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.