APES ON FILM: Size Matters in THE KILLING

Posted on: Aug 15th, 2022 By:

By Lucas Hardwick
Contributing Writer

 

Welcome to Apes on Film! This column exists to scratch your retro-film-in-high-definition itch. We’ll be reviewing new releases of vintage cinema and television on disc of all genres, finding gems, and letting you know the skinny on what to avoid. Here at Apes on Film, our aim is to uncover the best in retro film. As we dig for artifacts, we’ll do our best not to bury our reputation. What will we find out here? Our destiny.

 

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THE KILLING – 1956
5 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr., Vince Edwards
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Rated: Not Rated
Studio: Kino Lorber
Region: Region Free UHD
BRD Release Date: 07-26-2022
Audio Formats: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)
Video Codec: HEVC / H.265
Resolution: Native 4K (2160p)
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Run Time: 84 minutes
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

 

Few things in this world are as invincible as the bulletproof bureaucracy surrounding the size regulations of carry-on luggage, specifically designed for your “comfort and safety” while flying the friendly skies. And in a narrative twist too big for an overhead compartment, Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Clay realizes where he went wrong in what was otherwise an airtight plan to knock over a horse track in Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 classic, THE KILLING.

If you’ve seen one heist movie, you’ve seen ‘em all, the only difference in most being whether bold bad guy ingenuity leads to a successful getaway, woven together with almost childlike simplicity, or the simplicity of a mistake resulting in 25 to life. Regardless, most heist movies have the same ingredients: a hefty score, a team with a diverse skillset, a little side muscle, and most importantly, a man (or woman) with a vision who can rally the whole thing together with the logistical precision of a SEAL team operation.

At face value, the title The Killing refers to specific deaths that occur later in the film, including the execution of a horse. Metaphorically, The Killing also represents the large sum of cash at stake in a textbook heist orchestrated by ex-con Johnny Clay. If Clay pulls off this heist, he’ll make a killing, a great example of a perfect title.

Fresh off a five year stint in the slammer, Clay is ready to get right back in the mess and run off with his girl Fay (Coleen Gray) and a two million dollar take from the local horse track. The mechanics of the operation are so basic that the film’s non-linear structure hardly has any bearing on the audience’s ability to follow the plot. This story is about the characters and the peculiar morality of their motives.

In spite of looking like a gang of Dick Tracy villains, none of Clay’s conscripts are actual criminals. The corrupt police officer in debt up to his eyeballs (Ted de Corsia) is the closest any of Clay’s crew comes to being morally bankrupt. It’s even difficult to judge the entire operation as malicious especially considering that horse tracks rely on people willing to blow money.

The worst thing that happens to any “victims” in the robbery is Clay waving his gun around, and wrestler Kola Kwariani tossing a few police officers. The highest cost for the job is paid in full by Red Lightning — the racehorse that makes the ultimate sacrifice at the hands of sharpshooter Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey). To Clay’s point, is knocking off a horse even a crime? “…that’s not first-degree murder. In fact, that’s not murder at all. In fact, I don’t know what it is.” And with that, the film has only one criminal and bunch of regular joes that rip off a place that rips off people, all for the legally ambiguous price of a dead horse.

The worst indignities that occur, though, have nothing to do with stealing money, killing horses, or waving guns around, but are rather the crimes of passion exacted by Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor) upon discovering puny husband George (Elisha Cook Jr.) is in on Clay’s deal. George is the horse track window teller tasked with putting Clay in the same room with the money. But Sherry’s mascara isn’t even dry before she’s running her mouth to lover boy Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) who plans to hijack Clay’s operation. This makes Sherry’s sin the deadliest weapon in the film and results in a pretty gnarly climax for Clay’s gang. This, however, doesn’t prevent Clay from making his score, but in a denouement that would make Larry David blush, Johnny Clay seals his own fate when it becomes apparent that he failed to read the fine print for what’s considered an acceptable size for carry-on luggage. “Eh, what’s the difference?” uttered by Clay in the final seconds of the film sums up its themes on morality.

And while the film advances on misguided morality, the key relationships within are equally as strange and circuitous. As George Peatty unloads the details of the horse track job to wife Sherry, she proceeds with putting on makeup, clearly preparing to go out for the evening in spite of feigning a stomachache. George offers no argument about why Sherry’s gettin’ dolled up or where she’s going, and only asks her why she married him. Exasperated, Sherry replies, “Oh, George, when a man has to ask his wife that, well, he just hadn’t better, that’s all.” Why doesn’t Sherry just lay it all out for him instead of waxing poetic? George doesn’t take the hint, and continues trying to win Sherry’s affection with the rented promise of loads of money from Clay’s score.

Another instance of dubious companionship is between Johnny Clay and Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen). Unger provides Clay a place to lay low after being released from prison, and shares his sympathy for Clay regarding the tough break he’s had. Unger also claims to think of Clay as a son, but then goes on to confess rather affectionately, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just go away, the two of us, and let the old world take a couple of turns, and have a chance to take stock of things?” Sounds a little more romantic than a parental dynamic, doesn’t it? Later, when the gang is holed up waiting for Clay’s return from the job, Unger appears girlishly gleeful when he thinks he hears Clay outside.

If the film’s purply, hard-boiled dialogue — most being rattled off at a whip-crack pace by Sterling Hayden — isn’t fierce enough to get the viewer’s heart rate up, the claustrophobic photography and incessant, pounding score is most certainly anxiety inducing. Though Lucian Ballard is credited as Director of Photography, Kubrick himself set up the shots. Inside Unger’s and the Peatty’s apartments, the visuals are low and crowded, often obstructed by objects and furniture in the foreground, almost as if the audience is eavesdropping while being made privy to the film’s unsavory goings-on.

To add shortness of breath on top of everything else, composer Gerald Fried provides an auditory beating that doesn’t let up for the entire film. Fried would eventually compose the turbulent score to the Kirk and Spock fight-to-the-death scene in the STAR TREK episode “Amok Time.”

A pesky voice-over narration by uncredited Art Gilmore announces the whens and wheres throughout the film for anyone bothering to take notes. Viewers are likely to find it a bit unnecessary as it simply clarifies the film’s non-linear structure. It’s also a bit confounding since the narrator remains unidentified and we’re never told why it’s pertinent within the story.

Kino Lorber presents THE KILLING for the first time in beautiful 4K Ultra High Definition, with film grain intact. Special features include a brand-new commentary by author and film historian Alan K. Rode and a theatrical trailer. The disc comes packaged with reversible sleeve art and an eye-popping slipcover rendered with a rare version film’s original poster art.

For a heist movie that’s not really about the heist, THE KILLING reveals the human, though heightened, backdrop of a big money score, and the fuzzy morality that makes troubled people do bad things. It also makes no bones about the consequences of the decisions its characters make, delivering a fable that’s both thrilling and thoughtful.

 

 

 

 

When he’s not working as a Sasquatch stand-in for sleazy European films, Lucas Hardwick spends time writing film essays and reviews for We Belong Dead and Screem magazines. Lucas also enjoys writing horror shorts and has earned Quarterfinalist status in the Killer Shorts and HorrOrigins screenwriting contests. You can find Lucas’ shorts on Coverfly.

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