Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Heist Week: The Killing Proves Financially Beneficial.

The Killing

Heist films are one of my favourite genres. It is one of the few places where the heroes are the villains and the villains are usually law enforcement or men more despicable than our heroes. Unfortunately this genre is oversaturated. The heist formula has become so commonplace now that even when it is executed well, such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, the film often does not get more than an “it was alright” reception from audience. Nowadays it takes genre defying heist films like Inception to really get audiences’ hearts racing.

While it may not be a “game changer” by any stretch, The Killing is one of the more satisfying heist films that uses the traditional “team based” formula to maximum effect. The plot centres around a criminal, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), who orchestrates one last big score before settling down with Fay (Coleen Gray). Clay sets his sights on pulling off a daring heist at a local racetrack. He assembles a team of individuals ranging from a sharpshooter, Nikki Arane (Timothy Carey), to racetrack insiders at the betting window like George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.). If the team follow Clay’s plan they will be dividing up two million dollars of stolen cash. However, when George’s wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) gets wind of the scheme, she and her lover, Val Cannon (Vince Edwards), make plans of their own for the money.

Thanks to the scant 83 minute running time, not to mention its news reels style narration, The Killing never overstays its welcome. In fact it crackles at a rather swift pace. Kubrick quickly introduces all the character at the beginning of the film and therefore the bulk of the film is devoted to watching the heist unfold. The heist itself is shot well as Kubrick bounces back and forth in time to show the events that took place before the heist began. This allows the audience to get a good grasp of each team member’s responsibilities.

The bulk of the characters are rather one note, but that actually works in The Killing’s favour. Sherry in particular is so conniving that even Clay picks up on it within minutes of meeting her. In one of the best lines of the film Clay blatantly calls out Sherry’s gold-digging ways by stating that she has ”got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.” It is her Lady MacBeth like ways that provides the film with it much needed punch especially in regards to how she treats George throughout.

Speaking of George, Elisha Cook Jr. gives a strong performance as the hapless husband who is too blind to see that his wife is manipulating him. Cook Jr’s performance is only second to Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Clay. He provides Clay with a level headed coolness that is very reminiscent of the character Danny Ocean in the Ocean’s Eleven film. It would not be surprising if The Killing inspired Sinatra’s Ocean’s Eleven film as it came out four years after The Killing. Plus the original Ocean’s Eleven ends in a fashion that is very similar to the ending in Kubricks’s film.

Sure The Killing may not be considered original by today’s standards, but that should not be considered a knock against the film. The film succeeds as an entertaining heist film that takes a familiar formula and executes it extremely well.

The Killing is part of our The Must See List series.


  1. I think one of the remarkable things about this movie is the fact that it is so economical, at 83 minutes, that nothing is wasted story-wise. I wouldn't want every heist movie to be this way, but this is a nice way of packing a lot of action into a short time frame.

  2. I adore this film. Best served with a side-salad of The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi, I find.
    Marie Windsor is wonderful, as ever.

  3. 62 on th enoir list. i can't wait. i love this film. such a powerful ending.

  4. No clue on the run-time - but I do believe that the film is getting a Criterion Release, yeah?

    Definitely need to check this one out.

  5. @Rich – I really enjoyed that everything in the film has a purpose. Like you mentioned, nothing is wasted in the film.

    @Colin – I still need to see both The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi. Heard great things about both.

    @Toby- It is up there in regards to my favourite endings. I especially enjoy the look on Clay’s face…priceless.

    @Duke – It is a fun film to watch. It is a little more serious than the Ocean’s Eleven series but not as serious as Heat.

  6. CS - Rififi is worth seeing for the half hour long heist scene alone. I didn't even realize it was devoid of both dialogue and music until I read that in the IMDB trivia section afterwards.

  7. Nice one, this is one of my favorite Kubrick films, despite being an early one and not as "Kubricky" as he'd get later. And it actually is kind of ground-breaking in that showing the same events from different points of view hadn't really been done before. At least, not in such a time-altering way. First time I saw it, it took me a minute to figure out what he was doing, and then it was just awesome the rest of the way, seeing all the temporal puzzle pieces fall into place.

  8. @Chip Lary - I will have to add Rififi to the must see list.

    @Jandy - Come to think of it you are right, by time the film originally came out no one was using the technique of telling the same story from multiple view points. I also like that the film was not as "Kubricky" as his other films. It once again shows Kubrick's diversity as a director.


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