The phenomenally entertaining heist thriller “The Killing” sports a plot in which all sorts of things do not go according to plan, and the thrill of the movie is watching it all fall apart. Like co-star Sterling Hayden’s previous caper “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Killing” assembles a crack team of schemers who conspire to burgle a cache of cash, and while “Killing” may not be as good as “Asphalt Jungle,” it certainly approaches its nerve-racking level of suspense.
Hayden heads a band of nice-guy criminals who hatch a scheme to pinch a couple million clams off a race track. The caper gets complicated when one of the conspirators (Elisha Cook Jr.) blabs of the scam to his shrew of a wife (Marie Windsor), setting up a house of cards you just know will come tumbling down.
Director Stanley Kubrick classes up the production with effective tracking shots and an impeccable use of shadows. “The Killing” has a nonlinear structure that constantly flip-flops through time, perhaps to distract us from the fact that the heist isn’t all that complicated, and Kubrick ratchets up the tension with attention to tiny details, like a pesky clock that keeps ticking in the background as one of the characters is aggressively grilled by the fuzz.
Kubrick does especially well with the handling of Jim Thompson’s wily script, which is recited at such an accelerated rate that you wonder how the actors found time to take breaths. As a Russian brute whose role in the heist is blissfully tangential, Kola Kwariani’s dialogue is virtually indecipherable, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a moment of Hayden’s rapid-fire line readings, which reach an apex in this exchange with the malevolent Windsor: “You like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart. So play it smart, stay in character, and you’ll have money. Plenty of it. George will have it and he’ll blow it all on you.”
It’s exactly the kind of dialogue we used to hear James Cagney spew in those gangster pictures from the ’30s, and I couldn’t have been happier to have it back.
Not rated, but contains bloody violence. 83 minutes, 1956.
Director: Stanley Kubrick. Starring: Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr.