"The Killing" (1956), Stanley Kubrick's second movie, is all surface action--there's nothing going on beyond its hard veneer. In that respect, it's just like the pulp crime novels it tries to emulate.
The director who went on to make such provocative, big-brained classics as "Lolita," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "A Clockwork Orange" was clearly doing apprentice work with "The Killing," which screens tonight at UC Irvine, the latest installment in the campus "Double Vision" series.
There are no frills, hardly any psychological shading and no artful stylings--just a quick 83 minutes of potboiler plot. Kubrick shows that he learned his first lesson well: Tell the damn story without losing the audience.
The screenplay, based on Lionel White's book "Clean Break," gets on with it from the first moment. With an urgent sounding narrator setting the scene, we see some of Johnny Clay's (Sterling Hayden) seedy gang taking the first steps toward an elaborate robbery of a racetrack.
From there, Kubrick takes us through just about every corner of the plan, giving us hints of what the characters are about. There's nervous George (Elisha Cook) and his scheming wife (Marie Windsor), opportunistic Val (Vince Edwards) and the twitchy shooter, Nikki (Tim Carey). The camera always comes back to Hayden's tough, fatalistic Johnny, as he puts everything in place, never sensing the disaster ahead.
Everyone, even Johnny, remains a cipher, not much more than moving snapshots, but this doesn't hamper the picture's appeal. Kubrick fills in the gaps with crude energy; what he's really interested in is pacing, which is high-speed, and working out the often surprising details of the plot. Glimmers of Kubrick's trademark techniques--shadowy, low-angle cinematography giving way to harsh close-ups--are apparent.
"The Killing" has become a cult classic, and you can see why in all its weird edges. Kubrick has always been ready for a dark joke, and there are several here.
"The Killing" by Stanley Kubrick will be shown tonight at 7 and 9 in the Crystal Cove Auditorium in the Student Center at UC Irvine, Campus Drive and Bridge Road, Irvine. Tickets: $2 to $4. Information: (714) 856-6379.