The Kubrick Appreciation Project: The Killing (1956)

Stanley Kubrick referred to his 1956 noir caper The Killing as his first mature film. However, as Roger Ebert famously pointed out, it may be inappropriate to single it out as some kind of a fork in the road, let alone a watershed moment that set Kubrick on a trajectory to the pantheon of greatest filmmakers in history. Just as Ebert suggested, without the directing credit listed at the beginning of the movie, it would be very hard to trace it back to Kubrick. 

There are merely a handful of little stylistic giveaways an astute viewer familiar with Kubrick’s craft would be able to fish out. These are mostly confined to instances of deliberate dolly tracking shots executed at close range with an overpowering wide-angle lens, a filmmaking tic that would eventually evolve to become his famous floating Steadicam sequences in his later movies. Other than that, The Killing could be easily mistaken for a film directed by Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Otto Preminger or Jules Dassin. 

In fact, it is with Dassin’s Rififi – released only one year earlier – The Killing shares a lot of its genetic code. It is also a meticulously designed and executed heist procedural married stylistically to the expressionistic legacy of film noir carried over from The Big Heat and Citizen Kane. As a result, even though it is ultimately a rather predictable experience heavily reliant on staple genre archetypes, it is simultaneously insanely compelling and endlessly captivating. 

Perhaps from the contemporary point of view it is even more interesting to see this film as a well of inspiration for Tarantino’s directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, which further highlights innate strengths of the movie, the dialogue and chemistry between its characters chiefly among them. It is a fascinating example of a film permanently tethered to its era thanks to its aesthetics, highly literary off-screen narration that even Tarantino would consider overly descriptive and an oppressive, brass-heavy score, yet somehow timeless owing predominantly to the fundamental effectiveness of its central set piece. 

In simplest terms, while The Killing probably shouldn’t be mined for early hallmarks of Kubrick’s characteristic style, it is nonetheless one of the most interesting examples of film noir released in its time. Despite failing miserable at the box office, Kubrick managed to endear the community of film critics who took notice of his perfectionistic tendencies and assured directorial command. Put simply, although it isn’t on the same level as some of his later masterpieces, The Killing is a narratively lean and potent companion piece to Dassin’s Rififi.

Published originally on Letterboxd

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