Up until this evening, I have to admit that I have never seen Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.” I know. Shame on me. What kind of critic am I if I allowed this film to slip by? I wasn’t even born when “The Killing” was released in 1956, but that is no excuse.
The truth of the matter is that I have never had the opportunity to watch the film. It wasn’t among the Kubrick films that people talked about in everyday conversation. For every “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dr. Strangelove” that was brought up, not once did anyone recommend “The Killing.” Too bad, because after watching the film on DVD this evening, I have to admit it is one of the best examples of film noir that I have ever come across.
The story is simple. It deals with a race track heist. Yet it is the way that Kubrick tells the story that makes all the difference. He plays with time and narrative, keeping us on edge. He jumps back and forth more times than someone on crank playing the Hokey Pokey. Like all great film noir films, “The Killing” deals with desperate people doing desperate things. To that end, it is the sharp dialogue of Jim Thompson that brings these characters alive.
Kubrick wrote the screenplay, but crime novelist Thompson (“The Getaway,” “The Grifters,” “After Dark, My Sweet“) was brought in to breathe life into the characters, and he succeeds on all counts. There isn’t one uninteresting character in the lot. Each and every one is a vital link to the overall puzzle. A puzzle indeed. Kubrick brilliantly pieces together this crime drama with the finesse of a master. Everything clicks, from camera placement to pacing.
There isn’t a false note in the whole film. By making all of the leading characters antiheroes, the writers make it easy for us to invest in the characters. Sterling Hayden is exceptional as Johnny Clay, the mastermind behind the heist. Through extensive narration and flashbacks, we are introduced to each of the crew members of the heist, the most notable being George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) and his scheming wife Sherry (Marie Windsor, in one of the great dame roles of the period). George is a cashier at the race track who truly believes that his wife loves him and can be trusted. Unfortunately Sherry is having an affair with bad guy Vic (Vince Edwards), who learns of the heist and plans to cut himself in.
Flashbacks are a necessity in film noir, and Kubrick uses them to good advantage, showing us different perspectives of a scene as he introduces each character. By the time the story catches up with itself, you’re almost left breathless. The suspense and tension mount to a point where it is almost unbearable. Even though the characters are criminals, you care enough about them to concern yourself with their fates.
The look of the film is extremely important, and director of photography Lucien Ballard has done a brilliant job of capturing the look and feel of film noir. His lighting design is perfect, allowing characters to move in and out of shadows for effect. Editor Betty Steinberg pulls it all together without leaving any seams, while Gerald Fried’s musical score is ominous and foreboding.
One note of irony. There is a scene in the film where Johnny Clay thanks his friend Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) for his participation, telling him “In my book you will always be a stand-up kind of guy.” Flippen lost a leg to disease several years later and was confined to a wheelchair until his death.
VISION: [ X ] 20/20 [ ] Good [ ] Cataracts [ ] Blind
Even though the original negative is 43 years old, the digital transfer looks amazing. Strong blacks and pure whites and shadows allow Lucien Ballard’s striking cinematography to be duplicated without compromise. The images are sharp and vivid in the 1.33:1 transfer, although there are a couple of blemishes on the negative. Depth of field is exceptional, with every detail visible. Hardly a trace of compression artifacts complete this exceptional effort.
HEARING: [ X ] Excellent [ ] Minor Hearing Loss [ ] Needs Hearing Aid [ ] Deaf
Powerful Dolby Digital English language mono soundtrack. Outstanding mix of dialogue and Gerald Fried’s snappy score comes through loud and clear. Sounds pretty clean for a 43 year old effort.
ORAL: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Poor
Closed captions in English for the hard of hearing, subtitles in French.
COORDINATION: [ ] Excellent [ ] Good [ X ] Clumsy [ ] Weak
The film’s original theatrical trailer, handsome main and scene access menus (ironically, the frames used in the scene access menu look like they’re widescreen), and a 4-page booklet.
PROGNOSIS: [ X ] Excellent [ ] Fit [ ] Will Live [ ] Resuscitate [ ] Terminal
You would be making a fatal error by not adding this outstanding DVD to your collection.
VITALS: $24.99/Not Rated/89 Minutes/B&W/32 Chapter Stops/Keepcase/#907706
DATE EXAMINED: July 4, 1999
PATIENT RELEASED: June 29, 1999
John Larsen ATTENDING RESIDENT
ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen
PATIENT: THE KILLING
BIRTH DATE: 1956
HMO: MGM Home Entertainment