Johnny (Sterling Hayden) is the mastermind of a horse track heist. The others in the gang—all men who are desperate for cash—know only part of the plan. They include the track bartender (Joe Sawyer), a financer (Jay C. Flippen), a policeman (Ted DeCorsia), and a track clerk (Elisha Cook). The clerk’s wife (Marie Windsor) gets wind of the robbery and let’s her lover know, who plans to rob the robbers. When the wife implies she was raped by the Johnny in order to get more info, things are destined to go wrong.
The Killing was Stanley Kubrick’s breakout film. Shot on the cheap, Kubrick does amazing things with his sub-feature budget. It looks low budget, but two or three times what it actually cost, with some nice shots and a general feeling of an artistic Noir. It wasn’t a big success, but the right people saw it and his career was set.
This is Noir by way of pulp. There’s the normal Noir feel that the world is corrupt, but with less of the nightmare-reflection that defines other Noirs, and more of a feeling of sleaze. The dialog is blatant and broad, just keeping this side of humor. It makes the flick fun, if trivial. Once we get to the crime, things get more pulpy and the film’s universe becomes one controlled by irony.
This was never going to be a great film, but it could have been a better one. The aforementioned budget was the first hurdle, but it became a bigger problem when to get even that required signing Sterling Hayden for the lead. This was during the period when he hated acting (and apparently hated himself). He certainly didn’t seem to have much interest in his character or his lines. His delivery is flat, being both unnatural and boring.
But the mannequin in the lead doesn’t do as much harm as the studio mandated voice-over narration—the stuff of parody. It is exactly what you’d expect from an Abrahams/Zucker film (like Airplane!), all the more so as Kubrick’s distaste for the requirement caused him to make it nonsensical. The stiff narrator reads out precise times that are irrelevant or incorrect and gives character descriptions that only partially apply.
If Kubrick had turned up the pulp-sleaze factor a touch, and dove into the already deep irony, he’d have had a first class comedy. Instead, I’ll call it a second rate Noir.