Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Nut Job has us thinking back on our favorite heist movies.

The Killing (1956)

Heist movies often depend on clockwork precision, both in the planning of the big score and the filmmakers’ devising of ways for that plan to go awry. As Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing skips through the chronology of a racetrack robbery, sometimes doubling back for more information, a dispassionate, omniscient narrator describes its timing with to-the-minute specificity. It’s a complicated scheme involving—among other elements—a man on the inside, a cop on the take, spectacular diversionary brawling, a rubber mask, and horse murder. By listing whereabouts and time codes in a Dragnet-like monotone, the narrator is describing both how the robbery should come together and, at certain crucial moments, how it fails to do just that.


The methodical approach to this overstuffed narrative fits Kubrick’s reputation as an icy clinician. But the narrator’s attention to logistics leaves room for a dozen or so important characters to flesh out the details of inevitable human error—how each player’s personal stake, ironic bad luck, or timing affects the eventual outcome. The scenes between sad-sack track employee George (Elisha Cook) and his dismissive wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), for example, pack enough disappointment, defeat, and bitterly comic wisecracks to fill a one-act play. Conversely, ringleader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) goes about his criminal errands with cool professionalism. Yet, no one falters or triumphs quite when expected. 

Even when the heist components fail to snap into their proper place, the movie itself unfolds near-perfectly. Kubrick gets in and out by the 90-minute mark, hurried along with sharp, rapid jabs of Jim Thompson dialogue (he and Kubrick adapted the Lionel White novel Clean Break). The camera also moves with a momentum that seems impossible, especially during a signature series of side-view tracking shots that keep characters in the frame as they charge through multiple rooms and doorways. Lucien Ballard’s black-and-white cinematography captures the comings and goings with perfect clarity.

Kubrick, only in his late twenties at the time of the film’s 1956 release, would go on to make more ambitious movies—almost exclusively, in fact. But it’s with equal expertise that The Killing applies his formal control and gift for pitiless (though not quite empathy-free) observation to genre-picture pleasures. He was supposed to be making his big-studio calling card; as it happened, he made a great heist movie too.


Availability: The Killing is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD (which can be obtained through Netflix) and to rent or purchase through Amazon Instant Video.