Making ‘The Killing’: An Auteur and His Writer

The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

Vague Visages’ The Killing essay contains spoilers. Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film features Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray and Vince Edwards. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.


I can see it just as clearly as if it had really happened. The gathering at the table midway down the left aisle at Hollywood’s Musso & Frank Grill is getting emotional. They’re hovering over their cigarettes, their glasses of bourbon and wine and beer, their half-eaten plates corned beef and cabbage, chicken pot pie and sauerbraten.

A waiter whispers to Gustav Hasford and points to a table across the room. “That’s where Faulkner sat,” the waiter says, knowing this is Hasford’s first time at Musso & Frank. The Alabamian nodded appreciatively. The other writers at the table — Jim Thompson, Calder Willingham, Frederic Raphael, Terry Southern and Dalton Trumbo — have been here a thousand times.

“He thought you were verbose and self-important,” Raphael says to Trumbo.

“And you know what Kirk Douglas said about him,” Trumbo answers after another sip of his wine. “He’s ‘not a writer.’ He’s ‘a talented shit’ who tried to steal credit for my screenplay and keep me on the Blacklist.”

“He gave me some of that same strange love, too,” Southern rejoins.

“He nearly ruined my film trying to rewrite it,” Willingham says. “The auteur. It was all him and nobody else, whether he deserved it or not.

Hasford drinks deep into his Budweiser. “He and Michael Herr wouldn’t even let me meet with them, and I not only helped write the script, I wrote the goddamn book.”

“Directors are often unpunished serial killers who appropriate credit from writers whom they have jettisoned,” Raphael says.

Big Jim Thompson waves a big paw, polishes off his whiskey and motions to the waiter for another. He leans across the table, long-held anger and hurt and resentment embedded in his rutted face. “You all came after me. I was the first he betrayed. You fellows just followed in my footsteps.”

Thompson, a hardboiled writer, never forgave director Stanley Kubrick for denying him screenwriting credit in the 1956 noir masterwork The Killing. It was just one of many historic precedents of Kubrick’s first major feature film. 

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The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

Hailed by Noir Czar Eddie Muller as “a monument to the classic caper film and a fresh gust of filmmaking in one clever package,” The Killing would go on to influence filmmakers ranging from those of the French New Wave to New Hollywood filmmakers like Martin Scorsese to today’s Quentin Tarantino. 

The Killing also marked a special moment in film history. It heralded the arrival of a film world enfant terrible. It featured a collection of some of film’s greatest character actors, a star wrestling with deep self-contempt for his earlier testimony before the U.S. House for Un-American Activities Committee and an intruiguing story of a racetrack heist that becomes an existential probe into the meaning of life. 

Even 67 years after its release, The Killing resonates. Tarantino talks about the “non-linear plot,” how The Killing “changed the movies you love.” This low-budget box office failure — it cost $320,000 to make — “boldly” announced “the stylistic and thematic preoccupations that would become important constants” in Kubrick’s career, Haden Guest writes in an essay for the Criterion edition of the film. Scenes like Johnny Clay hiding a gun in a flowerbox later inspired a similar scene in The Godfather. The mask Johnny uses during the heist shows up later in films like Batman: The Dark Knight (2008). Timothy Carey’s sharpshooter, though hidden from view, is even among the crowd on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

The Killing anticipated the films of the French New Wave — and with “its jagged time structure and doubling back over past events” marks Kubrick as not only “a bridge between the studio genre picture and the European art film” but as a “key transitional figure between Old and New Hollywood,” Guest says.

Casting was another key to the genius that was The Killing. No noir film ever boasted a greater gathering of character actors — Elisha Cook Jr., Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, Timothy Carey, Marie Windsor and Coleen Gray. Sterling Hayden got the lead role as Johnny Clay after Frank Sinatra never could commit to a film version of the Lionel White novel Clean Break that became the basis for The Killing. The studio, United Artists, wanted Victor Mature, but Kubrick and producer James B. Harris refused to wait the 18 months Mature needed before he became available.  They got Hayden for $40,000, but the studio then only committed $200,000 to the project. Harris had to raise the rest from his own savings account plus a loan from his father.

Hayden’s performance is masterful, and possibly driven in part perhaps by the inner tensions that had always created misgivings about choosing acting as a career, tensions then exacerbated by the former seaman’s caving and naming of names of suspected Communist sympathizers before the House for Un-American Activities Committee. Hayden had briefly joined the Communist Party after fighting with the Partisans in Yugoslavia during World War II.

“The sense of disturbance prevails — deep-set, its roots in self-contempt,” he writes in his autobiography Wanderer. “I’ve lived with such torment for years and maybe I always will.”

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The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

In the film, Hayden’s Johnny Clay has just gotten out of prison and believes he has a plan for the perfect crime, a $2 million heist at a racetrack. What’s perfect, he believes, is the fact he’s assembled a five-man team of non-criminals, including a cop, a wrestler buddy, sharpshooter and one of the window tellers at the racetrack, none of whom would likely raise suspicion from the law. Johnny’s sharpshooter Nikki Arcane, played by Timothy Carey, is assigned to shoot the lead horse in the race, creating enough havoc to allow Clay and the others to pull off the heist.

The weak link proves to be the window teller, who lets his cheating wife find out enough about the plan to tip off her gangster lover. The man decides he wants that $2 million and ends up in a deadly shooting match with Johnny’s team. Johnny manages to slip away with the loot and his girlfriend, but before they can fly away, they see the suitcase carrying the money fall off the airport baggage wagon and two million dollars scatter in the wind across the tarmac.  

It was a chance meeting on a New York City street between Harris and Kubrick, both in their mid-twenties at the time and still fledglings in filmmaking, that planted the seed that became The Killing.  Kubrick was a former Look magazine photographer who had turned to film and had a couple low-budget minor films to his credit, including the feature film Killer’s Kiss, a noir with haunting and promising cinematography but amateurish dialogue and plot.

The Killing, a brilliantly paced story about a racetrack robbery, is the work of a professional filmmaker,” writes Foster Hirsch in his book The Dark Side of the Screen. “Killer’s Kiss, that of a talented amateur.”

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The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

James B. Harris had made training films for the Signal Corps during the Korean War. A founder of Flamingo Films, he learned about Kubrick from his partner and fellow Signal Corps member Alexander Singer, who invited the filmmaker to the set of a film they were making after the war. Harris would go on to work as a producer with Kubrick not only on The Killing but also Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962) before pursuing his own career as a director. 

It was Harris who found the crime novel Clean Break by Lionel White in the Scribner’s Bookstore on New York’s Fifth Avenue and decided it would be a great vehicle for the new company he and Kubrick had just formed, Harris-Kubrick Pictures. He liked the book’s flashbacks and unusual nonlinear structure. Harris gave it to Kubrick, who agreed and asked his partner to pursue getting the rights for it. They learned that the Los Angeles-based Jaffe Agency was already negotiating with Frank Sinatra for a film version, but no decision had been reached. Harris bought the rights with $10,000 out of his own pocket.

After getting United Artists on board to back the project, Kubrick, an avid reader and lover of literature, suggested crime novelist Jim Thompson as a writer for the script. Thompson today is a legend in the hardboiled world of noir — a former IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) Wobbly and author of chilling tales such as The Killer Inside Me — but at the time, he was on a downward, alcoholic spiral working at tabloids and strapped for cash. “Stanley Kubrick rescued Thompson from an early retirement into hackdom,” writes Robert Polito in his 1995 biography of Thompson, Savage Art. 

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Thompson, unfamiliar with the screenplay format, went to work for Harris and Kubrick. They worked at their company’s 57th Street office before Thompson migrated to a nearby hotel.

“Jim Thompson had made him nervous when they were working together on The Killing,” writer Michael Herr recounts in 2000 memoir Kubrick, “a big guy in a dirty old raincoat, a terrific writer but a little too hard-boiled for Stanley’s taste. He’d turn up for work carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag, but saying nothing about it — it was just there on the desk with no apology or comment — not at all interested in putting Stanley at ease except to offer him the bag, which Stanley declined, making no gestures whatever to any part of the Hollywood process, except maybe toward the money.”

One of the first big hurdles in the project was the fact no racetrack would agree to be the setting of a movie about a racetrack grand robbery. Kubrick’s biographer Vincent LoBrutto writes about this. Knowing it was be impossible to secure such an agreement, “sets were being designed and built for the interior sequences. Other exterior sequences could be achieved using second-unit footage and rear-screen projection.” Still, an agreement was reached with San Francisco’s Bay Meadows Racetrack to allow the filming of “second-unit material of a race in progress.”

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The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

Union restrictions (Kubrick could not both direct and be director of photography) forced the camera-savvy filmmaker to hire veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard. He and Ballard locked horns a number of times during the filming, however, as Kubrick challenged his collaborator’s time-honed methods with untested innovations, such as using a hand-held camera and a 25mm lens for certain shots when Ballard wanted a more standard 50mm lens. However, the cinematographer’s contributions made the film better, Haden Guest writes. “Ballard’s diagrammatic hot-spot lighting transforms dingy apartments and hidden back rooms into dramatic extensions of the robbers’ feverishly claustrophobic lives,” and it points to elements seen in future Kubrick films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980).  

The supporting cast of The Killing is a Who’s Who of noir character actors. Cook Jr. firmly established himself as a founding father of Noir World in his role as the gunsel Wilmer Cook in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon in 1941. Further roles such as hopped-up jazz drummer Cliff March in Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944) cemented his status. Ted de Corsia, who plays corrupt policeman Randy Kennan, looks “like a guy who’d spent his whole life in boxing gyms and bookie joints” with his barrel chest, beady eyes, and “hair glistening with a hard shell lacquer of Wildroot Cream,” writes Eddie Muller in his 1998 book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.

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The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

Carey’s sharpshooter character, Nikki Arcane, completes his task of killing the thoroughbred Red Lightning in the race allowing Johnny Clay’s gang to do the heist. However, his surly, racist behavior toward the African American parking attendant sets the stage for his own ultimate demise. “Played with reptilian charm,” as Haden Guest describes the performance, Carey’s Nikki Arcane “leers and grunts and groans out of his permanent death-mask face,” writes Barry Gifford in his 1988 book, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir. 

Carey was one of the most unusual of Hollywood character actors. Notorious for scene-stealing and his unexpected improvisations — such as his extended crying and moaning “I don’t want to die” during the execution scene in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) — he had one of those  “difficult to work with” reputations in Hollywood, yet directors from Kubrick to John Cassavetes to Francis Ford Coppola to Tarantino recognized his talent and repeatedly sought him out for supporting roles in their films.   

“He was unrivaled in the 1950s in expressing his nuttiness in unexpected ways,” Eddie Muller says.

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Marie Windsor and Coleen Gray provide the feminine challenge to all the testosterone in The Killing. Gray is Johnny Clay’s long-suffering girlfriend. She brought noir credits to the cast with roles in classics like Kiss of Death (1947) and Nightmare Alley (1947) but was “always the lone ray of light in noir’s dismal demimonde,” according to Muller, the lone good girl amid a crew of criminal ne’er-do-wells. 

Windsor’s Sherry Peatty is the classic femme fatale, the cheating, scheming wife of Cook Jr.’s  henpecked cuckold George Peatty, yet another gem of a role that established Cook as “the avatar of weak-willed weasles,” in Eddie Muller’s estimation.  Windsor’s noir credits included Force of Evil (1948) and The Narrow Margin (1952).

Add to these other cast members such as Jay C. Flippen as the heist’s homosexual underwriter Marvin Unger, Kubrick’s chess-playing buddy Kola Kwariani as strongman Maurice Oboukhoff and, of course, Hayden, whose noir creds included his role as Dix Handley in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and you’ve got what Eddie Muller calls “a hand-picked rogue’s gallery,” and “ample proof that Stanley Kubrick loved film noir.” 

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The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

The Killing was shot quickly — less than the 24 days scheduled — in Los Angeles on an independent’s budget with UA providing only $200,000. Kubrick took no salary and lived off loans from Harris. Kubrick’s directing — the 27-year-old director had never acted himself — was largely low-key. “He didn’t direct in front of anybody else,” Windsor recalled. “He’d say, ‘Marie, come over here a minute.’ We’d go behind the scenery, and he’d say, `In this scene, I want you to be really tired and lazy.’ I’d had some stage training, and he was trying to get me not to use my big voice.”

Once filming ended, Hayden’s agent, Bill Shiffren, and other industry previewers weren’t impressed and insisted Kubrick re-shoot the film in a more traditional linear fashion. Kubrick re-edited it, but he and Harris decided they had to go with their original version, which more closely matched the structure of Lionel White’s book. “We put it back the way we had it at the preview and delivered it that way to United Artists,” Harris later recalled.

With a score that featured André Previn on piano and Shelly Manne on drums, the re-constituted film got through UA executives, but the studio released the film on May 20, 1956, earlier than scheduled and with minimal publicity. Plus, the studio gave it second billing in a double feature with Bandido starring Robert Mitchum on top. The Killing thus got little attention and lost money, but it caught Hollywood’s eye. MGM’s Dore Shary liked it enough to bring Harris and Kubrick under his studio’s wing for future productions, and the following year, it led to a huge career boost for Kubrick with the director’s job for the war film Paths of Glory (1957) starring Kirk Douglas.  

The Killing would prove pivotal to Kubrick’s career. Douglas had seen the film and “was so taken” by it that he asked to meet Kubrick, who also wanted Douglas for the lead role of Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory. The Killing “was an unusual picture, and the studio had no faith in it and handled it poorly,” Douglas writes in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son. “I was intrigued by the film, and wanted to meet the director.”

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Douglas, a big star at the time, was key in helping to get financing for Paths of Glory. He told Kubrick the film was important and needed to be made even though it was unlikely to turn a profit. During filming, he was impressed with Kubrick’s talent but also found him frustrating. Kubrick tried to change the screenplay written by Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson — whose anger at Kubrick over the credits in The Killing didn’t prevent him from signing on to another film with him — and turned “a beautiful script” into a “cheapened version” with dialogue that was “atrocious.” When confronted by Douglas about the changes, Kubrick retorted, “I want to make money.”

Douglas said Kubrick’s rewritten script included lines like “You’ve got a big head. You’re so sure the sun rises and sets up there in your noggin you don’t even bother to carry matches.” The film was shot with the original script and is today a classic.

Douglas later would hire Kubrick to replace Anthony Mann as director of his 1960 epic Spartacus. With an all-star cast that included Lawrence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis and Peter Ustinov, as well as Douglas in the lead role as the Roman Empire-era slave Spartacus, the $12 million film would win four Academy Awards and become a huge box office success for Universal Studios. However, Kubrick hated working under studio and Douglas’ own restrictions, and the lead actor would never forget how Kubrick was willing to steal screenwriting credits from HUAC blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Douglas’ decision to credit Trumbo on the big screen effectively restored the screenwriter’s career and brought an end to the dreaded blacklist that had ruined so many lives and careers.

Douglas recalled the discussion he, producer Edward Lewis and Kubrick had about screenwriting credits for the film. “Use my name,” Kubrick told them.

“Eddie and I looked at each other horrified. I said, `Stanley, wouldn’t you feel embarrassed to put your name on a script that someone else wrote?’ He looked at me as if he didn’t know what I was talking about. `No.’ He would have been delighted to take the credit… Stanley is not a writer… All this proves that you don’t have to be a nice person to be extremely talented. You can be a shit and be talented and, conversely, you can be the nicest guy in the world and not have any talent. Stanley Kubrick is a talented shit.”

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Kubrick, the lifelong lover of books who couldn’t write, would go on to a heralded career as a director but one haunted by his obsession with being the “auteur” who bears sole responsibility for a film and shadowed by the same treatment he gave writer Jim Thompson in The Killing.   

 “Even then a self-styled auteur, Kubrick was notorious for his cavalier use of writers,” Woody Haut writes in 2002 book Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood. “Some authors would buy into the Kubrick myth to such a degree that they would come to thank the director for mistreating them.”

Writer Calder Willingham would get similar treatment in his work with Kubrick on Paths of Glory as would Terry Southern on Dr. Strangelove (1964). Gustav Hasford’s book The Short-Timers became the basis for Kubrick’s 1987 war film Full Metal Jacket. The author also worked with Kubrick and writer Michael Herr in crafting a script out of the novel. A little known writer of a little known book with no agent or lawyer, however, he only met Kubrick in person once and was relegated to communicating with him only via phone, fax or e-mail while Kubrick and the better-known Herr worked more intimately together. 

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The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

Both Herr and Kubrick’s biographer, Vincent LoBrutto, tend toward hagiography in their books about the director, but Hasford’s dissatisfaction with his treatment was obvious when he showed up unexpectedly on the set of Full Metal Jacket during filming. “I wanted to see in fact whether the film was being made,” he said later in an interview. “I was contemplating legal action at the time, and it would’ve been pointless if there were no movie.”

Hasford won equal screenwriting credit with Kubrick and Herr on Full Metal Jacket, but it took a small war to get it. “In the cynical world of L.A., where show ‘biz’ deals are conducted in the back alleys of cocktail parties like self-parodying out-takes from a comedic film noir, you might want to interject this lively note of (transitory) optimism,” he later wrote. “I won my credit battle with Stanley. I beat Stanley, City Hall, The Powers That Be, and all the lawyers at Warner Bros., to and including the Supreme Boss Lawyer. As a little Canuck friend of mine would say, I kicked dey butt.”

Michael Herr stopped speaking to him as a result, however.

Kubrick’s treatment of Jim Thompson left the writer scarred for life. “That Stanley Kubrick ‘cheated’ him out of his credit on The Killing became another of Thompson’s personal myths in the sense that for the rest of his life he rehearsed his grievance to all who would listen,” Robert Polito writes in his biography of Thompson. “His `betrayal’ by Kubrick is an anecdote that everyone who knew him after 1955 can recite.”

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Although Thompson’s family insists that the writer took his case to the Writers Guild and won concessions plus the opportunity to work on the Harris-Kubrick production of Paths of Glory, Polito challenges that story, pointing out that Thompson didn’t join the Writers Guild until two years later. Nevertheless, Thompson didn’t let Kubrick’s betrayal prevent them from indeed working together on Paths of Glory, for which he did receive joint credit with Kubrick and Calder Willingham for the screenplay.

James Harris insisted that Thompson only deserved his “additional dialogue” credit, that the writer didn’t deserve more credit for the script. Associate producer Alexander Singer, however, disagreed, telling Polito that Thompson was “the person who wrote the script.”

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The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

In his 1999 book Eyes Wide Open, a sharp critique of the director from a writer who’d worked with him on his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), screenwriter Frederic Raphael describes Kubrick as a gifted director with no ability to write. “Longing to deserve the accolade of auteurship, directors often seek to append their names to the writing credits. Their habit is to be empowered to embellish scripts which they were powerless to begin.”

Kubrick, with all his love for literature, had little respect for screenwriters, Raphael writes. He recalled a conversation he once had with Kubrick who told him the following: “No writer who’s really good is ever going to invest his full ego in work that some other guy is going to come in and direct. It’s a psychological impossibility.”

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The Killing Essay - 1956 Stanley Kubrick Movie Film

Nonetheless, The Killing “ranks… among (Thompson’s) crowning accomplishments,” Polito writes, while also marking the emergence of one of Hollywood’s greatest modern directors. Thompson never became a Hollywood insider. “Jim Thompson loved the idea of Hollywood, especially the old Hollywood that endured around such vintage establishments as the Musso & Frank Grill — Hollywood’s oldest restaurant, a dark, woody chop house, fortified with two matching bars, on Hollywood Boulevard.”

Kubrick eventually left Hollywood and moved to England to make his movies. However, he was in many ways the embodiment of a new Hollywood — brilliant, creative and perhaps a bit ruthless, words that could also be used to describe his first great film, The Killing.

Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran writer who teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel (University Press of Kentucky, 2020) and the novel Casey’s Last Chance (Sartoris Literary Group, 2015). Joseph’s blog is http://www.laborsouth.blogspot.com and he can be reached at jbatkins3@gmail.com.

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