If you watch The Killing at the cinema, you might want to accuse the projectionist of messing with the order of the reels. The film plays with time in a manner not too often seen, and if you aren’t paying attention you’re likely to get lost in its idea of how a clock functions. Rarely do things happen in chronological order, and when they do it’s because soon other revelations will change your perspective of the proceedings in such a way as to rethink them.
The Killing is a heist movie, one in which the players and plot aren’t as important as the film they’re in. It’s about deception, about the manipulation of film form, and about telling its story in a smart, exciting way. It’s also surprisingly funny and the cast members are all interesting even if they’re ultimately pawns in a grand scheme. That scheme involves robbing a track of its daily take — which the characters believe will be about $2 million. It’s all planned out by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), who gets together his team and then the plan unfolds, on schedule, although we only see it in bits and pieces.
There is narration which frequently updates us on the time and place of whatever is happening on-screen. If you have the type of brain which can re-order events in your head on the fly and without writing them down, you’ll have a field day with this. I wonder what a chronologically edited version of The Killing would look like. It wouldn’t be as thrilling, I’m sure, and a couple of scenes of repetition would have to be cut out. But it might me interesting to see.
For the rest of us, the dates and times reinforce one thing: that the film’s events don’t happen in order. We know when the big race starts — it’s at 4:00 PM — and we know where. We just want to see all the pieces in place before it begins. And then we want to see the execution. What a thrill good heist movies can be, and The Killing is certainly one of those. We know from the beginning that something might go wrong — that the plan isn’t foolproof — but we want to watch anyway.
As soon as Marie Windsor shows up on-screen, so wonderfully playing the cheating wife, we are aware that she will somehow interfere. When she’s caught listening in on the plan later on, we are certain. The way she manipulates her husband, George (Elisha Cook) means no good can come of it. But there are so many elements that could also ruin everything. The way this is handled is something you just have to let wash over you. You’re not going to figure it all out but you’re so immersed that it doesn’t matter. You put your trust in the filmmakers and you are rewarded with an incredibly fun ride.
Every character has a precise role that is laid out by Johnny. Sometimes we’re not sure exactly what that is, although we usually do. It’s all about being at the right place in the right time frame and doing exactly what is required. Much like the film itself, everything has been put together meticulously and if even a single element goes awry, the whole production falls apart. If you get taken out of this type of film, it’s almost impossible for you to be won back.
What The Killing so fascinatingly does is allow for all of its characters to be memorable and discernible from one another. You know what motivates each of them — a man needs the money for a sick wife, a crooked cop needs to pay off a gangster, etc. — and they’re all relatively sympathetic. With an ensemble cast, this is often overlooked, but I think it’s important. Keeping everyone straight helps the audience follow along, which is especially beneficial when the story jumps around like it does here.
And it’s these humans, fallible as they are, who will make the grand scheme either work or fail. I’ll spoil nothing other than to say that things don’t go perfectly at any point, even when they seem like they will. The plan has too many mistakes, too many elements unaccounted for, and a sprint for the finish line becomes inevitable. And much of this is happening out-of-order or at least partially obscured so you can find out more later on.
The Killing is also quite funny, featuring a sharp script co-written by the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, and based on the novel by Lionel White. It’s smart, humorous, contains delicious scenes of irony and surprisingly strong characters. Combine that with intelligent film editing and Lucien Ballard’s layered cinematography, and you’ve got yourself a movie that works solely on a technical level. Add in everything else that it brings to the table and you’ve got a fascinating motion picture experience.
The Killing is one of the best heist movies. Its manipulation of time and film form creates more tension and intrigue than the plot otherwise would or should, the attention to the individual characters allows for us to know and understand each one of them, and the heist scenes themselves are phenomenally shot. It’s all wrapped up in a perfectly paced 83 minutes, and it’s compelling, humorous, and a fantastic watch. If you like heist films, this is a must-see. If you don’t, The Killing might just change your mind.