The Killing (1956) | Review by Gavin Lambert [Sight and Sound]

Now that its title has been changed from Bed of Fear (as it was called when I wrote about Stanley Kubrick’s last picture in Sight and Sound) to The Killing, one need really have no reservations at all. This shrewd, engrossing, complete-in-itself melodrama is the kind of film one had begun to think was no longer possible to make in Hollywood.
Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor in The Killing (1956)

by Gavin Lambert

Now that its title has been changed from Bed of Fear (as it was called when I wrote about Stanley Kubrick’s last picture in Sight and Sound) to The Killing, one need really have no reservations at all. This shrewd, engrossing, complete-in-itself melodrama is the kind of film one had begun to think was no longer possible to make in Hollywood.

A success in itself, it becomes an even more definite one in perspective. All art is entertainment, but all entertainment is not art; and the likeliest approach to art is by way of entertainment— letting art take you, in fact, by surprise. Until a few years ago, many American film-makers proved this. They showed a unique talent for the kind of entertainment that assumed the dimensions of art, almost as a by-product, through the fresh, intuitive, original way they handled familiar material.

Thinking back over the many American comedies and thrillers one has enjoyed, one realises how narrowly—almost impossibly, one might say now—their themes were restricted. Yet the characters and their worlds survive. The gentle eccentrics of La Cava’s comedies and the more violent ones of Sturges’: the enclosed, sometimes bizarre criminal communities of The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle; the “nice” family and social groups in the shadow of a menacing intruder, that Hitchcock used to observe so ironically (in Suspicion and Shadow of a Doubt) before inflation set in—all these have a finality, a justness of proportion and effect, because the makers knew their level and willingly kept to it.

Today in Hollywood there is much confused aspiration, and a pretentiousness that seems to stem from a horrible mixture of egomania, fear and revolt. It has resulted in some disturbing new styles, half-baked and over-elaborate sociology, as in Trial, On the Waterfront, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and (when caps are set at Europe) stilted art nouveau, as in Moulin Rouge, The Barefoot Contessa or Moby Dick. Elephantiasis, abetted perhaps but not created by CinemaScope, seems to have afflicted so many directors. Their films suggest a belief that everything they touch will turn to Greek drama. They can make anything important, and will crush a simple thriller situation like The Desperate Hours or a light, astringent musical like Guys and Dolls under the weight of meaningless grandiosity. Carefully, lengthily dredging their material of spontaneity, aiming all too grimly at art, they end with neither art nor entertainment.

The appearance of a film like Drive a Crooked Road, or The Marrying Kind, or Marty, or even The Trouble with Harry adds surprise to pleasure. Neurotic terror of simplicity is replaced by a straightforward confidence in the material, the characters (or, in Hitchcock’s case, the corpses), by direct communication. For once we are not compelled to peer through a series of expensive poker-work screens.

So it is with The Killing (United Artists). Its story reminds us of many, but its imaginative telling makes us forget. All that happens is that a gang, which includes an ex-convict, an ex-alcoholic, a dishonest cop and a track bartender, plans to rob the tellers’ office on the day of a big race. The emphasis is less on physical tension than on the psychological strains imposed. An ingenious narrative device, revealing the action backwards and forwards in time during the few hours preceding the robbery, fastens on the various motives and stresses of intrigue. The anxious little small-time gangster is bound to boast to his sluttish discontented wife, as she is bound to betray his information to her on-the-side lover, a rival gangster; the ex-convict’s fading, devoted girl-friend has to buy airline tickets to Mexico City and then just wait and hope this really will be Johnny’s last job; the nervous bartender has to take the machine- gun hidden in a long flower carton into the racetrack locker room, leave it there for the morning, and watch that no one discovers its contents; the dishonest cop has to pacify a menacing creditor until the robbery is over and he gets his share; and the lonely ex-alcoholic sits in his room, wishing vaguely that Johnny were his son and they might take a holiday together.

So, as it nears breaking point, a shabby, greedy, furtive and treacherous little world is opened up. The robbery succeeds, but rival gang warfare breaks out and the carnage is spectacular. Johnny and his girl, at the moment of escaping with the money, are trapped by a cruel coincidence. Stanley Kubrick, who also wrote the script (from a novel by Lionel White called Clean Break), is equally successful with the vivid, ferocious outbursts of melodrama and the examinations of character. For the action sequences his camera style is abrupt and explosive. Sharp cutting, swift movement, create a series of incisive, surprising images—Johnny in a macabre rubber mask holding up the tellers, the storm of dollar bills that blows across the airfield at night, and (in a sequence that has been slightly abridged in the British version) the silence after the gunfight and the untidy pattern of corpses on the living- room floor.

For the character-scenes, Kubrick relies often on simple long takes that extract full meaning from what is said, the way people look at each other, their involuntary and calculated gestures. There is a dialogue between the little hood (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and his impatient wife (Marie Windsor) as they sip coffee at four o’clock on* the morning before the robbery. They sit facing each other across the table; an alarm clock ticks; in their tired alertness, her careful probing and his prickly suspicion, the camera finds a brilliant completeness.

These are the pleasures of a story well told, an aware and inventive use of the black and white screen. All the main players (Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, as well as the two mentioned) are good, and there is a splendid “natural”, Kola Kwarian, who appears as a chess-loving Greek wrestler employed by the gang. At 28, Kubrick has achieved a sureness of touch unequalled by any other young Hollywood director today. He is also in an enviable position, with a producer who part-finances his films and thereby assures him independence. Armed, in fact, with independence of spirit as well as of resources, he provides a very necessary threat.

Sight and Sound, Autumn 1956


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