California Literary Review

100 Greatest Gangster Films: The Killing, #54

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October 18th, 2012 at 12:05 am

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Sterling Hayden stars in The Killing. (1956-NR)

There are two great reasons to see The Killing, Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 caper film about a botched racetrack heist. First off, the movie served as inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. And second, The Killing stands up as a solid work on its own.

It’s a quick (85 minutes), suspenseful story with few wasted words or actions. It’s got all the essential elements of a potboiler—plot twists and double-crosses, strong men and weaklings, sharp-talking crooks and one evil temptress.

First things first. Tarantino was turned on to The Killing as a young man working behind the register at a movie rental store. He fell in love with the film, especially for its time-arcing plotline that shows the robbery scheme from each participant’s perspective. Years later, when Tarantino wrote the screenplay for Reservoir Dogs, he said, “I didn’t go out of my way to do a rip-off of The Killing. But I did think of it as my Killing, my take on that kind of heist movie.”

The similarities are certainly there. Both films, as we said, shift forward and backward in time, requiring a viewer to pay careful attention. Tarantino, by the way, had freer reign to time travel. Kubrick’s bosses at United Artists sent his original version back, saying he needed to make it more linear and add a narrator for clarity.

Both films center on a crime gone wrong and show some of the participants after the fact, trying to figure out what happened. And both feature a group of gangsters, most of whom never met before, participating in a caper where they don’t all get to learn each other’s roles.

In The Killing, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Pink and the others are replaced by a crew of former cons and disaffected racecourse employees who come together for one crime—the multimillion dollar stickup of a California horse track. Their mastermind is the hardened Johnny Clay, who has just finished a five-year stint at Alcatraz and figures that if he’s going to chance doing time again, the rewards ought to be worth the risk.

Clay is played by Sterling Hayden, an actor you’ll immediately recognize from his portrayal of Capt. McCluskey in The Godfather. You know, the corrupt cop who breaks Michael Corleone’s jaw and later ends up face down in his plate of veal at that Italian restaurant? He doesn’t get shot in the throat in this movie, but things don’t turn out much better for Johnny Clay.

His plan requires six men to act independently but in exact synchronization. One, a former wrestler, must create a distraction for police by starting a fight at the track’s bar. Another, the bartender, must be part of that fake brawl, and also smuggle and hide a rifle into the track’s storeroom. There’s a Caspar Milquetoast betting-window teller who opens the door to let Johnny into that storeroom. And there’s a psycho sniper whose job it is to create panic at the track by shooting the lead horse in Race 7.

Of course, there’s also Johnny, who collects the hidden gun, forces his way into the office where track receipts are kept and emerges with $2 million in hard cash. The sixth plotter is a corrupt cop, whose role is to wait at a window below that office as Johnny hurls out the duffel bag of bills.

It all seems to work perfectly. But, of course, the movie’s more fun if things unravel. And so they do.

We won’t reveal all the details, but suffice it to say there’s a woman involved. One of the basic tenets of 1950s gangster movies seems to be that no matter how brilliantly planned a caper might be, there’s always a dame around to screw things up. In this case, the harlot is Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor), the sexbomb wife of nerdy track teller George (Elisha Cook Jr.), who spends her days lounging around in lingerie and emasculating her mouse-like spouse with lines such as, “Sure you’ll get rich, honey. Did you put the address on the envelope when you sent that letter to the North Pole?”

Anyway, Sherry is not to be trusted. And as good as Johnny’s plan might be, he certainly would have been smart to do deeper background checks on the families of his makeshift crew.

The Killing is based on a suspense novel by Lionel White, a pulp-fiction author who had at least four of his books converted into films. Most of the taut dialogue was written by Jim Thompson (a.k.a. “The Dimestore Dostoevsky”), author of six books, including The Grifters and The Getaway, that were later translated into popular movies.

HIT: Actor Timothy Carey steals the show as Nikki, the seemingly stoned beatnik sociopath hired to shoot the racehorse. Carey spent his career portraying crazies and heavies. His twisted on-camera presence prompted big-time talents Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando to hire him; and his warped, real-life personality compelled both to fire him. Carey turned down roles in both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. In this movie, his glee at the chance to murder a horse is downright chilling.

MISS: The movie’s ending—which we won’t give away—is a real letdown. It’s as if the scriptwriters, after carefully plotting the first 80 minutes, ran out of ideas and had the main character step off a curb and get run over by a taxi. He doesn’t, but what you get isn’t much better.

WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “At 27 Writer-Director Stanley Kubrick, in his third full-length picture, has shown more audacity with dialogue and camera than Hollywood has seen since the obstreperous Orson Welles went riding out of town on an exhibitors’ poll. What’s more, Director Kubrick made his entire movie for a price ($320,000) that would hardly pay for the lingerie in an Ava Gardner picture, with the result that The Killing seems likely to make a killing at the cash booths.”—Time

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Forget that cash-booth bonanza, this movie was a box-office dud. Still, its pace and originality gained its young director a reputation as a Hollywood comer. Actor Kirk Douglas especially liked his work and helped Kubrick land his next two jobs, directing Douglas in Paths of Glory and Spartacus.

REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Watch it once on its own. Then watch it a second time, right before or after Reservoir Dogs.

DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The cheap suitcase Johnny buys to transfer the stolen cash from the duffel bag. Hey, if we were trying to sneak around with $2 million, we wouldn’t stow it in a $15 valise.

CASTING CALL: Jack Palance and Victor Mature both vied for the lead role that went to Hayden.

VIOLENCE LEVEL: Pretty low, other than seeing a horse get shot.

BEST LINE: Johnny Clay, sizing up the scheming Sherry: “Sure, you like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.”

“I KNOW THAT GUY”: One of the spectators watching the racetrack brawl is a 34-year-old Rodney Dangerfield. He has no lines and is on-screen for about five seconds. Look two men to the left of Johnny Clay and you’ll spot him popping his head out of the crowd.

IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Hard Word (2002), an underrated Australian film starring Guy Pearce about three brothers out on bail coerced into committing a heist at a Melbourne racetrack.

BODY COUNT: Eight.

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Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.

[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]

The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies

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