Part of the thrill of heist films is keeping up with the scheming. The fun is in the complexity, and understanding what various decisions and actions will lead to as the plot unfolds only adds to the enjoyment. A film that forces you to get your brain in gear and listen close is almost instantly engaging, and once it hooks you, you’re along for the whole caper.
The plotting in The Killing is neatly done. Newly released criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) decides to steal around two million dollars from a racetrack, and assembles a team of various characters to help him do so. In classic heist fashion each member is selected for a certain job, each crucial to the overall success of the plan. It’s interesting to see which characters take up larger chunks of screen time, as all are given enough back-story to make their motives worth exploring, even if that doesn’t happen. I’m going to make particular mention of Nikki Arcane here (played by Timothy Carey), he’s a sharpshooter with even sharper features who talks almost the entire time through clenched teeth. It’s a wonder he’s not in every classic crime film.
The main stand-outs as far as characters are concerned are the unhappily married Sherry and George Peatty, acted supremely by Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr. respectively. Their pairing is entertaining in a chiefly melodramatic way – demure George is constantly downtrodden by Sherry’s clear displeasure with him – and their choppy relationship serves as a fitting central thread for the crime and its ramifications.
The Killing may be a film from the 1950s but in a way that doesn’t excuse it from the huge disparity between its two female characters. Sherry, as mentioned before, is an unpleasant delight who hides more beneath her surface than she lets on but is far from one-note. Windsor drops in enough subtle hints that there was a time when she was happy with George but it’s long gone now. On the other hand there is Fay, the girl who Johnny is set to marry after he completes this last robbery. She pops up only briefly at the beginning and end of the film staking a claim to being one of the blandest women I’ve seen in cinema. She fawns over Johnny, readily admitting she’s not pretty or clever and her very existence might as well hinge upon being with him. It’s a shame that the writers couldn’t stretch to creating two believable female characters.
One of the main talking points of the film upon its release was its use of a non-linear narrative, marking it as a clear influence for both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction later on. The structure becomes heavily apparent during the climatic scenes of the heist when multiple events are taking place at once. The device as a whole works well, keeping the audience on their toes and displaying the intricacies of the robbery. It is however, hampered by an ever-present voice-over that reminds us at each scene change of the time and what the characters are doing. Far from its intended purpose, it serves to distract from the action rather than inform.
It does little to derail the film though, and The Killing moves steadily on its carefully plotted course resulting in a satisfying conclusion. As good as Kubrick’s direction is, this is a great example of a good script being essential to a good film.
Next time on my Kubrickian journey, Stanley takes to the trenches in Paths of Glory.
My previous Kubrick review for Killer’s Kiss can be found here.