Film Review: The Killing (1956)

Also known as: Bed of Fear, Clean Break, Day of Violence (working titles)
Release Date: May 19th, 1956 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson
Based on: Clean Break by Lionel White
Music by: Gerald Fried
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Joe Turkel

Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation, United Artists, 85 Minutes

Review:

“You like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.” – Johnny Clay

The Killing is one of the really early films in auteur director Stanley Kubrick’s long and storied oeuvre. It came out less than a year after his previous film and first attempt at film-noir, Killer’s Kiss. With similar titles and coming out around the same time, the two films may confuse people looking back into Kubrick’s filmography. Also, Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both noir pictures and presented in silvery black and white.

The Killing is the superior of the two pictures, however, and Killer’s Kiss feels like more of a practice run leading up to this damn fine motion picture, which boasts the star power of well known noir actors Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray and Elisha Cook Jr. Plus, Marie Windsor is perfection in her role.

The plot of this film is about a high stakes heist at a horse track. A team is assembled, a greedy femme fatale enters the mix and we get scheming, violence and chaos. And it is all capped off by the immense talent of Kubrick behind the camera and a stellar and more than capable cast in front of the camera.

The truth is, The Killing, as great as it is, has always been overshadowed by Kubrick’s more famous pictures: 2001: A Space OdysseyThe ShiningA Clockwork OrangeDr. StrangeloveLolitaFull Metal Jacket, etc. The Killing is a top notch crime thriller and true to the film-noir style, even coming out late in the style’s classic run through the 1940s and 1950s. It is one of the best heist pictures ever made and like John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, it helped create a lot of tropes used in heist pictures since its time.

Being a fan of Elisha Cook Jr. for years, I especially love this film because he gets a really meaty and pivotal role. He is one of the top character actors of his day, was in more noir pictures than I can count and even went on to some well-known westerns and popped up in a few Vincent Price horror movies. He really gets to display his acting chops in this and it is nice to see the guy’s range, as he was a more capable actor than one being relegated to playing background characters and bit players.

The Killing was an incredibly important film in the career of Stanley Kubrick, as it lead to bigger things. He would go on to do Paths of Glory and Spartacus and eventually start making more artistic films that changed the filmmaking landscape forever. The Killing was a big part of Kubrick’s evolution and thus, the evolution of motion pictures in general.

Film Review: Nightmare Alley (1947)

Release Date: October 9th, 1947
Directed by: Edmund Goulding
Written by: Jules Furthman
Based on: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Music by: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Mike Mazurki

20th Century Fox, 110 Minutes

Review:

“Wait a minute mister, you’re not talking to one of your chumps. You’re talking to your wife! You’re talking to somebody who knows you red, white and blue. And you can’t fool me anymore.” – Molly

A film-noir starring Tyrone Power? Okay, you’ve got my attention and that’s all it took!

I love film-noir but before my love affair with that cinematic style, I was a huge fan of classic swashbuckling movies. Many of the greatest Hollywood swashbucklers starred the charismatic and ruggedly beautiful Tyrone Power. If there was ever a guy I’d go gay for, Tyrone Power is probably it.

You can’t deny the man’s charm, his presence and the fact that he oozes with coolness and masculinity. Plus, he is a guy that has a lot of fun in his roles. Here, he is mostly serious and less playful than he was as Zorro or as Jamie Waring in The Black Swan (the 1940s swashbuckler not the creepy Natalie Portman ballerina movie from a few years back).

What makes this such a unique experience is that it’s a noir that takes place at a carnival. Well, large portions of the film. It’s like The Maltese Falcon meets Freaks. Okay, it’s not that extreme and there aren’t really any “freaks” in the movie. There’s just a “geek” but that is a pretty important archetype, as you will see by the end of the film.

Tyrone Power plays a con man named Stan. Stan finds himself at a traveling carnival where he witnesses the crafty “psychic” Zeena, who uses an elaborate code with her showman husband, in an effort to name objects her husband displays from onlookers, while she is blindfolded. Power obsesses over the trick and must discover the secret of the code. He kills Zeena’s husband, albeit accidentally, and uses the opportunity to romance her in an effort to be her next partner. She eventually lets him in on her crafty carnival scheme. Stan, all the while, has been romancing the younger Molly, and when the two are exposed, they are forced out of the carnival community. Stan uses this to his advantage though, as he travels to Chicago and uses the carnival trick to make himself a superstar. Of course, this is noir, and there can be no real happy ending for Stan and his cons.

As much as I love Tyrone Power for that playfulness I mentioned earlier, he has never been better than this, where his playfulness is put on the back burner. Sure, he was great alongside the legendary Orson Welles in Prince of Foxes, but he was still his typical fun and charming character and even got to swashbuckle a little in that film. Here, in Nightmare Alley, he truly shows who he is, as an actor, when he is able to shed the baggage of what Hollywood thought he should be.

While this film wasn’t an immediate success, it is now considered a classic and for good reason. It is the best I have ever seen Tyrone Power, period. And the creation of this movie was all in Power’s hands. You see, he bought the rights to the novel and decided to star in this because he wanted to break being typecast as swashbucklers. 20th Century Fox obliged him and he got to have his movie made. While it didn’t work out commercially, upon release, in the years since, it worked to Tyrone Power’s advantage as later generations have something to look at to see how accomplished the man was on screen and that he had a range beyond the majority of the roles he was pushed into.

Truthfully, Nightmare Alley is really a top ten film-noir. There are only a few films better than it in the noir style. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, that are nowhere near as good.

Nightmare Alley is the high point of Tyrone Power’s career, from an acting perspective. At least, I haven’t come across anything greater, at this point, but I have watched a ton of Power’s films. He took a risk with this but it paid off, in the long term. After actors come and go, it’s that legacy that they leave behind that lives on for generations. This is the peak of Tyrone Power’s incredible legacy, as an actor.

Film Review: Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Also known as: The Secret Four (UK)
Release Date: November 11th, 1952
Directed by: Phil Karlson
Written by: George Bruce, Harry Essex, Rowland Brown, Harold Greene
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: John Payne, Coleen Gray, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam

Associated Players and Producers, Edward Small Productions, United Artists, 99 Minutes

Review:

“What makes a two-bit heel like you think a heater would give him an edge over me? ” – Tim Foster

Kansas City Confidential is a pretty intense and fun film-noir. It also has two of my favorite western stars in it: Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam. The film is directed by Phil Karlson and is considered by many to be his best.

While the big crime in the film takes place in Kansas City, a big portion of the film goes down to Mexico. You see, an ex-con trying to go straight, is framed for a million dollar armored car robbery. When the real criminals go to Mexico, the ex-con follows in order to expose them and clear his name.

The story is pretty good and it has a lot of interesting twists and turns that make it a good textbook noir, as far as the scheming plot goes. Most of the characters are despicable and you’re always waiting for one of them to turn on the others. Lee Van Cleef is especially good and always does a villainous role justice, as he slithers in and out of the scenes like a snake ready to strike at anything that moves. His facial expressions and body language in this are so predatory, it really shows that he is an actor better than the roles he was getting at this point in his career.

John Payne was good as the lead but he always seemed to be overshadowed by the villains on screen, as they all had a really dark and powerful charisma.

I loved that this film felt larger than most noirs, which seem very confined and small. This was vast and open and really stepped outside of the box.

The film did really well upon release for Edward Small Productions, who responded by turning this into a series with followups New York Confidential and Chicago Confidential. Those were not directed by Karlson, however. Even the more modern neo-noir L.A. Confidential was an homage to this film in title.

Karlson would go on to do The Phenix City Story, which was a sort of spiritual sequel to this. He also dabbled in more film-noir and would go on to do The Silencers, the first of Dean Martin’s spy parody films, and the original Walking Tall with Joe Don Baker.

Kansas City Confidential is a fine motion picture. If you are a fan of film-noir and haven’t seen this one, you should probably check it out.