The Killing


Though it was his third film, The Killing is considered to be Stanley Kubrick’s first major picture. It’s a film noir heist film with many classic Kubrick elements in place. There’s a lot to love in The Killing: the powerful closeups, the unstoppable tracking shots, and the beautiful black and white. Though I personally appreciate the technique most, there’s a great story here as well.

The film centers around the robbery of a race track, and a carefully conceived and elaborate plan to accomplish this thought up by ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden). He assembles a vast team, explaining their individual roles without revealing the grand scheme. However, despite the extensive planning, the robbery does not go as anticipated.


The voice over narration places great emphasis on the timing. The narrator outlines exactly what’s happening, and exactly when and where. When he’s handing out assignments, Johnny continually emphasizes on the precision with which they all have to act. However, the depressing part of this is, his plan doesn’t work. There were elements he didn’t account for, and so chance thwarts his plan. This desperate fatalism gives a considerably grim feeling to the picture. No matter how Johnny tries to take control over his own destiny, the universe conspires against him in the end.

The supporting characters are all very memorable. Johnny Clay and his girlfriend Fay are just sort of standard cookie cutter characters, but the others are a different story. Particularly memorable are Timothy Carey as a strange gunman, Marie Windsor as a dominating wife, and Elisha Cook as her puppy dog husband. These two are one of the major causes of the robbery going south, as Windsor’s character tricks her boyfriend into stealing the money after her husband and the rest of the gang steal it. These two are so fun to watch, as Windsor offers demeaning sarcasm and Cook barely even realizes she’s doing it. Carey has a strange part to play; I’m not even really sure how to describe his character other than simply odd. We don’t really know anything about him or his motivations, but his mannerisms are so vivid and strange. He’s not a character you forget in a hurry, even though you’re not quite sure what he’s doing in the film.


As I mentioned earlier, the shots themselves are really what makes this film special. There are quite a few tracking shots of the crooks walking through their apartments at the beginning, giving them a sense of power so they seem in control of the situation (as of course they believe they are at the time). The closeups are haunting- I can still remember some a few days later. The actors look sad, desperate, and altogether unattractive which is unusual for most films.

The Killing is a Kubrick film through and through, and that alone makes it worth a watch. While I admire the film more on a technical level than an emotional one, I do admire the film quite a bit. For Kubrick fans this is a must see, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different in the crime genre.


“Eh, what’s the difference?”

Long story short: 3.5/4

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review
Cinematic review
Film essay for The Criterion Collection

8 responses to “The Killing

  1. As always I enjoyed your writing and after watching Sterling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle recently I’m really keen to see The Killing. From your review they sound quite similar.

    • Thank you! I have heard the two compared, though I have not seen The Asphalt Jungle yet. I’m also interested to see that one.

  2. Reading this brought the film back from my faint memory… it’s really not one of Kubrick’s greatest to me, I remember his later stuff more vividly. But I remember this being one of his first films that I though was actually good. Have you seen his really old stuff, like The Seafarers, Day of the Fight and Fear and Desire? Non of them are that good, but they’re interesting to see if you really love Kubrick.

    • This is not one of my favorite of Kubrick’s, but it’s just as impressive to me as most of his others (discounting Lolita and Spartacus, which I think are less impressive). I have not seen anything of his prior to this, but I know to have low expectations going into them. I will be getting around to them at some point, but they’re not really a high priority as no one really rates them very highly. Still should be interesting watches at any rate.
      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Hi, Hunter:

    Great choice and well done dissertation!

    ‘The Killing’ has always struck me as an extended episode of the police procedural series, ‘Dragnet’. Told from the criminals’ point of view. Especially with its occasional voice overs heightening the tensions amongst a grab bag group of thieves. Though each has a function within the heist. Each one’s underlying agendas spell trouble.

    Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor rock out loud. Timothy Carey’s just plain creepy. And the film’s grittiness, unusual locations and mistrust of all involved is very much like Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’.

    Both films are highly recommended!

    • Thanks!
      The voice over was really effective. Not used in a way voice overs normally are, but adds great emphasis to the importance of planning in the film.
      The actors worked really well together, especially appreciated Marie Windsor.
      Still need to see The Asphalt Jungle! I’m really looking forward to watching it, whenever that may be.

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