CLEAN BREAK (1955) by Lionel White


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.

Marie Windsor Elisha Cook Jr The Killing (1956)

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:


***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, California, Jim Thompson, Lionel White, New York and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to CLEAN BREAK (1955) by Lionel White

  1. realthog says:

    I really must read this one — indeed, I really must read some Lionel White, because I don’t think I ever have. Thanks for the prod, and the great description.

    Confession: Before I opened up the page I was reading “Lionel White” and thinking “Lionel Davidson” — another great thriller writer but in a very different style.

    • I was really aware of White through adaptations (like Goodard’s Pierrot le Fou) but I thought this was a really good, hardboiled noir – yes, Davidson is a very different kettle of thrillerdoom. I remember liking Rose of Tibet and Night of Wenceslas, but it was a long time ago. He did a very straightfoward whodunit I remember, The Cheslea Murders, but for some reason remember the TV adaptation much better than the book – go figure!

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I always respect it too when authors take some risks and do some daring things. In this case, it makes sense not to stick with a strictly linear storyline, and I’m glad that choice worked for you. And this really is Kubrick’s sort of story isn’t it…

  3. John says:

    Did that podcast host really say “that could induce a gag in even Linda Lovelace”? Nice. Who is that guy? Never mind. I couldn’t listen to most of it anyway. Throwing out the word “auteur” every 30 seconds then saying that movie criticism is BS. If it’s BS why are they talking about movies in such a sycophantic way in a podcast?

    Pretentious and misogynistic remarks aside… Fantastic movie! Maybe the ultimate heist flick. This is Marie Windsor’s finest hour on screen in my opinion. Instead of that podcast you should’ve uploaded this scene between Cook and Windsor:

    I found a copy of the first edition of CLEAN BREAK with the scarce DJ several years ago and snapped it up for a mere $25. I felt like I stole the earnings from a racetrack! I’ve read a couple of White’s other books and enjoyed them thoroughly. A surprising number of his books have been turned into movies or TV episodes.

    • You always crack me up John – blooddy hell – I obviously didn’t get very har with the podcast 🙂 I can’t believe they said that!!! I mean, it’s not like Steve Cochrane is in the movie … but enough of that … I do envy you that purchase, really worth having my friend. I am definitely going to be reading more of White’s books – Ed Gorman thought The Big Caper was probably his best so will probably aim for that one!

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book and also seen the film.
    Both are good and enjoyable and worth reading/seeing.
    The film is a faithful adapptation, though there are non-significant variations. For example, the torture of Sherry by Val is omitted in the film.

    (the comments below may contain spoilers )

    What I found unbelievable in the film is the stupidity of Johnny towards the end. Doesn’t he know the maximum size allowed for cabin baggage ? Why doesn’t he buy 2 small suitcases instead of big one ? Also, why does he buy an old used suitcase from a pawnshop instead of a new sturdy one ?
    The shoot-out towards the end in the film is a bit weird. We see George enter and shoot at Val and his accomplice. In the next shot we see all lying dead except George who is seriously injured. How did this happen ? The book gives the full details.
    Incidentally, the story reminds me of the proverb, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

    • Thanks Santosh. Is that really how the shootout plays out in the film? Let me check out the DVD and get back to you Santosh – yes, the book is certainly bloodier in this respect (not sorry the torture scene is gone) – as for the luggage, well it’s one of the ironic touches nto fromt he book – maybe Johnny’s never been on a plane before? I suspect they just thought it would work well 🙂

    • PS I just re-watched the ending Santosh, and yes, I agree, the shootout is all over a bit too suddenly – it wouldn’t surprise me if maybe a shot was excised due to censorship. I was so enthralled by Kubrick’s dramatic use of hand-held point of view that it had never bothered me before.

  5. Sergio, I have been looking out for Lionel White’s novels ever since I read his HOSTAGE FOR A HOOD last December. The cover of THE KILLING is almost identical to “Hostage for a Hood.” George Kelley mentioned that White was a master of caper novels which was true in case of the book I read and as it does in CLEAN BREAK too. There is an unhurried pace to his writing and yet there is momentum throughout the story, if that makes sense. At this point, however, I’d be more interested in reading CLEAN BREAK than seeing its movie adaptation, in spite of your plea not to miss the latter, which I promise I won’t.

  6. Colin says:

    Never read the book, though I’d certainly like to now. I’m very familiar with the movie of course and although I have yet to pick up the new Arrow release, I will soon.

    • I haven’t got it yet (well I have the Criterion already) – and there are THE TRAIN and MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE arriving soon!

      • Colin says:

        Nice. I already received The Manchurian Candidate – great to finally have an edition of the movie that looks this good.

        • You cheeky so and so, you ordered it from Arrow I bet! Right, I have to do something about this … as soon as I get paid at the end of the month – just give me enough time to re-read the novel. Did you know that Condon apparently used Robert Graves’ I, Caludius as the model (the polite word) for the book?

          • Colin says:

            Yup, ordered from Arrow direct – got to build up those rewards points! 🙂
            And no, I had no idea that was Condon’s inspiration.

        • I am so envious! I will say, i had both of the previous Region 1 DVDs and was always a bit cobncerned that the more recent edition looked a bit paler than i liked (i.e. less comtrasty) – I am sure the Arrow edition is superb. Time for a little solitare …

          • Colin says:

            I only ever had the old R2 DVD, which was rather poor in every respect. I haven’t watched the Arrow BD through but a quick scan has left me more than satisfied.

          • The region 2 was definitely a rather weak transcode of the older region 1 – glad to hear early indications are positive 🙂

  7. Hey Sergio—
    Please add me to Friday Forgotten Books this week.

  8. I had a brief correspondence with Lionel White back in the 1970s. He was kind enough to lend me one of his books that I couldn’t find (pre-Internet!). I’m a fan of caper novels and Lionel White knew how to write them!

    • That is very cool George – I really look forward to reading more of his books. It’s been said that his work does unfortunately tend to treat its female characters quite poorly. Is this a fair opinion in your view? Apparently this is why Charles Ardai has so far not reprinted his work in the Hard Case Crime series.

  9. tracybham says:

    Sorry to take so long to comment. The movie is one of my husband’s favorites, but then he likes almost everything that Kubrick did. Seems like I had heard of some other writer that Kubrick omitted from writing credit but I cannot remember specifics. Lionel White is new to me; he wrote a lot of books.

  10. Bev Hankins says:

    I suspect that this would not be quite my thing–but I do like Elisha Cook, Jr. and wonder if the film might do more for me than the book. I tend to like noir and/or hardboiled better on film….

    • The film really is a Film Noiur classic Bev, so I certainly recommend it – the book was, I thought, really string, but some of it is on the harsh side (one can see why they hired Jiim Thompson to write the screenplay).

  11. neer says:

    One of those rare instances Sergio where I have both read the book and seen the movie. I preferred the book though they were far more nasty in it than in the movie. And I agree with Santosh regarding the dumb selection of suitcase in the end.

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