In Stanley Kubrick’s thrilling heist movie The Killing, a charismatic ringleader, a brute of a man, an expert marksman, a crooked cop and three regular, ordinary guys, none of them natural criminals, are brought together for one reason: money. Fresh out of jail, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), with the help of his cohorts, decides, rather than reform his ways, to raise the stakes. Why go to jail for $500 when you can go to jail for a million? So he muses to his devoted childhood sweetheart, Fay (Colleen Gray), who has waited patiently for his return from five years in Alcatraz. His plan: to steal the takings at a racetrack on one of the biggest days of the season, a haul that could net the men a fortune.
Opening with an urgent, unsettling score, all beating drums and screaming horns, the film plunges the audience into the frantic atmosphere at the racetrack where the heist will take place, before introducing us to the ill-fated men and women caught up in the scheme. A narrator guides us through the unconventional chronology, his laconic delivery adding to the tension, as the intricacies of the plot are revealed in the lean, briskly paced film.
Johnny has devised a near-flawless robbery, but with one major weakness: George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), the track’s cashier, a browbeaten shell of a man who landed a gorgeous wife with never-realised promises of wealth. Emotionally manipulative, Sherry is a hard-boiled vamp, who literally flutters her false eyelashes to bend George to her will, only to sell him out for a future with her equally cynical lover. Perfectly played by Marie Windsor, Sherry is a nasty, manipulative piece of work, who can’t wait to be ‘up to her curls in cash’. But any whiff of misogyny is dispelled by the strength and presence of her character; she also gets the best lines in the film, the pitch-perfect dialogue written by the pulp novelist Jim Thompson.
A classic noir, Kubrick’s third feature revels in the genre’s striking aesthetics, with masterful tracking shots and use of lighting. The characters, George in particular, often appear behind bars, with the shadows in some scenes cast by an iron bedstead – what should have been an object of domestic bliss now a stand-in for George’s unhappy fate. The motif is repeated in a fabulously grim scene, where our characters find themselves trapped, enclosed by bars of light and dark, their fate sealed. The allegories – they are all pieces of a puzzle, pawns on a chessboard – are not always subtle, but they are evocative.
Although Johnny’s meticulous planning pays off, Sherry’s intervention means that there is no chance of a ‘happy’ ending, only a senseless, violent outcome. The very human weaknesses of envy and ego play their part in everyone’s downfall, but, Johnny, in the end, is also a victim of sheer bad luck, the unpredictable and unforeseen. As Sherry says, in the moment when her own fate has been decided for her, it’s ‘a bad joke without a punchline’.