The Killing (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 8.16.2011)
Before he established himself as a genius with Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick made three low-budget films (Fear and Desire, Killer's Kiss, The Killing) and this is easily the best: tightly constructed, with fully developed characters, quotable dialogue and beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Lucien Ballard. Visually, this is one of the most striking examples of fifties noir -- Ballard gets startling effects from lamps and bare blubs -- but Harris claims that the cinematographer hated the director. Many of the images resemble the photographs of Kubrick and they have a beautiful clarity in this new HD transfer.
The Killing is far more briskly-paced than the films Kubrick made later in his career, due in part to his frequent use of camera movement. In one of the even-better-than-usual Criterion extras on this disc, producer James B. Harris explains that Kubrick was consciously emulating the fluid camera movements in Max Ophuls' films. Harris also claims that Kubrick had an encyclopedic knowledge of character actors and cast all but one of the actors (Harris friend Vince Edwards) himself. Of particular note, Kubrick insisted upon leading man Sterling Hayden, over the objections of United Artists.
Those who claim Kubrick had no sense of humor should note a) the freedom he gave Timothy Carey to portray his hit man as a hipster, b) the parrot who seems to comment on the final confrontation between Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor and c) the presence of a race horse named Stanley K.
The director chose Jim Thompson as his co-writer, with the crime novelist providing a fractured, non-linear structure much like that of his novels. He also greatly expanded the roles played by Cook and Windsor, who give perhaps their strongest performances ever. In one of this disc's extras, Thompson biographer Robert Polito discusses the novelist's four-year working relationship with Kubrick, evaluates the film adaptations of Thompson's novels and sees similarities between Kubrick's Lolita and Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (which Kubrick called "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered").
The most substantial extra on this disc is Kubrick's previous feature, Killer's Kiss, which is obviously inferior to The Killing -- in terms of story, dialogue, and cast. Still, this is an interesting warm-up for the director's later films (critic Geoffrey O'Brien calls it "a young man's rough sketch"), which uses Manhattan locations to impressive effect, particularly the original Penn Station.
The best extras are a pair of 1984 French television interviews with Hayden, who is colorful, profane and often disgusted with himself. Hayden expresses admiration for John Huston (he starred in Huston's The Asphalt Jungle) and discusses Joan Crawford's temperament during the shooting of Johnny Guitar. Of The Killing, Hayden says he "loved the way the camera was always moving." He found Kubrick cold then, but he also explains (in a delightful anecdote) how the director helped him at a crucial moment during the filming of Dr. Strangelove.
The final extra is a booklet with an essay by Haden Guest (analyzing the film's style) and an excerpt from a 1992 interview with Windsor. -- Michael Adams