Long before "film noir" became chic, Stanley Kubrick took its trenchant attitude to the limit in "The Killing" (1956) -- and it became a cult classic and his breakthrough film. This intricate caper has characters so overheated and yet so recognizable that the black-comic elements never sink into camp. Sterling Hayden anchors the film as the engineer of a solid plan to rob a racetrack.
What's still heavily imitated is the movie's time-skipping structure, which permits us to see separate actions that in plot terms take place simultaneously. What's harder to mimic is how Kubrick makes this structure shut like a trap without squeezing out the actors' personalities.
Hayden is a rock of criminal integrity -- the star delivers a harsher, vividly blunt follow-up to his noble-hard-guy role in John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle." Visually, Kubrick emphasizes Hayden's rugged frame, as if this craggy individualist can't help scraping against the impersonality of the fifties -- especially in a tense, climactic scene set at an airport.
Elisha Cook, Jr., was never better (not even in "The Maltese Falcon") than as a hen-pecked track cashier -- the weakest link in Hayden's plan -- and Kubrick and the sublime cinematographer Lucien Ballard, working in hard-edged black and white, bring out his full pathos. A parakeet screeches as his apartment's worn carpet catches the streetlights; the sights and sounds express the diminution of a small man's daydreams.
From the time Kubrick really became "Kubrick," some of the most celebrated names in culture -- high and low, in pop and pulp and the avant-garde -- threaded their way through his films. He adapted this movie from Lionel White's novel "Clean Break," and the redoubtable lowest-depths novelist Jim Thompson gets a credit for the dialogue.
When Cahiers du Cinema interviewed Orson Welles in 1965, Welles referred to Kubrick as "a giant," and the questioner asked, "But, for example, 'The Killing' was more or less a copy of 'The Asphalt Jungle?'" Welles replied, "Yes, but 'The Killing' was better....For me, Kubrick is a better director than Huston....[Kubrick] is a great director who has not yet made his great film."
I disagree with Welles about the equally great (or even greater) John Huston. But between "The Killing" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968, Kubrick put together as potent a twelve-year stretch as any director in history and forged a whole new paradigm for American moviemakers.