Film: The Killing
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Viewing Format: Blu-ray
Criterion Collection #575
When Stanley Kubrick had passed in 1999, I was too young to understand what the world had lost. Sure, I had always been a film fan, but my maturity hadn’t escalated to a point where I could truly appreciate the ‘aged wines’ of cinema. While I had seen a few of his films, the stuff that made them ‘tick’ flew clear over my head. Furthermore, I absolutely loathed A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) – a film which due to Kubrick’s passing had to be finished by Steven Spielberg – so frankly, I had no desire to give the rest of his filmography a chance. In the years that followed however, I rediscovered Kubrick for what he truly was: One of the most important filmmakers of all time. And to qualify that accolade, keep in mind that most directors would die to have just ONE of their films achieve the recognition and critical acclaim that 2001: A Space Odyssey had, but Kubrick did the unimaginable. His entire career is peppered with works of both cultural and historical significance. But one film that’s rarely mentioned in conversation is 1956’s The Killing.
Although it wasn’t his first commercial success – that would happen a year or so later with the Kirk Douglas starring Paths of Glory – The Killing certainly helped to pave the way. The young director only had $330,000 and 24 days in which to shoot, and yet Kubrick, at the age of 27, managed to craft a film worthy of critical praise. One reviewer from TIME even went as far to liken the film’s quality to that of an Orson Welles picture:
“…has shown more audacity with dialogue and camera than Hollywood has seen since the obstreperous Orson Welles went riding out of town on an exhibitors’ poll…”
A remarkable feat, indeed.
But how could it have been done?
To start, Kubrick had a background in photography, and when films are shot in black and white, lighting and framing go a long way. In unison, they’re largely responsible for conveying intended tones, emotions and the like. Now, he wasn’t the cinematographer, but that’s only because a Hollywood union wouldn’t allow him to wear multiple hats. So, veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard was hired, and went on to butt heads with Kubrick during filming. Ballard felt strongly about certain shots and, on occasion, attempted to deviate from Kubrick’s plans. After all, Ballard began working on films with Paramount when Kubrick was just a kid, so he probably felt comfortable schooling the new guy. But Kubrick knew what he wanted and stood up for himself, threatening to fire Ballard if he wouldn’t follow direction. And yet, he didn’t do it by screaming or shouting.
Because while Kubrick was firm, he wasn’t an unreasonable hardass. Outside of getting the best shots, he also had to make the most of his on-screen talent, and he did that by empowering his cast to try different things until he saw ‘it’, that ‘right moment’. This probably didn’t come into play as much during The Killing, but Kubrick still managed to gain the respect of his cast. Actor Sterling Hayden, who played a role in the film, is on record stating the director was “cold and detached. Very mechanical, always confident. I’ve worked with few directors who are that good.”
And in The Killing’s case, that confidence translated to the screen quite well.
The plot involves the robbery of a horse track on its busiest day of the season. Of course, there’ll be gangs of people and gobs of security, so a team of men is constructed – some acquainted, some not – to pull it off. With specific jobs at specific times, those involved must perform in symphony. But as they say, a team is only as strong as its weakest link, and one fella begins a chain of events which bring us to a shocking finale.
An interesting parallel is that, in a way, Kubrick, along with Jim Thompson (co-screenwriter), were planning a heist of their own… except instead of money, they desired our jaws agape at the shocking finale. That meant everything prior had to be on point, so each character needed decent, but not overstated reasons for being part of the plot. The mechanics of the heist itself needed to be rooted in legitimacy. Without motive and plausibility, the audience wouldn’t have cared, which obviously would have resulted in a critical flop. Not only did the screenwriters knock these elements out of the park, their work was the world’s vital introduction to Kubrick’s sensational eye for detail.
I understand this review, at least thus far, comes off far too praiseworthy, and perhaps clouded by my affection for this filmmaker’s legacy. That said, I do have a couple of niggling issues to address.
First, there’s bits of narration to string the film along. I’m not sure if this was to keep things simple for a 50’s audience, or if they were trying to emulate a documentary, but it ultimately felt unnecessary.
I’m a huge fan of that old-school acting in cinema… where everything comes off blatantly rehearsed, yet the performances are so captivating, you just don’t care. As a result, even the most dramatic films had an air of fantasy about them, and for the most part, The Killing is no exception. Although character motivations aren’t overstated, they still cling to familiar tropes – a cop looking to pay off a debt to the mob, a love-struck dope attempting to prove himself to a woman that doesn’t appreciate him, etc. – and the cast carries them out as you’d expect (and I mean this in the best possible way, because everyone is fantastic).
But this presents something of an identity crisis within the film.
The Killing is rather tame for a modern audience, but in the 50’s, people were used to that ‘stage play’ vibe. And yet, as this film edges closer to the grand finale, the heist drifts uncomfortably close to reality… but only at times. One moment you’re holding your breath, the next you’re reminded you’re watching a movie… and seeing cinema collide with reality is sort of strange. It’s as if someone bumped into the projector, and now we’re able to see what’s happening BETWEEN the frames. A surreal nightmare, if you will, albeit one I don’t want to awaken from.
This film has clearly paved the way for a new kind of crime drama, and that’s not just me talking. Its influence was felt when Hollywood decided to go big with the Rat Pack starring Ocean’s 11 (1960), and there’s still various winks and nods to Kubrick’s directorial debut today. The beginning of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, for example, features a group of masked men performing a heist, and one of those masks is remarkably similar to what we see in The Killing.
The influence on Reservoir Dogs, a more contemporary piece, was more heavy-handed. As a matter of fact, Quentin Tarantino, who many consider the master of pulp, has openly addressed this:
“[…] didn’t go out of my way to do a rip-off of The Killing, but I did think of it as my Killing, my take on that kind of heist movie.”
But was his directorial debut merely an homage? The similarities are many and never subtle. How the crew is pieced together, the nonlinear story structure, the ‘greek tragedy’ effect… it’s all there. As a result, many have pointed their finger at Tarantino for crossing the line from inspiration to plagiarism. I can certainly see the argument for that, but that’s a conversation best saved for another time.
I WILL say that while I don’t believe imitation is always the sincerest form of flattery, it at least means a film and/or filmmaker has left their mark in a way that, as stated at the beginning of this review, most directors only dream about. While The Killing may be the LAST film people think about while analyzing Kubrick’s career (if they think about it at all), that doesn’t diminish the influence it’s had in the industry.
After all is said and done, The Killing is one of the most fascinating old-school crime dramas I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, and that’s because most every aspect of this film culminates into something special. I mean, I’ve seen so many movies at this point, it isn’t often I find myself on the edge of my seat, and yet Kubrick managed to pull my strings of anxiety in ways I hadn’t felt in quite some time. Cinephile or average filmgoer, this is one you shouldn’t miss.
Aspect Ratio 1.67:1, AVC encode, 1080p
There’s a common misconception amongst the masses when it comes to high-definition physical media. “Well, that movie is old and black and white, so it wasn’t even in filmed in high definition.” But oh, if only the casual consumer would sit down and watch this transfer.
When discussion a Criterion release, expectations are inherently high. Thankfully, they’ve met, if not exceeded that bar.
When handled improperly, I think black and white films have a tendency to suffer the most. If black levels are off, the image looks washed out and flat. On this Blu-ray however, Criterion has managed to present flawless contrast ensuring Kubrick’s mood lighting remains effective, and that a healthy perception of depth exists at all times. That perception is further supported by a sharp and detailed picture which hasn’t been marred by overzealous digital cleaning. No, the film – which appears to have been a fine source for them to work with – has a fine incorporation of grain, ensuring every miniscule detail can be seen, from skin texture, to arm hair, to threading on jackets. As a result, there’s a natural sharpness which, I assume, didn’t require any digital tampering on Criterion’s part. Last but certainly not least, if the film Criterion used for this presentation had any scratches, dirt and debris, they’ve done a fine job with its careful removal, because The Killing looks surprisingly clean considering its age.
My only nitpick is that their method of video compression isn’t a perfect 10. It’s close enough, though. There’s some very minor macroblocking, but the only way you can tell is if you pause the movie and examine a still frame, and that’s only when you’re dealing with darker shots. But let’s be honest, shall we? Nobody is going to watch this Blu-ray frame-by-frame, and in motion, you’ll never notice such minor imperfections (I warned you this was a nitpick, didn’t I?).
All in all, Criterion has released another masterful presentation that any film fan should feel proud to add to their collection.
English LPCM 1.0
This track is about as flawless as the video. Dialogue is crisp and clean, never producing the ‘tin can’ effect which often accompanies older films. There’s also nothing offensive (if anything at all) in the way of hissing, popping, or cracking. The score comes of clean and able, and balanced well enough to never compete with dialogue. If you’re a fan of this film, it simply won’t get better than this.
Killer’s Kiss – Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 film. “But you said 1956’s The Killing was Kubrick’s directorial debut!” Well, for the mainstream, it was. This film has a 67 minute runtime, so it’s not exactly ‘feature length’, but any die-hard Kubrick fan should be thrilled that Criterion opted to toss it in with this release. Well, perhaps ‘toss it in’ isn’t the phrasing I should use, because they’ve put just as much care into this film as the main feature itself.
James B. Harris – An interview with the producer, conducted by Criterion, back in 2010. Here, he waxes about working with Kubrick on the production of this film.
Sterling Hayden – A couple of old clips where Mr. Hayden has gone on record discussing his time with Kubrick on this film.
Polito On Thompson – Robert Polito – author and poet – dissects the work of Jim Thompson (co-screenwriter), including his work on this film, as well as how he viewed Hollywood in general.
Geoffrey O’Brien – A brief take on Killer’s Kiss, and how it would ultimately influence bits and pieces of The Killing.
Trailer for Killer’s Kiss
Also included, as per usual with Criterion releases, is a booklet. Within is an essay by film historian Haden Guest, as well as an old print interview with Marie Windsor in regards to this film.
*Please note that all pictures utilized in this review are not representative of the Criterion Blu-ray.