The Killing (film)

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The Killing
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Produced by James B. Harris
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick
Jim Thompson
Based on Clean Break 
by Lionel White
Starring Sterling Hayden
Coleen Gray
Vince Edwards
Elisha Cook Jr.
Marie Windsor
Narrated by Art Gilmore
Music by Gerald Fried
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Edited by Betty Steinberg
Harris-Kubrick Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s)
  • May 20, 1956 (1956-05-20) (United States)
Running time 83 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $320,000[1]

The Killing is a 1956 film noir produced by James B. Harris and directed by Stanley Kubrick. It was written by Kubrick and Jim Thompson and based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White. The drama features Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Marie Windsor, and Elisha Cook Jr.[2]


Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is a veteran criminal planning one last heist before settling down and marrying Fay (Coleen Gray). He plans to rob two million dollars from the money-counting room of a racetrack during a featured race. He assembles a team consisting of a corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia), a betting window teller (Elisha Cook Jr.) to gain access to the backroom, a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey) to shoot the favorite horse during the race to distract the crowd, a wrestler (Kola Kwariani) to provide another distraction by provoking a fight at the track bar, and a track bartender (Joe Sawyer).

George Peatty, the teller, tells his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) about the impending robbery. Sherry is bitter at George for not delivering on the promises of wealth he once made her, so George hopes telling her about the robbery will placate and impress her. Sherry does not believe him at first but, after learning that the robbery is real, she enlists her lover Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) to steal the money from George and his associates.

The heist is successful, although the sharpshooter is shot and killed by the police. The conspirators gather at the apartment where they are to meet Johnny and divide the money. Before Johnny arrives, Val appears and holds them up. A shootout ensues and a badly wounded George is the sole survivor. He goes home and shoots Sherry before dying.

Johnny, on his way to the apartment, sees George staggering in the street and knows that something is wrong. He buys the biggest suitcase he can find to put the money in (and struggles to lock it properly). At the airport, Johnny and Fay aren't allowed to take the suitcase along as hand luggage because of its size, and instead must check it in as regular luggage. Johnny reluctantly complies. While waiting to board their plane, they watch as the suitcase falls off a cart, breaks open and the loose banknotes are swept away by the wind. They leave the airport but are unsuccessful at finding a cab. Fay urges Johnny to flee but he refuses, stating that there is no use trying to escape. The film ends with two officers coming to arrest him.



I give Stanley a free hand to create, and he leaves the money problems to me.

—James Harris[1]

We want to make good movies, and make them cheap. The two are not incompatible.

—Stanley Kubrick[1]

Harris, a "prosperous young television distributor" and Kubrick's "Maecenas,"[1] set up Harris-Kubrick Films with the writer/director; the two convinced United Artists to put up $200,000 for the film, with Harris adding $120,000.[1] The film was the first of three on which Harris and Kubrick collaborated as producer and director in a span of less than ten years; Harris got the rights to the novel after Frank Sinatra, who had approached the author before Harris, hesitated during negotiations.[3] Working titles for the film were Clean Break and Bed of Fear.[3]

Three members of the cast, Hayden, de Corsia, and Carey, had appeared together the previous year in the low budget noir film, Crime Wave.

The art director, Ruth Sobotka, was Kubrick's wife at the time.[3]


Critical response[edit]

The film performed poorly at the box office—in spite of Time magazine's prediction that it would "make a killing at the cash booths" and its assertion that Kubrick "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"[1]—recording a loss of $130,000.[4] However it was critically acclaimed, landing on several critical Top-Ten lists for the year. Fifty seven years after release Rotten Tomatoes rates it 97% fresh, based on thirty-three reviews compiled retrospectively.[5] A.H. Weiler, film critic for The New York Times, wrote, "Though The Killing is composed of familiar ingredients and it calls for fuller explanations, it evolves as a fairly diverting melodrama. ... Aficionados of the sport of kings will discover that Mr. Kubrick's cameras have captured some colorful shots of the ponies at Bay Meadows track. Other observers should find The Killing an engrossing little adventure."[6] Variety magazine liked the acting and wrote, "This story of a $2 million race track holdup and steps leading up to the robbery, occasionally told in a documentary style which at first tends to be somewhat confusing, soon settles into a tense and suspenseful vein which carries through to an unexpected and ironic windup...Hayden socks over a restrained characterization, and Cook is a particular standout. Windsor is particularly good, as she digs the plan out of her husband and reveals it to her boyfriend."[7]

Years later, The Killing gained a "cult" following.[3] For example, Eddie Muller placed the film at 15th among his top 25 favorite noir films, saying "If you believe that a good script is a succession of great scenes, you can't do better than this. Hey, that scene was so good, let's do it again from somebody else's perspective".[8] In his 1999 book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Muller wrote, "With The Killing, Stanley Kubrick offered a monument to the classic caper film, and a fresh gust of filmmaking in one package. Who knew when he wrapped it, that it would be the last amusing movie he'd ever make?"[9]

In 1999, film critic Mike Emery wrote, "Kubrick's camerawork was well on the way to finding the fluid style of his later work, and the sparse, low-budget circumstances give the film a raw, urgent sort of look. As good as the story and direction are, though, the true strength of The Killing lies in the characters and characterizations."[10] The same year, director Peter Bogdanovich, writing for The New York Times, noted that while The Killing did not make money, it, along with Harris-Kubrick's second film Paths of Glory, established "Kubrick's reputation as a budding genius among critics and studio executives.".[11]

On January 9, 2012, Roger Ebert added The Killing in his list of "Great Movies". In his opening remarks, Ebert writes, "Stanley Kubrick considered 'The Killing' (1956) to be his first mature feature, after a couple of short warm-ups. He was 28 when it was released, having already been an obsessed chess player, a photographer for Look magazine and a director of 'March of Time' newsreels. It's tempting to search here for themes and a style he would return to in his later masterpieces, but few directors seemed so determined to make every one of his films an individual, free-standing work. Seeing it without his credit, would you guess it was by Kubrick? Would you connect 'Dr. Strangelove' with 'Barry Lyndon?'"[12]


Quentin Tarantino has said that The Killing was a significant influence on his 1992 film, Reservoir Dogs.[13] Both films feature the use of a fractured timeline from different character perspectives to tell their story, a technique Tarantino copied again for 1994's Pulp Fiction.



Home media[edit]

A digitally restored version of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection.[14]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Cinema: The New Pictures". Time. June 4, 1956. Retrieved July 21, 2010. 
  2. ^ The Killing at the American Film Institute Catalog.
  3. ^ a b c d "Notes for The Killing (1956)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved July 21, 2010. 
  4. ^ Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company The Changed the Film Industry, Uni of Wisconsin Press, 1987 p 158
  5. ^ The Killing at Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 10, 2013.
  6. ^ Weiler, A.H. (May 21, 1956). "The Killing: New Film at the Mayfair Concerns a Robbery". The New York Times. Retrieved February 7, 2008. 
  7. ^ "The Killing". Variety. 1956. Retrieved February 7, 2008. 
  8. ^ Muller, Eddie. "Endless Night: 25 Noir Films That Will Stand the Test of Time". Muller's official website. Retrieved July 21, 2010. 
  9. ^ Muller, Eddie (May 1998). Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. p. ?[page needed]. ISBN 0-312-18076-4. 
  10. ^ Emery, Mike (March 15, 1999). "Film review". The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved February 7, 2008. 
  11. ^ Bogdanovich, Peter (July 4, 1999). "What They Say About Stanley Kubrick". The New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2010. 
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 12, 2012). "The Killing (1956), Great Movies By Roger Ebert". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 10, 2013. 
  13. ^ "7 Classic Movies that Influenced Quentin Tarantino". Retrieved August 24, 2012. 
  14. ^ "The Killing". The Criterion Collection. 

External links[edit]