Review: The Killing

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson
Producers: James B Harris
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C Flippen, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr
Year: 1956
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 85 min

The latest DVD to be scratched off my ‘unwatched DVD’s list’ was one of Kubrick’s early breakthrough films, noir classic The Killing. Now I’m a big fan of film noir, but I’ve not seen anywhere near as many as I should have, including this (before now of course). I’m also quite a Kubrick fan, so I had high hopes for this, but it certainly delivered. I’ll keep my review brief because I’m full of cold and quite tired, but I wanted to give this a mention as it really impressed me.

The Killing centers around a complex plot to steal a vast amount of money from a racetrack while it’s still open for business. Everything seems to be running according to plan until minor player George (Elisha Cook Jnr) tells his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) of the plan and she brings her secret lover into the equation. Of course the heist goes wrong (not until late on mind you) and Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) has to pick up the pieces. The story jumps around it’s timeframe showing coinciding events from different perspectives, which gives it a fresh feel considering the age of the film.

The thing that impressed me most about The Killing though was the pacing. This is one of the most taut thrillers I’ve ever seen. Not a frame is wasted as the film builds tension towards the heist, which itself is expertly played out, then the aftermath is short, sharp and gleefully fatalistic. There are no lulls, no pointless side-plots and no throwaway love interests (well, Hayden’s character sort of does, but she only appears in the opening and ending scenes so doesn’t really register). The editing is masterful for a film of it’s vintage, not only in it’s energy, but in some great scene bridges. The music, although over the top and lacking a strong theme, helped build the tension very effectively too.

It’s quite a stereotypical noir in many ways; it’s got a manipulative dame in Marie Windsor, tough guy machine gun dialogue and great use of black and white high contrast photography. Because of this it doesn’t necessarily offer anything original or groundbreaking to the genre, but it’s done so effectively I didn’t care. Saying that, there are quite a few impressive uses of camera movements that seemed ahead of their time with a couple of long dolly shots through several rooms standing out in particular. Also the clever use of flashbacks mentioned earlier was probably quite original for the period.

The only negative comments I might make were that I could hardly understand what one of the characters was saying through his thick accent and a scene where the same man takes on several police officers got a bit silly when his shirt got ripped off in two parts and he started doing wrestling moves on them! Some of the other performances are quite dated too. These factors didn’t bother me much though and just added to the charm of it all really. At the end of the day, films this tightly executed and exciting rarely come around, so I couldn’t recommend this more.

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Bob Turnbull

Just realized I never commented on this…

"The Killing" is one of my favourite noirs. The pacing is spot on and it just keeps moving from one thing to another. As a late period noir, it certainly reuses many of the conventions, but like you said, I don't care.

Hugely entertaining with a great Sterling Hayden performance and an absolutely perfect ending.


I somehow missed this completely. Definitely one of my favorite of Kubrick's and what a great ending!

Jandy Hardesty

I think this was one of the first films I saw that played with multiple perspectives on the same event – brilliant, brilliant move.