Every split second counts at the racetrack, where fortunes are won and lost in as much time and the smallest decisions carry a built-in intensity few other locations can claim. The Killing, a blisteringly taut decimation of post-WWII entitlement, understands this better than any other crime film. Stanley Kubrick’s 84-minute jigsaw puzzle transports the dancing moral contortions of film noir to the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the track, infusing them together with dread-inducing temporal uncertainty. This story of low-level hoods and unlikely schemers planning to rob a Los Angeles racetrack condenses the moment-to-moment plotting typical to the heist movie, revealing a nonlinear, fractured narrative seething with anger.
Like a splash of cold water to the face, Kubrick institutes a dry, almost clinical voiceover to chart the progress of the robbery, introducing each man’s hidden reasons for letting their freedom ride. The sobering audible device echoes Dragnet in all the right ways, speaking in past tense as if these men were ghosts foolishly trying to change what has already been predetermined. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), just released from a five-year stint in prison, instigates the operation, recruiting inside men from the track like bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer), bookkeeper Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), and clerk George Peatty (Elisha Cook), along with corrupt policeman Randy Kennan (Ted DeCorsia), to orchestrate the daring heist. Each represents a specific role in the intricate process, a key piece to the overall puzzle. How they fit together and break apart becomes Kubrick’s core interest.
The men of The Killing all believe their newly acquired riches will salvage whatever opportunities they’ve previously squandered. Johnny needs the cash to run away with his innocent lover, Fay (Coleen Gray), and the motif continues down the line; Marvin wants to sustain a strange paternal relationship with Johnny, Mike hopes to cure his sickly wife, and Randy intends to free himself from a brutal loan shark. But it’s the weak-willed George who becomes the final straw on the camel’s back. George naïvely believes the money will satisfy his wide-eyed viper of a wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor). Her passive-aggressive interrogations are ripe with assaults on George’s nonexistent masculinity, and what begins as idle pillow talk quickly avalanches into full-blown disaster.
In the heist film, any one character’s faith in the group can dissolve in favor of self-survival at a moment’s notice. Early on, Randy even warns, “I’ll take care of myself. That’s my specialty.” And as the mistakes pile up, making a once carefully modulated plan on paper turn to dust, The Killing constantly threatens to fulfill such genre conventions. But Kubrick withholds the expectation of capture, betrayal, or death until the last possible moment, stretching out Jim Thompson’s bullying and brilliant dialogue sequences, juxtaposing them with hypnotically fluid long takes through clogged interior spaces. These precise visual aesthetics suddenly explode with violence, best exemplified in the moment thuggish Maurice (Kola Kwariani) stages a planned brawl in the track common area, taking on a platoon of cops in the process, or when Johnny watches sniper Nikki Arcane (Timothy Care) shred a paper target with automatic shotgun fire. Violent uncertainty like this infects every corner of the frame.
Lucien Ballard’s glorious shadow-play cinematography helps Kubrick further manipulate space through layers of texture, using angular key lighting to pin spotlights on each character’s fatal flaws. Johnny’s overconfidence during a roundtable planning session, George’s easily manipulated rationale, and Sherry’s tragic underestimations of George, all resonate because of their gripping noir environments. The robbery itself feels like a cinematic summation of Kubrick’s Kino-nastiness. Set inside the cavernous maze of the racetrack infrastructure, it’s a nearly wordless and always gripping example of narrative misdirection. Johnny dons a clown mask, pulls a shotgun out of a flower box, and patiently waits for a moment to pounce; his house of cards seems set up perfectly for success. But the scales quickly tip against him, and the sequence becomes a panicked sprint to the finish line, much like the horse race unfolding in the background. The track announcer’s play-by-play makes for a fitting and instinctual parallel to his breakneck smash and grab.
Underneath The Killing’s clockwork violence is a pungent layer of irony, something Kubrick would further explore many times later in his career. A vicious symbolism connects disintegrating artificial surfaces and mortally wounded characters, a motif that comes to fruition when George stumbles out of Johnny’s apartment late in the film, his face pockmarked with buck shot horrifically personifying the aforementioned paper target. Kubrick’s wicked brand of jet-black irony takes many other forms (Sherry’s parrot squawking loudly during her death knell is especially potent). But it’s the final image of an ocean of cash blowing in the wind that best echoes the uncontrollable and unseen machinations working against these desperate men. Despite a collective hope for the future, they will always be puppets, no matter how hard each tries to cut the strings of fate. Screw Murphy’s Law; this is Kubrick’s Law, and no one makes it out unscathed.