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The Killing: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

The Killing (1956) movie poster The Killing

Theatrical Release: June 6, 1956 / Running Time: 84 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Stanley Kubrick / Writers: Stanley Kubrick (screenplay), Jim Thompson (dialogue), Lionel White (novel Clean Break)

Cast: Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay), Coleen Gray (Fay), Vince Edwards (Val Cannon), Jay C. Flippen (Marvin Unger), Ted de Corsia (Policeman Randy Kennan), Marie Windsor (Sherry Peatty), Elisha Cook (George Peatty), Joe Sawyer (Mike O'Reilly), James Edwards (Track Parking Attendant), Timothy Carey (Nikki Arcane), Kola Kwariani (Maurice Oboukhoff), Jay Adler (Leo the Loan Shark), Tito Vuolo (Joe Piano), Dorothy Adams (Mrs. Ruthie O'Reilly), Herbert Ellis (Second American Airlines Clerk), James Griffith (Mr. Grimes), Cecil Elliott (Lady with Small Dog), Joseph Turkel (Tiny)

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Today, any self-respecting film buff must know and revere the name "Stanley Kubrick." Fifty-five years ago, that was not the case. Back in 1956, 27-year-old Kubrick had just directed his third narrative feature, a film called The Killing. His first movie shot with a professional cast and crew, The Killing sort of put Kubrick on Hollywood's map. By the following year, he was directing Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory and three years after that, he was taking the helm on the epic Spartacus at Douglas' request. If Kubrick did not proceed to have a meaningful career buoyed by controversy, meticulosity, and reclusiveness,
a movie like The Killing probably would not remain on anyone's radars at this time. But he did, directing some of the most celebrated works in cinema history, and, thus, this black & white caper has evaded the obscurity that has befallen most of its contemporaries, this week winding up in the prestigious Criterion Collection. We are all the better for it, because The Killing is not merely a promise of things to come, but a taut, gripping thriller that has stood the test of time.

The title refers not to a murder, but to what several men intend to make off an ambitious race track robbery. Having recently served five years in Alcatraz, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden, probably best known for playing policeman Captain McCluskey in The Godfather) is anything but reformed. He is the mastermind of the heist targeting Lansdowne Park during the seventh race of a Saturday afternoon in September. To pull off the $2 million job, Clay has conspired with a police officer (Ted DeCorsia), two race track employees (Elisha Cook, Joe Sawyer), a financier (Jay C. Flippen), and two distinctive hired hands (Timothy Carey, Kola Kwariani).

Ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden, center) fills in his partners on the race track robbery, of which he is mastermind. Upon learning of her husband's involvement in the heist, Sherry (Marie Windsor) begins plotting for her lover Val (Vince Edwards) to get ahold of the money.

A little more than half of this fast 84-minute film covers the preparations. This time is spent with hopeful men and the women behind them. Johnny has a young woman (Coleen Gray) who places her faith in him. Window teller George (Cook), meanwhile, has a bored, unfaithful wife (Marie Windsor), who coaxes some of the secret plans out of him and excitedly plots to share the wealth with her lover (Val Cannon).

Even in this early work, Kubrick displays greatness and innovation here. The real brilliance lies in the nonlinear structure, which bounces around, planting seeds of interest. The anticipatory half is not mere setup; it develops the plot from all angles in an engaging fashion. Those seeds bloom into full-blown suspense when the fateful Saturday arrives with us knowing the players and their purpose, but not too many of the specifics. They play out spectacularly, fulfilling some of our expectations and throwing us off-guard with various twists.

The Killing does not entirely shatter convention as certain later Kubrick works would, its standing as a product of the 1950s never in doubt. The narration by Art Gilmore resembles voiceover from the educational shorts and newsreels that have left as indelible a mark on our cultural consciousness as any cinema from this era. There is nothing to remind us of the dangers of marijuana or the threat of Communism, but you get a sense of those things in the scarce, measured remarks, which the studio insisted Kubrick add. That this movie was made when the Hays Code was in effect robs it of unpredictability. There were very clear rules about crimes being punished, so as our sympathies are developed for the would-be robbers (no traditional good guys feature here), an unhappy ending seems inevitable.

Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey) pulls down his front windshield to get a clear shot at a racing horse from his parked car. Leave it to airline baggage regulations to stand in the way of a clean getaway for Johnny (Sterling Hayden) and Fay (Coleen Gray).

No great movie lives or dies by its ending and after revisiting it here, I'm comfortable calling The Killing a great movie. The film coasts on its engrossing plot, snappy and brisk dialogue, and few fleshed-out characters. If this were made today, the inclination would be to keep the plot moving at all times. But Kubrick gains a lot from small moments that don't so much advance the story, as ground it. The bartender's (Sawyer) attempt to put a long flower box hiding a gun in his locker, while pretending to his colleagues they are flowers is nerve-wracking and almost comical.
The same is true of the sharpshooter (Carey), hired to take out a racing horse as distraction, having to do away with courtesies (and resort to an ugly racial slur) as a friendly parking lot attendant picks the wrong time to chat him up. Little encounters like these really up the film's humanity and our investment in an act immoral, illegal, and clearly unnecessary.

In movies today, crime is depicted and often glorified as cold, calculated, and ruthless business. By contrast, these men of The Killing don't really seem that threatening, malicious, or inhumane. That horse is the only casualty factored into their plan. And though Johnny, a convicted career crook, seems to have everything under control, there is a very real chance that something could go wrong in such a complex undertaking. That is a huge source of intrigue as you watch the final forty minutes unfold, glued to the screen, uncertain if the job can be completed and, if not, how close to the finish line it will fall short.

When Criterion started licensing titles from the MGM video library, The Killing rose to the top of my wish list. I was eager for Kubrick's first major movie to be treated to a widescreen presentation and bonus features beyond the 4-page booklet and original trailer MGM's 1999 DVD offered. My dream became a reality this week, when The Killing became the second Kubrick movie given the Criterion treatment. As a 2-disc DVD and the single Blu-ray Disc we look at here, The Killing claims spine number 575.

The Killing: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Details

1.66:1 Widescreen
LCPM Mono 1.0 (English)
Subtitles: English (both films)
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: August 16, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available as 2-Disc DVD ($29.95 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as MGM DVD ($14.98 SRP)


Criterion presents The Killing in 1.66:1, its apparently intended ratio as a product of the industry's swift move from the Academy ratio to widescreen. The Blu-ray's picture quality dazzles. Beyond some suitable grain, the video remains astonishingly clean, sharp, and detailed. It's tough to believe that the combination of the film's low-budget origins and over half a century of time have not kept The Killing from looking so good. It's been close to ten years since I last saw MGM's DVD, but I seem to recall it not being too presentable. Not only does this Blu-ray matte the film to its desired aspect ratio, it makes it over to look brand new, without betraying its distinctly 1950s noir style.

The LCPM 1.0 monaural soundtrack also impresses, with its clear dialogue and lack of distortion and hiss. Every smaller film from Old Hollywood ought to sound as good as this. A few lines are a little tough to make out, but that's only due to actor delivery, and the provided English subtitles will clear up any confusion.


I've seen a lot of bonus features over the years and I think the best ones of all are the bonus titles. It could be an all-new short film, a TV episode, a documentary that stands as its own film, or a sequel not popular enough to sell on its own. I bring this up because The Killing is accompanied by a bonus movie and not any of these types of modest properties, but the 1955 film Killer's Kiss, the second narrative feature directed by Stanley Kubrick. Actually, Kubrick would probably prefer you to think of it as his debut, because he described the one narrative that preceded it, 1953 war film Fear and Desire, as a "bumbling amateur film exercise." Legend has it that the director bought all the prints he could find to keep it unseen and out of circulation. Kubrick had no such qualms about Killer's Kiss, although it is the one narrative of his career that the word "genius" doesn't often get tossed at.

Killer's Kiss (1955) movie poster Killer's Kiss

Theatrical Release: October 1, 1955 / Running Time: 67 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Stanley Kubrick / Writers: Stanley Kubrick (story), Howard Sackler (screenplay - uncredited)

Cast: Frank Silvera (Vincent Rapallo), Jamie Smith (Davey Gordon), Irene Kane (Gloria Price), Jerry Jarret (Albert the Manager), Mike Dana (Gangster), Felice Orlandi (Gangster), Shaun O'Brien (Landlord), Barbara Brand (Taxi Dance Lady), David Vaughan (Conventioneer #1), Alec Rubin (Conventioneer #2), Ralph Roberts (Bouncer #1), Phil Stevenson (Bouncer #2), Arthur Feldman (Policeman), Bill Funaro (Taxi Driver), Skippy Adelman (Mannequin Factory Owner), Ruth Sobotka (Iris)

Kubrick alone claims writing, directing, editing, and cinematography credits on this film, which he shot in his native New York City. Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a washed-up 29-year-old boxer.
He lives in an apartment one tiny courtyard away from pretty young blonde Gloria Price (Irene Kane, future author and CNN news anchor under the name Chris Chase). Without their shades drawn, they see into each other's place, an arrangement with some overtones of Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock's masterful voyeurism thriller released a year earlier.

Neighbors with kindred lonesomeness, Danny and Gloria do not properly meet until one night, when her screams awaken him and summon him to her home. Gloria is having some difficulties with her boss, Vinnie Rapallo (Frank Silvera), though she does not exactly elaborate. The next morning, Danny returns for a breakfast, during which Gloria reveals the stories of her father and her sister, which ultimately don't tie much into the rest of the film, but make for an interestingly presented backstory that is set to footage of a ballerina (her sister Iris). Gloria has reservations about her work as a taxi dancer and the unrequited love smelly, old hood Mr. Rapallo holds for her.

Falling in love with each other in just a couple of days, Danny and Gloria decide to leave town together and check out Seattle, where Danny's relatives live and have been encouraging him to visit. Before they can go, they've got to collect their final earnings from their respective employers, a task they both plan to do in the same part of Times Square. Complications arise that night, with someone winding up dead and Danny named the prime suspect.

"Killer's Kiss" opens with welterweight boxer Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) sorting through his thoughts at Penn Station shortly before its 1963 demolition and renovation. As a shirtless Davey (Jamie Smith) talks on the phone, nearby Gloria can be seen undressing in his mirror.

Killer's Kiss is hindered by some technical shortcomings. Kubrick doesn't seem to have sufficient coverage of certain sequences, having to rely upon an odd cutaway once and more often laying audio over unrelated images. To some degree, he gets away with that, utilizing some nonlinearity as he opens and closes at the old Penn Station and awkwardly returns to it once in between. The ballet backstory flashback is rather incongruous and feels like something hatched in post-production to patch up holes in filming. Artistic in isolation, the segment adds little to the movie, save for a little bit of runtime, which this welcomes, running as it does more than ten minutes shy of today's minimum feature length (but still handily meeting the Academy's 40-minute definition).

Rookie writing and directing mistakes like these aren't hard to overlook, because there is a solid story at the core of the movie. Maybe Danny and Gloria's romance is underdeveloped and unconvincing, but they're close enough in age and circumstance to root for as they're together thrown into a crime world they're not cut out for. This turn drives the final act and gives the film a Hitchcockian vibe, but with suspense that clearly lacks the master's touch. The climax, involving retractable fire escapes and a mannequin factory, generates some compelling atmosphere, but its thrills are both beneath and beyond Kubrick, who can't seem to figure out pacing appropriate for such action.

Something about Davey makes Gloria (Irene Kane, a.k.a. Chris Chase) want to open up and tell him her not especially relevant family stories. His hair a mess, Vinnie Rapallo (Frank Silvera) wields an axe in the climactic mannequin factory battle.

Still, the movie gives us much to like, perhaps most of all, its candid view of 1950s Manhattan. Some of the shots, particularly of the fateful Times Square night, feel spontaneous and stolen, the head-turning pedestrians unmistakable for paid extras. That creates a raw, edgy feel that doesn't at all jive with the staged surroundings, but it is one of the only sequences of Kubrick's career to paint him as a young, hungry filmmaker, his inexperience typically hidden and, by Paths of Glory, discarded. If anyone but Kubrick had directed Killer's Kiss, we'd all be more apt to write it off as unpolished, unextraordinary storytelling in a pulpy style typical of the era. And maybe it is that and it only seems special to someone whose film diet mostly consists of today's starkly different franchise and demographic-driven cinema (including both Hoodwinked Too! and Priest this very week). Still, I enjoyed seeing it and think you will too.

Though Killer's Kiss is downplayed in the titling and packaging of this release, it doesn't get much less care than it might on its own Criterion release. The hi-def presentation, exhibiting the film in pillarboxed 1.33:1 and Dolby Digital 1.0 sound, displays satisfactory restoration efforts. They're not quite as potent as The Killing; the picture is darker, grainier, and shows more scratches, but part of that may also be due to the even more limited means of this New York production. If you're one of the few who really likes Killer's Kiss, this barely advertised presentation will no doubt stand as the film's best for a long time to come.

Film critic Geoffrey O'Brien offers his appreciation of "Killer's Kiss" while acknowledging its faults. A picture depicting director Stanley Kubrick and his co-producer James B. Harris in their days of youthful collaboration appears during Harris' new interview on "The Killing."

Killer's Kiss is also joined by a couple of bonus features here. Film critic Geoffrey O'Brien provides a new video appreciation of the film (9:14). He hits upon the film's strengths and weaknesses (often classifying the latter as part of its charm), while also comparing and contrasting it to Kubrick's later films. His points are aptly punctuated by clips, frames, and behind-the-scenes photos.

A trailer for Killer's Kiss (1:47) is also offered, although it seems to be missing title cards, blacking out at start and finish.

Extras on the set's top-billed film begin with "James B. Harris on The Killing", a 21-minute interview with the movie's producer recorded last year. He recalls acquiring the rights to Lionel White's novel Clean Break (beating an interested Frank Sinatra to the punch), the challenge to get United Artists to back the film, casting it, shooting it with just $200,000 of studio money, and the mixed reception it got. This revealing piece is like getting a commentary's worth of retrospection, but in just one-fourth the runtime.

Sitting outside his home in San Francisco, Sterling Hayden recalls working with Joan Crawford in "Johnny Guitar" in this 1984 interview for French television. The title card used in the theatrical trailer for "The Killing" is more iconic than the image used as the Blu-ray's menu.

Lead actor Sterling Hayden looks back at his career in excerpts from two 1984 episodes of the French TV show "Cinιma cinιmas" (23:40). Sporting a bushy white goatee, Hayden recalls his experiences with frequent bewilderment, painting acting as a way to meet girls and pay for a schooner.
Among his films, he touches upon The Asphalt Jungle, Johnny Guitar, The Killing, and Dr. Strangelove. The first part shoots Hayden overlooking San Francisco Bay and underlooking a residential mountain, where he speaks in between coffee sips and cigarette drags. The second takes him inside and finds him a bit more mellow, as he describes being "a romantic Communist", expresses regret at naming names for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and remembers the telegrammed reactions doing so got from the likes of Ronald Reagan. Hayden would pass away two years after taping this fascinating piece, whose English questions and answers are translated into French with burned-in subtitles.

"Robert Polito on Jim Thompson" (18:40) has author and poet Polito discussing crime novelist Thompson, who is credited with "additional dialogue" on The Killing. He talks intelligently about Thompson's writing style and his bittering Hollywood experiences, particularly collaborating with Kubrick here.

The extras conclude with The Killing's beat-up theatrical trailer (1:48), which aims to place it in the tradition of the 1930s gangster classics Scarface and Little Caesar.

The uncreative menu plays an excerpt of score over a static image. The disc not only supports bookmarking on The Killing, but it also manages to resume anything you were watching without issue.

Typical of Criterion, The Killing is packaged in a clear keepcase adhering to a Blu-ray case's standard height and DVD case's standard width. The inside displays more stylish artwork, but you're more likely to admire the latest in Criterion's long line of fine companion booklets. Rather than photography from the film itself, this 24-pager instead features some black & white art inspired by it.

In between the standard information (a chapters list, cast & crew credits, restoration details), we find two articles. The essay "Kubrick's Clockwork" by Harvard Film Archive director Haden Guest does a great job of contextualizing The Killing in Kubrick's career, pointing out qualities that differed from the director's earlier efforts and would recur in his celebrated subsequent ones. It's full of good information and analysis, detecting motifs and parallels you may have missed (and Kubrick probably didn't give much, if any, thought to). The brief second piece comes from a 1992 interview of actress Marie Windsor, who frankly recalls working with Kubrick and her co-stars.

Despite the clown mask, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is not at the race track to entertain, but to steal $2 million in Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing."


Though less renowned and familiar than most of his later films, The Killing holds up as one of Stanley Kubrick's more enjoyable and less divisive works. It might not have seemed like it upon release, but this heist flick is now essential viewing for understanding and appreciating 1950s cinema. Never has it been easier to view and appreciate than on The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray, which supplies a stunning restoration of the film, Kubrick's Killer's Kiss as an underbilled and welcome bonus feature, and the studio's usual loving touches of varied, valuable retrospection. This release is highly recommended.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Stanley Kubrick: Paths of Glory (Criterion Collection) • Directors Series: Stanley Kubrick
1950s Movies: Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion Blu-ray) • The Cry Baby Killer • North by Northwest • The Ten Commandments
New Blu-rays: The Big Lebowski • Dead Man • The Fox and the Hound & The Fox and the Hound 2 • Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Sterling Hayden: The Godfather | Criterion Collection: Beauty and the Beast (1946) • Night Train to Munich • Bottle Rocket
Heists: The Lookout • Ocean's Thirteen • The Usual Suspects

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Reviewed August 17, 2011.

Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1956 United Artists and 2011 Metro Goldwyn Mayer and The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.