Release Date(s)1956 (July 26, 2022)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
The Killing was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film, and it marked his arrival as a major filmmaker—a fact not lost on Kubrick himself. He ended up completely disowning his debut feature Fear and Desire, and even tried to have it withdrawn from circulation. He didn’t go quite that far with his sophomore film Killer’s Kiss, but he still later dismissed it as being amateurish. While some directors like Quentin Tarantino seem to have sprung fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, making an immediate splash with their debuts, others like Kubrick needed to learn by doing. Of course, the reality is that Tarantino and his postmodernist ilk actually built on the lessons that had already been learned by filmmakers like Kubrick and Ringo Lam. They didn’t necessarily develop their own style, as much as they cobbled it together from bits and pieces of the work done by those who had come before them. On the other hand, Kubrick did everything the old-fashioned way, by learning from his own mistakes.
In some respects, The Killing is a much more confident and self-assured version of Killer’s Kiss. It’s anything but a remake of that film, but it does rework some of the same themes into a different setting and narrative structure. The fact that both films represent Kubrick’s only foray into film noir is what provides the common ground between the two, as they share a fatalistic streak that’s less noticeable the rest of his work. While Killer’s Kiss was based on an original screenplay by Howard Sackler, The Killing was Kubrick’s first adaptation of someone else’s work, in this case the novel Clean Break by Lionel White. Kubrick brought in novelist Jim Thompson to collaborate on the script, and that was an inspired choice, since no one did hardboiled crime fiction better than Thompson. The Killing is a caper film that revolves around Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), an ex-con who assembles a five-man team to pull off a high-stakes heist at a racetrack. Since Clay doesn’t trust the criminal class, the team that he puts together consists of ordinary people like track clerk George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and rifle expert Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey). The biggest thing that he requires of them is to keep their mouths shut while focusing on their own parts of the plan, and their failure in that regard proves to be Clay’s undoing. The Killing also stars Jay C. Flippen, Vince Edwards, Kola Kwariani, and Marie Windsor.
The Killing was innovative at the time because Kubrick and Thompson chose to retain the non-linear structure of White’s book, rather than rearranging everything into chronological order. There’s no conventional cross-cutting between the players as the heist unfolds; instead, each of their misadventures is shown individually, one after the other. The film essentially rewinds time repeatedly to show the same event from different points-of-view. As a result, viewers have to assemble the various pieces together in their own minds, with the full picture only becoming clear once the final piece falls into place. It’s an interesting structure that forces viewers to become active participants in the narrative. Unfortunately, United Artists wasn’t comfortable with that approach, so they made Kubrick add a voiceover narration to clarify things for the audience. Ironically enough, the narration actually makes the chronology more confusing, since it provides a detailed timeline of the events, and that’s a needless distraction to understanding what happens. It’s a minor misstep in an otherwise nearly flawless film.
The key to following the fractured narrative of The Killing isn’t that unnecessary timeline, but rather in the inevitability of the way that things fall apart. The Killing is the most purely fatalistic of film noirs, with the end result being a nearly foregone conclusion. Once all of the dominoes have been methodically put into place, nothing can stop them from falling down, one after the other. In Killer’s Kiss, the hapless hero’s plans disintegrate when he falls behind schedule after a random encounter with a couple of drunken Shriners. In The Killing, the lynchpin that starts the chain reaction is the classic noir trope of the femme fatale. One of Clay’s accomplices fails to keep his mouth shut, and by putting his trust in the wrong woman, the best laid plans of mice and men can’t possibly prevail.
As the final domino shatters and blows away in the wind, Clay’s girlfriend Fay (Collen Gray) encourages him to run away. Clay stands there, his shoulders slumped in defeat, and replies, “What’s the difference?” Along with Lee Marvin’s final “Lady, I don’t have the time” in Don Siegel’s version of The Killers, this is one of the single most perfectly fatalistic summations from any film noir ever made. The words are carefully chosen. It’s significant that he doesn’t ask her “What’s the point?” since that wouldn’t have had the same implications. Instead, “What’s the difference?” means that he intuitively understands that he’s been a prisoner of fate all along. He may no longer be in jail, but his entire life still takes place in a cage of his own making. Even if he escaped from the police, he’d still be living behind bars. Nothing that he could do would ever change that inexorable fact. If there really is no fate but what we make, then he’s already made his own fatalistic bed, and he’s finally ready to lie in it.
Kubrick had shot his previous two films personally, but The Killing was his first time working with another cinematographer, in this case Lucien Ballard. The two didn’t necessarily see eye to eye, and Kubrick ended up playing a guiding role with the lighting and camerawork—over the objections of Ballard, who supposedly didn’t even bother watching the dailies after a certain point. Still, it’s only right to give Ballard fair credit for the cinematography as a whole. In any event, they shot The Killing on 35 mm black-and-white film using Arriflex S and Mitchell BCR cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.66:1 for its theatrical release. This 4K Ultra HD version utilizes a new 4K scan from the original camera negative, graded for both Dolby Vision and HDR10, which supersedes the 2K scan that was used for the previous Criterion Collection Blu-ray. In practice, the actual level of fine detail at 4K isn’t significantly improved over 1080p, as there was only so much detail to be wrung out of the original negative in the first place. Yet everything still appears ever so slightly crisper and more refined on UHD, especially when examined from up close. Textures like the fabrics in the men’s suits are particularly well-resolved, as are the wisps of cigarette smoke during their planning meeting. The biggest improvements come from the HDR grade, which strengthens the contrast range and deepens the black levels, but also allows for more subtle gradations between the extreme ends of the spectrum. The grayscale is flawless. Aside from a few scratches in some of the stock footage, the image is immaculately clean, and there’s no hint of compression artifacts—the moderately heavy grain is managed perfectly by the robust encoding. It may not be a massive upgrade over the Criterion Blu-ray, but it’s still the definitive presentation of The Killing on home video.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. While it’s a generally clean track, there’s some background hiss, as well as a few crackles and other very minor defects. The dialogue can also have a bit too much sibilance. All of that gives a slightly harsh edge to the proceedings, but everything’s still clear enough to be understood. The score was by Gerald Fried, who handled the music for all of Kubrick’s early films through Paths of Glory. It’s a little bombastic, but it has a decent amount of heft to it for a vintage recording like this.
Kino Lorber’s release of The Killing is UHD only—there’s no Blu-ray included. It adds a slipcover, as well as the following extras, all in HD:
- Audio Commentary by Alan K. Rode
- Trailer (1:46)
- Killer’s Kiss Trailer (1:46)
- Paths of Glory Trailer (3:00)
Author and film historian Alan K. Rode offers a lively and enthusiastic commentary for The Killing, which he considers to be Kubrick’s second bona fide film (evidently, he shares the director’s feelings about Fear and Desire). He swims against the tide regarding the studio-mandated narration, as he doesn’t feel that it detracts from the film. He helpfully identifies many of the differences between the novel and the film, and also provides biographical information about many of the participants, including Kubrick’s old chess buddy Kola Kwariani, who has a small but memorable role in the story. The art direction in the film was by Kubrick’s first wife Ruth Sobotka, and Rode says that she essentially ended up storyboarding the entire film. Rode also covers the problematic relationship between Kubrick and Ballard, as well as the far more amenable one between Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris. Despite the low budget, The Killing didn’t make money, but Rode points out that it raised the cache of both Kubrick and Harris in Hollywood. (He also points out the blink-and-you’ll miss it appearance of Rodney Dangerfield as an extra.) Commentaries are always more enjoyable when the participants have clear affection for the material, and Rode’s love of The Killing shines through here.
Missing extras from the Criterion Collection Blu-ray include the exclusive interview with James B. Harris, the archival interviews with Sterling Hayden, the video appreciation by Geoffrey O’Brien, the profile of Jim Thompson by Robert Polito, and the booklet. Criterion also offered Killer’s Kiss in the same set, which Kino has elected to release separately on UHD. Owners of the Criterion version will obviously want to hang onto it for those extras, but Rode’s commentary is a good one, and the video quality here has the edge between the two.
In case it wasn’t already abundantly clear by this point, the reference to Quentin Tarantino at the beginning of the review wasn’t an accident. The Killing is one of many films that Tarantino has cribbed from throughout his career, most notably in Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown. Even if you’ve never seen The Killing, you’ve doubtless seen multiple films that were influenced by it. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to pick up Kino Lorber’s UHD, as it’s unquestionably the best way to experience this classic film in the comfort of your own home.
- Stephen Bjork