and memorable acting to ensure your fictional figures leave an impression. Luckily for The Killing, it has both of those attributes in abundance!
That latter quality of memorable acting emerges from a murderer’s row of impressive performances, including Sterling Hayden in a lead performance that sees him exuding a sense of assured authority you can easily buy and an engrossing style of delivering his lines. To boot, Hayden also incorporates these little flourishes of casual humanity (“Oh no, I insist on paying” he says to a kindly hotel owner) so organically into his performance, those are the kind of details that make Johnny Clay a believable human being rather than a hardboiled noir archetype. Hayden really is remarkable in the lead role but the best performance of The Killing is handily is Elisha Cook Jr. as a window teller so timid he makes William H. Macy look like John Cena.
Though he may be soft-spoken, Cook Jr. imbues his work on-screen with these tiny unnerving details, like the way he delivers such possessive lines of dialogue to his wife or the endless sorrow in those wide pupils of his, that unnerves the viewer. Just like how The Killing’s non-linear narrative always shows that there’s more going on in a single scene than you might expect, so too do its performances from Hayden and Cook Jr. demonstrate a multi-layered quality that proves to be endlessly captivating. Toss all those sublime attributes with direction from Stanley Kubrick that always makes use of each inch of the frame, not to mention Marie Windsor delivering the ultimate femme fatale performance and some deliciously violent story turns, and there’s really no shortage of iconic elements to be found in The Killing.