Stanley Kubrick's seminal heist movie still grips, even if much of the material feels familiar nearly 50 years later. Most famously, its shifting timeframe had a big effect on Quentin Tarantino, but there are plenty of other modern thrillers – think Heist, The Score, Ocean's 11 – that carry the influence of Kubrick's second film.
The plot itself is pretty straight-forward. A gang of crooks, led by fresh-out-of-jail Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), plot a daring $2 million heist on a racetrack. During the confusion caused by one of the horses being shot and a fight breaking out in the bar, Johnny plans to march straight into the main offices of the track and seize the day's takings. Of course, things don't go exactly to plan, and soon the bodies are piling up.
The loose cannon in Johnny's gang is George (Elisha Cook Jr). George is a weak-willed sap easily manipulated by scheming wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), who has no problems getting the details of the heist from her husband and passing them onto her lover Val (Vince Edwards), who plans to grab the loot once the robbery is done. While the always-excellent Hayden is the film's star, George and Sherry are the dramatic focus. Their relationship is played out in a series of gripping, darkly funny scenes, Sherry ruthlessly toying with George to extract the information she needs. Windsor provides a wonderful performance, while Cook Jr makes for a suitably pathetic cuckold.
A solemn, newsreel-style voiceover establishes The Killing's structure, as Kubrick weaves his way back through the events leading to the heist. Modern viewers used to time-hopping thrillers like Memento, The Usual Suspects and Pulp Fiction won't find this particularly radical, but in 1956 the idea of a non-chronological picture really was. Kubrick's tight, controlled direction and the urgency of the performances ensure that the film never stops observing the first rule of crime thrillers – keep the audience gripped.
The Killing isn't without its faults – apart from George and Sherry, there's little characterisation, Johnny's girlfriend Fay being particularly redundant. And the ending, while nicely ironic, seems a little flat after so much tense build up. But even at this early stage of his career Kubrick's command of the medium was evident, making The Killing one of the most flat-out enjoyable films in his filmography.
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.