Jean-Luc Godard famously said a story needed a beginning, a middle, and an end, “but not necessarily in that order.” Kubrick was way ahead of him, ripping up the rules of straight-arrow narrative with this classy crime caper, whose cut-up chronology laid the foundations for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction four decades later.
Sterling Hayden, who would later give a career-best performance in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, leads a group of criminals in a daring heist, making off with the $2 million takings from a racetrack by creating twin diversions: shooting the winning horse, and starting a bar brawl. The plans are precisely laid out, but duty bound – not least because of the Hays Code, in force at the time, which insisted that crime should not pay – to go disastrously wrong. “In a crime film, it is almost like a bullfight,” Kubrick mused. “It has a ritual and a pattern which lays down that the criminal is not going to make it, so that, while you suspend your knowledge of this for a while, sitting way back in your mind this little awareness knows and prepares you for the fact that he is not going to succeed.” So it’s not a matter of if the meticulously-planned robbery will go wrong, but how – and how badly.
With author Jim Thompson (The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me) supplying suitably hard-boiled dialogue, The Killing was adapted from Lionel White’s throwaway crime novel Clean Break with a level of precocious artistry to rival that of Orson Welles. Indeed, Welles was one of the first to declare Kubrick’s genius, suggesting that while The Killing was clearly influenced by John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Kubrick’s film was superior – a case, he said, of “the imitator surpassing the model.” (Kubrick, unsatisfied by the book’s ending, borrowed the one from another Huston film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Critics were equally swift to pour praise on Kubrick’s film, and in a genre crowded with superb films, from The Godfather to Heat and The Town, The Killing continues to rank as one of the best crime flicks of all time. As such, it’s well overdue for a remake, and although the 1993 French film 23h58 – which shifts the action to a motorcycle racing track – is closely modelled on Kubrick’s film, and an announced remake starring Mel Gibson came to nothing in 1999, an update is virtually redundant, since the original is as fresh and exciting today as it was nearly sixty years ago.
Like hundred-dollar bills in an aircraft’s propeller wash, it’ll blow you away.