Friday, March 12, 2010

Underrated Movie #52: The Killing

Title: The Killing
Year: 1956
Director: Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove)
Writers: Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson, based on a novel by Lionel White
Stars: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards (Murder By Contract), Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook (Electra Glide in Blue)

The Story: A career criminal recruits five frustrated working men to help him heist a horse track on race day. As a god-like narrator dissects their failings, we see how a series of small errors lead to one disaster after another.

How it Came to be Underrated: As Kubrick’s films got more and more prestige, this early noir began to look like a work-for-hire by comparison. This may not be 2001, but it’s a serious Kubrick effort, showing his usual mastery.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Anyone who’s seen Kubrick’s more famous movies will recognize many of his favorite themes in utero here: the uselessness of ambition, the treachery of emotion and the ironic triumph of fate over free will
  2. Jim Thompson barely eked out living as a crime novelist while he was alive, and he was lucky to get the job writing dialogue for this movie (Kubrick was part of his small cult of fans). Since his death, his reputation has soared, and he’s now considered to be not only a great crime novelist, but a genuine literary giant. Straddling both worlds, he's able to provide heartbreaking little vignettes of the criminals’ lives, along with lively hard-boiled dialogue like this: “George has stumbled onto something big!” “That meatball?” “A meatball with gravy!”
  3. Kubrick made such a classic-looking noir that it seems like it could have been shot ten years earlier, but there are also progressive touches that mark it as way ahead of its time. In one scene a member of the team is doomed by his own racist treatment of a parking attendant. In another, our hero’s grizzled old drinking buddy suddenly admits that he wants to marry him! I react with disbelief every time I watch the movie! Did I hear that right?? But there’s really no other way to interpret it. At least not to my modern ears.
  4. The crime is planned down to the smallest detail, but it all falls apart. Why? Why do so many bands break up as soon as they get their first hit single? Because people can keep their hopes and fears and jealousies in check as long as there’s no money on the table, but as soon as you can smell success, (to paraphrase Langston Hughes) all the deferred dreams stop sagging like a heavy load and instead start to explode.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Kubrick’s previous movie was a much lower-budget noir, Killer’s Kiss. His next was his breakthrough into prestige pictures, Paths of Glory. These three great movies nicely showcase the rise of a filmmaker whose ambition could not be contained.

How Available Is It?: It’s available on dvd or you can watch it instantly.

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