Killer's Kiss didn't fare too well in terms of public reception and critical response, but Kubrick wasn't deterred. After convincing actor Sterling Hayden to star in the project, Kubrick and producer James Harris were able to secure modest financing from United Artists to film The Killing, a film-noir/heist-thriller that has since spawned a huge cult following amongst film scholars. The film has even been ripped-off to shreds by such contemporaries as Quentin Tarantino.
Essentially, The Killing is a simple crime drama of the most traditional story convention; a robbery attempt that doesn't go to plan, even despite the most meticulous detail and planning invested in the crime. The scene of the crime will be a racetrack, and the criminal mastermind is Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden). The track will be robbed during the seventh race, and this robbery will be enabled through the use of many created diversions involving a bent cop, a sniper and corrupt track employees. Except...one of the employees of the track George Peatty (Elisha Cook) has blabbed about the heist to his uncaring wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) in an attempt to stop her leaving him. Sherry is determined to use the heist for her own gain, and so is her vicious lover Val (Vince Edwards), who aims to throw a spanner in the works.
As opposed to Kubrick's previous effort Killer's Kiss, The Killing is tight, slick and controlled from start to finish. It's the perfect B-movie thriller, with a small splattering of celebrity, a rigid plot and a high level of action. Many critics, including Pauline Kael, cite the film as the 'true' start of Kubrick's career. The film has certainly influenced many other filmmakers, from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs through to Michael Mann's Heat or Guy Ritchie's Snatch. The Killing has a ferocious attitude to it that is hard to find in Kubrick's work; it's almost angst-ridden and boiling with a fiery edge which seems to confirm it's one of the director's early works. It's confident and assured, and yet youthful and fresh - the amount of fantastic touches are matched by the number of naïve indulgences, and yet this adds to part of the film's cheap charm, in the same fashion as Kubrick's previous effort Killer's Kiss.
Many summaries of the film have claimed the protagonist Johnny Clay to be a loser struggling to cash in on one final job. However, if governed by Sterling Hayden's fine performance as Clay, it's hard to sense the criminal mastermind as any sort of loser. If anything, his demise seems to be determined by factors outside of his control. Rather than promoting the tired message of crime not paying, The Killing could just as equally be portraying the notion that in order to accomplish a task man can only rely upon himself.
In terms of performances, the cast pulls out the stops in ensuring the film achieves its highest attainable level. Hayden graces the screen with considerable power and refined charisma, and his straight-talking, no-nonsense approach to the heist clearly follows the conventional mastermind. It's no surprise Kubrick recast him in Dr. Strangelove as the hilarious Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. Elisha Cook gives a deliciously weedy and yet sympathetic performance as George, forever balancing the audience between pity and annoyance over his weakness to his wife Sherry's manipulations. In terms of her performance as Sherry, Marie Windsor is the film's highlight, oozing a seductive yet dangerous quality that renders her a far distance from the audience's trust. It's these three central performances that ensures The Killing as a cult-classic of the fifties B-movie generation.
Although Kubrick should be given the lion's share of the credit, he is helped tremendously by crisp cinematography by Lucien Ballard and claustrophobic editing by Betty Steinberg. In terms of Kubrick's and his direction of The Killing, the film comes to represent a maturity that served him superbly for his next feature Paths Of Glory. Kubrick revels in the use of multi-narrative flashbacks and the lack of a defined protagonist until the film's second half. However, there are occasions in the first half of the film in which the plotting is deadened by stilted storylines and flat sequences, and this is an accusation that could be levied also to Killer's Kiss and Paths Of Glory. Whereas Kubrick could easily deliver a film's killer payoff, he still had to learn the tricks of the trade when it came to actually serving the denouement. Despite this, The Killing is still low-budget, low-scale Kubrick at a formidable level, and is a pleasurable viewing experience to a casual onlooker or even the most authoritative cinematic student.
Presented in the film's original fullscreen ratio in black-and-white, MGM have given each of the three early Kubrick films similar transfers, with sharp and detailed imagery counter-acted by print shimmering with excessive dirt and edge enhancement. The transfers of each film exhibit the film in a pleasing fashion, even if the overall effect is far from perfection.
Each of the early MGM Kubrick films are presented in their original mono soundtrack, and are clearly audible if slightly low in terms of volume level. The Killing has a fine sound mix if uninspired in terms of general ambience and background detail. The mix is clearly dialogue friendly, but lacks a strong presence. Despite these misgivings, it's still an acceptable presentation of The Killing in audio form.
Menu: A static menu comprising of some promo shots from the film.
Packaging: Presented in the standard MGM amaray template with identical cover artwork to that of the Region 1 version and a chapter listing printed on the reverse of the inlay and visible via the transparent amaray.
Trailer: Sadly, each of the three early Kubrick MGM releases are only graced with the original trailer in the form of extra features.
A tight and tense B-movie that pushes its limitations, The Killing is a perfect night's entertainment for anyone entertained by classic cult movies. It's the perfect barebones disc, with only the trailer holding up the extras front. Although not as worthy as Paths Of Glory, it maintains its own streetwise charm and rugged intelligence, rendering it a fine Kubrick entry into a sparse career.