Released in 1956, The Killing was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature, but his first mature work. A relentless, hard-edged heist picture, it tells the oldest story in the book: the one about a man, a plan, and how it goes wrong. What makes it unique is that no one had ever told the story quite this way before: Kubrick’s movie is like film noir stripped down and reassembled; a custom job on John Huston’s seminal heist movie of 1950, The Asphalt Jungle (in which Kubrick’s lead, Sterling Hayden, also starred).
The man is Johnny Clay (Hayden), an ex-con, fresh from the joint. Johnny’s never been very bright, but he’s put his five years inside to good use, honing a surefire racetrack robbery he calculates will net $2 million. His scheme is audacious, watertight, and timed to the second. He’s gathered a crew, men placed at crucial points like pieces in a jigsaw: a corrupt cop, a track bartender, and a teller at the betting windows – losers all, but trustworthy because “all of them got little problems,” and need the cash. Johnny has all the angles figured. Five minutes in and out, he thinks, and no gunplay. What he learns, when it ends with a pile of corpses and the cops closing in, is there are some things you can’t plan for – like a dissatisfied woman, with big plans of her own.
Kubrick had a plan, too. He calculated that this low-budget crime flick would be his ticket into big-time movie making. He’d been working towards Hollywood. As a self-taught independent in New York, he’d made two features: Fear and Desire (1953), an allegorical war picture; and Killer’s Kiss (1955), a noir-by-numbers, distinguished by its exceptional photography. While making the latter he met James B. Harris, who was trying to break into producing, and suggested they get together.
It was Harris who found Lionel White’s 1955 racetrack robbery novel Clean Break, bought the rights and took it to United Artists. UA agreed to invest $200,000. Harris and Kubrick scraped together another $130,000. It was a ridiculously low budget, even then, but Kubrick was undaunted. Killer’s Kiss had only cost $40,000.
The money allowed him his first chance to work with professional actors. He assembled the finest loser’s line-up in American cinema, all faces with previous noir form: Hayden; the inexplicable Timothy Carey, as the puppy-loving bebop sharpshooter hired to kill a horse as a diversion; and little Elisha Cook Jr as the pathetic teller whose pneumatic, sublimely bitching wife, Marie Windsor, derails the scheme.
They filmed around Los Angeles’ frayed cuffs. LA was a union town, however, and Kubrick, accustomed to photographing his own films, was obliged to hire a cameraman. His choice, Lucien Ballard, had started out in 1930, under Josef Von Sternberg, and didn’t take to the newcomer. The veteran cameraman and the 27-year-old director quarrelled incessantly, but between them rendered the climactic image – Hayden’s stolen millions scattered to the winds like confetti made from dreams–- among the most bleakly beautiful in all noir.
Written in sentences so clipped they could have been composed for a telegram, Clean Break was regular crime fiction. What captured Kubrick was the novel’s structure: White constructed a string of flashbacks, constantly halting the action, rewinding, then progressing along a different line. Kubrick would be endlessly applauded for The Killing‘s stuttering, chronologically fractured narrative – probably the single biggest influence on Reservoir Dogs (1991) – but he lifted it directly from White. His genius was to stick with it: when he previewed the movie, the response was so overwhelmingly negative he almost reedited it as a straight story.
His other inspiration was to have Jim Thompson, godfather of deviant crime fiction, write the script. At that point, Thompson was washed up, a forgotten figure, and drinking heavily. It’s the tension between his nervy intensity and Kubrick’s detachment that makes The Killing so peculiarly alive. Thompson is hot grit scraping Kubrick’s precision engineering, adding vital texture like the sadomasochism of Cook and Windsor’s torture chamber marriage. Thompson’s savagely anguished characters are stray screws rattling inside Kubrick’s machine, getting chewed up and stamped flat.
He was devastated when Kubrick reduced his contribution to a mere “additional dialogue” credit. Still, Thompson agreed to help write his next movie – because, although The Killing performed modestly at the box-office, Kubrick’s ploy of using it as a calling card to the studios worked. MGM signed up the Harris-Kubrick partnership. Kubrick started telling Thompson about a book he’d read. Something called Paths of Glory.