I’m used to thinking of Stanley Kubrick as a fully-formed artist, the meticulous craftsman behind mind-boggling technical achievements like Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It now seems obvious, but it never before occurred to me that the director must’ve had many, many stepping stones to that machine-like precision in his early career. 1956’s The Killing is an excellent snapshot of what early-career, still-figuring-it-out Kubrick looks like while still exhibiting the promise of what he’d later accomplish with more experience & larger budgets. In a way, its small-scale genre film territory is much more in tune with my usual cinematic interests than Kubrick’s grander, more precise productions, so seeing it screen locally at The Prytania Theater was oddly more of an eye-opener than similar screenings of works like Barry Lyndon or A Clockwork Orange. I was already aware Kubrick was capable of large-scale technical anomalies; what I had never seen before was him paying his dues in the low-budget genre film trenches.
Purported to be Kubrick’s first professional-level production, The Killing is a straight-forward, late-period noir with all the bells & whistles that genre descriptor indicates: intense black & white cinematography, over-written voice over narration, dangerous criminals, even more dangerous dames, guns hidden in flower boxes & musical instrument cases, etc. The story concerns the planning, execution, and unraveling of a heist at a race track. It’s like a less zany precursor to Logan Lucky, except with horses instead of NASCAR. It even preempts some of Logan Lucky’s humor, especially in a drag-ready performance from Marie Windsor as the wandering, dangerously greedy wife Sherry Peatty. As a disparate group of sweaty men plan, execute, and lay low from the race track robbery that’s meant to make them millionaires, Sherry lazes in her lingerie, swills liquor, hurls insults at her husband, and fetches her on-the-side boy-toy to retrieve the stolen cash for her by any means necessary. Her plan is just as disastrous as the heist she’s attempting to usurp, but she’s consistently amusing in her cold-hearted quips in a way that transforms The Killing into The Sherry Peatty Show. There’s a humor to the way the central heist, an operation commanded by a contingent of macho brutes, is ultimately all in service of a woman who hardly ever leaves her apartment. The movie also ends on an even sillier joke where a small, rascally poodle becomes an even bigger bane to the burly men’s aim for quick, easy cash.
As humorous as The Killing can be in its more eccentric details, it still delivers the brutal violence expected of it as a noir-era crime picture. Cops, criminals, horses, and bystanders are torn apart by gunfire. Men and women who threaten the planning of the heist are treated with equal physical force, knocked unconscious by the alpha criminal’s burly fists. Infidelity, liquor, armed robbery, and police corruption define the film’s borders, establishing a crime world setting that’s so in tune with noir sensibilities it often feels like it was assembled entirely of genre tropes. Kubrick was smart to balance that macho brutality with slyly cartoonish humor and an exaggerated femme foil, a tactic he doesn’t often get enough credit for in his later works. There’s an over-the-top absurdity to films like Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and 2001 that’s often overlooked for the sake of praising their technical achievements. Kubrick is understood to be coldly calculating in tone, but his depictions of human villainy often find absurdist humor in the intensity of their brutality, the same way Daniel Day Lewis is oddly amusing in his villainous PTA performances in There Will Be Blood & Phantom Thread. You can feel the early stirrings of that brutal/comedic tension in The Killing, especially in the character of Sherry Peatty, who joins the ranks of humorously wicked Kubrick villains like Jack Torrance and HAL 9000. Marie Windsor deserves that recognition.
The Killing follows another pattern of Kubrick’s later, greater (in scope, at least) works: it wasn’t properly recognized in its time. It’s difficult to understand now, but when his more out-there works like The Shining & 2001 were first released, they were divisive at best. Many critics initially passed off the now-beloved director as an over-ambitious hack. The Killing experienced almost the exact opposite trajectory. Wide audiences passed on the film, which was ultimately something of a commercial flop, while professional critics raved about it long enough to keep it in the conversation for Best of the Year lists (and, eventually, repertory screenings like the one I just attended). Six decades later, The Killing still feels essential in the same way it was to critics then – showing immense promise in the stylistic & tonal ambitions of a young director who would eventually go on to accomplish big budget greatness. For genre film enthusiasts, it’s an especially precious gem, as there’s nothing better than an ambitious, talented creator imposing their personal impulses on a set-in-stone structure with its own built-in, pre-established payoffs. The Killing finds a young Kubrick playing by the rules of a strict genre template and struggling to work around the limitations of a modest budget. It’s a rare mode to see him working in and makes for one of his more distinct accomplishments as a result.