Stanley Kubrick took film noir to the limit in "The Killing" (1956). This thieves-falling-out caper has characters so overheated yet so recognizable that its elements of black comedy never sink down into camp. Catch it if you can when the Film Noir Foundation brings it to the AFI Silver's Noir City DC festival, Sunday at 3:20 p.m. and Thursday at 9:15 p.m.. Kubrick's talents for narrative, shooting, editing and casting come together with a crackle in this movie. Sterling Hayden anchors it as the ex-convict who engineers a solid plan to rob a racetrack. He brings the film a gnarly tristesse and a hard-knocks intelligence. In one of its distinctive black-comic touches, he argues that killing a horse "is not first-degree murder -- in fact, it's not murder at all. In fact, I don't know what it is." (Based on Lionel White's "Clean Break," it boasts dialogue from lower-depths crime novelist Jim Thompson.)
Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have imitated this movie's exploded chronology, which permits us to see separate actions that in plot terms take place simultaneously. (The AFI Silver notes call the film "a key transition between the end of the classic noir cycle of the '40s and '50s and the neonoir period of the'60s and '70s.") But Tarantino and Rodriguez rarely match how Kubrick made the rhythm of the action mesh with the tempo of the dialogue and the heartbeats of the characters. Kubrick's time-skipping storytelling snaps like a trap without squashing the actors' personalities. Elisha Cook Jr. was never better -- not even in "The Maltese Falcon" -- than he is here as a henpecked cashier. The movie manages to be swift and thrilling and still find time to convey the gutter poignancy of this small man's squelched dreams.