I’d not read anything by Lionel White (1905-1985) before but was really looking forward to it, being a huge fan of the movie adaptation. This story of a racecourse heist that (of course) goes wrong was filmed very shortly after its publication. Released in 1956 as The Killing, it stars Sterling Hayden and was directed by Stanley Kubrick from a screenplay by Jim Thompson. It has tended to overshadow the original book quite a bit (and has often been re-printed under the movie title), which is a real shame …
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Rich Westwood’s celebration of all things 1955 over at his Past Offences blog.
“… none of them are professional crooks. They all have jobs, they all live seemingly decent, normal lives. But they all have money problems and they all have larceny in them.”
In the opening chapter, White very economically introduces us to the main protagonists of the story: Marvin Unger, a court reporter; George Peatty, a cashier at the racetrack who is wildly infatuated with his bored wife, Sherry; Randy Kennan, a cop struggling with his heavy gambling debts; Mike O’Reilly, a barman at the track who regularly bets and loses half his earnings; and Johnny Clay, who recently got out of jail, and who has come up with the plan to steal the earnings from the Canarsie Stakes, the big fixture on the racing calendar said to be worth over two million dollars. This involves creating several diversions, including knocking off the favourite in the race (animals lovers beware …).
“Well, you shot a horse. It’s not first degree murder. In fact it isn’t even murder. I don’t know what the hell it would be …”
White here does something structurally quite daring and fairly subtle – he starts to jump around in the chronology, taking us backwards and forwards as the various parts of the plan coalesce. This is very smart – by fragmenting and compartmentalising the narrative, we match Johnny’s plan. After a four-year stretch he wants a big score and to even the odds is surrounding himself with men without criminal records. And on top of this not all of them know each other – indeed, some will never even meet each other. He plans to only tell each of them only the bare minimum so they can fulfill their individual tasks but he alone will know how they all fit together. Today of course we would recognise this as the structure for a terrorist cell …
“Thank God for Johnny”
This being the hardboiled world of Noir, things soon start to go wrong and of course it’s the femme fatale, George’s beautiful but dangerous wife Sherry, who starts the trouble. Unsatisfied by her meek little mouse of a husband, who none the less she enjoys keeping under her thumb, she is having an affair with Val Cannon, a very nasty hoodlum. When she lets him know of her husband’s
plans, he tortures her to find out what she knows, in what is still a pretty shocking and pitiless scene. He figures out just what they plan to do and decides to let Johnny and the other undertake the robbery and then steal the takings from them. The plan itself occupies just a couple of pages of the book but White does a terrific job of bringing the various elements of the story together. The ending is a bit of a bloodbath and is very exciting without seeming crude, though it has to be said, this is a pretty hardboiled story, very well told and populated with realistic if seedy characters, all of which make this a very, very compelling read. The movie is very faithful but maybe even better, thanks to the visual elan of the director, some great Thompson dialogue and some smashing performances.
“Individuality’s a monster and it must be strangled in its cradle to make our friends feel confident. You know, I’ve often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They are admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory” – Maurice (Kola Kwariani) in The Killing
It would seem that it was the unusual non-linear structure that really caught the attention of producer James B Harris and wonderboy director Stanley Kubrick, here making his first major picture for studio distribution, albeit independently for a measly $330,000. Jim Thompson was brought in to write the script, though Kubrick unfairly kept the main writing credit for himself, something that would not be tolerated by today’s stricter Writer’s Guild rules. Apart from transposing the action from New York to to LA, the adaptation is remarkably faithful, though Thompson expanded many of the roles and did write a lot of new dialogue while still retaining much of White’s original. Mike’s motivation is altered – he now has a sick wife rather than a floozie of a daughter he wants to save – and the violence has been toned down – but otherwise much of the dialogue and the beginning, middle and end are all the same – and presented in the same zigzaggy, chronologically fractured fashion. As a concession to the studio a voice over was added to explain the jumps in time, something Kubrick apparently didn’t think was necessary but which provides a nice ironic counterpoint at times in its dry and monotonous way.
The film was a big influence on Tarantino – especially in the case of Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown both involving robberies and a time-shifted structure – but beyond its technical bravura, it’s the casting that we remember. Sterling Hayden is great as Johnny, even if he is mainly reprising his role from The Asphalt Jungle, the adaptation of WR Burnett’s classic that pretty much kickstarted the heist genre in American cinema. However, it is Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr that you are really going to remembers – they are just sublime as Sherry and George, their tortured scenes together just brilliantly handled, and quite rightly their shared story is amended here from the novel to give it much more punch – and finality! Also of note is the typically eccentric performance by Timothy Carey, who does really well as the man hired to shoot the horse in a nicely expanded role; and who here gets his just deserts, unlike in White’s original. It’s a seminal example of classic 1950s film noir, beautifully shot by ace cameraman Lucien Ballard (who loathed working with the dictatorial Kubrick, who never really accepted that he couldn’t be his own cameraman after his initial experimental films) – the book is really good and the movie even better – don’t miss either!
DVD Availability: Available on an excellent DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from Arrow and from Criterion in the US. both include Kubrick’s previous thriller, Killer’s Kiss, as well as their own interviews and assorted extras.
The Killing (1955)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producer: James B. Harris
Screenplay: Jim Thompson, Stanley Kubrick
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Ruth Sobotka
Music: Gerald Fried
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr., Timothy Carey, Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, Kola Kwariani
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘published under more than one title’ category: