The Killing Criterion Collection DVD Review: A Day at the Races

The Criterion Collection has scored big again with the DVD release of The Killing, Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film noir classic. The disc is jam packed with all the bells and whistles that come with a Criterion release, including filmed interviews with film critics, actors, and producers and as always a great booklet. The two-disc set also comes with a second Kubrick classic from the year before, another noir thriller Killer’s Kiss. The pairing of these two early flicks from legendary director Stanley Kubrick makes for great viewing pleasure.

With a talented cast, The Killing is the story of a $2 million racetrack heist told brilliantly in non-linear fashion through the different perspectives of those involved. Sterling Hayden stars as Johnny Clay, ex-con and organizer of the whole plot. All involved need the money for various reasons and all have a role to play in the business at hand. Racetrack cashier George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr), has a nagging, no-good wife who’s having an affair with a mobster that eventually gets involved to steal Peatty’s portion of the loot. Bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) takes part to help pay for treatment of his sickly wife. Crooked cop Randy Kenna needs to pay off bookies. The crew gets more varied from there including another ex-con/Russian wrestler, a fall-down drunk, and a dead-eyed sniper, all hired to play a specific role in the big-time heist at hand.

A Dragnet-style narrator opens the tale and introduces our schemers and dreamers and the how and why they became involved. As more people become entangled in the scheme, directly or not, the plot thickens and the desired outcome begins to change. Right after the big meeting of the principal players, the outsiders begin to emerge and the monkey wrench is thrown into the gears. Peatty’s tramp wife sticks her nose and her mobster lover’s in the mix leading to the portion of the film that is the fun part.

Kubrick takes us through how it all went down, how the money was taken from the track, and how those involved dropped the ball, succeeded, or suffered unexpected fates. All leading up to the whirlwind climax as our main man Johnny and his girl race to the airport to leave the country with their “profits.”

Disc one contains great features. There are three interviews that give a behind-the-scenes look at this wonderful film from some of those that were there. Two of them are new, one with producer James B. Harris and the other with poet/author Robert Polito on the writings of Jim Thompson. Both provide insight as to why Kubrick chose to present the film the way he did and why he chose not to re-edit it as a straight telling. The third is Sterling Hayden from a French television series shot in the early 1980s where we learn a bit more about Hayden’s time in Hollywood, his part in The Killing, and also his role in the Hollywood black listings of the 1950s. The interviews add to the overall brilliance of Kubrick’s film.

Disc two is another of Kubrick’s early works; this one from 1955 was written, directed, and produced by the young man himself. Killer’s Kiss is another film noir tale, this time told in a flashback. It’s an overall simple story that gets a bit lost and confusing but is basically about two lonely hearts brought together by chance who look to make a better life away from New York’s Times Square. A past-his-prime boxer with a weak chin gets the narrative started while waiting at the station for a train. He retraces how he got there and how he became involved with a dance hall dancer after being awakened by her screams. He runs to her rescue and saves her from being raped by her dirtball boss. The two get to know each other better, fall madly in love, and set plans to exact revenge on her boss and leave the big city forever. Things don’t go as smooth as hoped, but in the end the lovers wind up in each other’s arms reveling in a killer kiss.

There are good shots of grimy, old New York, and some odd street scenes that Kubrick strings together well to further tell his tale in a way that only he can. We get a hints at what he will do in the distant future (silent picture-esque shots) as well as in the near future (the next year in The Killing) as there is a flashback (within a flashback really) that jumps back just an hour prior to the last scene. His shooting of the boxing match is actually pretty good, reminds me of Raging Bull in a way; there are no spectacular punches just “boxing,” getting body shots in close and tying up, clean breaks and hard, on-your-ass knockdowns. It’s good work for a young guy working on his second feature.

Disc two features a great new “video appreciation” by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien that sheds light on how the movie was made. It’s a really good supplement to Killer’s Kiss and about Kubrick himself that together with the extras on disc one make these two films shine again in new light. The overall theme between the two seems to be that not all plans, well executed or fueled by good intentions, turn out quite as we expect them to.

The two-disc set of The Killing is well worth the price. The special features and high quality restoration add to the fun and excitement of not only watching great movies but learning more about them and the people who made them.

Joe Garcia III

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