Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is a veteran criminal planning one last heist before settling down and marrying Fay (Coleen Gray). He plans to steal $2 million from the money-counting room of a racetrack during a featured race. He assembles a team consisting of a corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia), a betting window teller (Elisha Cook Jr.) to gain access to the backroom, a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey) to shoot the favorite horse during the race to distract the crowd, a wrestler (Kola Kwariani) to provide another distraction by provoking a fight at the track bar, and a track bartender (Joe Sawyer).
George Peatty, the teller, tells his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) about the impending robbery. Sherry is bitter at George for not delivering on the promises of wealth he once made her, so George hopes telling her about the robbery will placate and impress her. Sherry does not believe him at first but, after learning that the robbery is real, enlists her lover Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) to steal the money from George and his associates.
The heist is successful, although the sharpshooter is shot and killed by a security guard. The conspirators gather at the apartment where they are to meet Johnny and divide the money. Before Johnny arrives, Val appears and holds them up. A shootout ensues and a badly wounded George emerges as the only man standing. He goes home and shoots Sherry before collapsing.
Johnny, on his way to the apartment, sees George staggering in the street and knows that something is wrong. He buys the biggest suitcase he can find to put the money in (and struggles to lock it properly). At the airport Johnny and Fay aren't allowed to take the suitcase along as hand luggage because of its size, and instead must check it in as regular luggage. Johnny reluctantly complies. While waiting to board their plane they watch as the suitcase falls off a cart onto the runway, breaks open and the loose banknotes are swept away by the backdraft from the plane's propellers.
Fay and Johnny leave the airport but are unable to hail a cab before officers are alerted to them. Fay urges Johnny to flee but he refuses, calmly accepting the futility of trying to escape, and utters the final line, "What's the difference?". The film ends with two officers approaching to arrest him.
While playing chess on Washington Square, Kubrick met producer James B. Harris, who was looking for a young new talent to produce for, having sold his film distribution company. Harris considered Kubrick to be "the most intelligent, most creative person [he had] ever come in contact with", and the two formed the Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation in 1955. Harris purchased the rights to Lionel White's novel Clean Break for $10,000, beating United Artists, which was interested in the film as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra. At Kubrick's suggestion they hired hardboiled fiction novelist Jim Thompson to write the script. United Artists told the pair that it would help finance the picture if Harris and Kubrick could find a high-profile actor to star. They signed Sterling Hayden, who agreed to accept $40,000. However, Hayden wasn't a big enough star for UA, which wound up providing only $200,000 for the film; Harris financed the rest using $80,000 of his own money and a $50,000 loan from his father. The film was the first of three on which Harris and Kubrick collaborated as producer and director in a span of less than ten years. Working titles for the film were Clean Break and Bed of Fear. It was the last feature film that Kubrick filmed in the United States.
Three members of the cast—Hayden, Ted de Corsia and Timothy Carey—had appeared together the previous year in the low-budget noir film, Crime Wave. The art director, Ruth Sobotka, was Kubrick's wife at the time. Kubrick and Harris moved from New York to L.A. to shoot the picture, and Kubrick went unpaid during the shooting, surviving on loans from Harris. Aside from Hayden, with whom he had been impressed while shooting The Asphalt Jungle, Kubrick cast actors from film noirs he had liked, such as Timothy Carey, Ted de Corsia, Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor. The wrestler in the film was an old chess friend of Kubrick's, Kola Kwariana. The cinematographer's union in Hollywood told Kubrick that he could not, as had been planned, be both director and cinematographer, so veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard was hired to shoot the picture. He and Kubrick clashed often during filming; on one occasion Kubrick favored a long tracking shot, with the camera close to the actors with a 25mm wide-angle lens to provide slight distortion of the image, but Ballard moved it further away and began using a 50mm lens. Kubrick sternly ordered him to put the camera back or he would be fired.
The film performed poorly at the box office, failing to secure a proper release across the United States, and it was only at the last minute that it was promoted as a second feature to Bandido! (1956), but failed to make money. However, it garnered critical acclaim, landing on several critical Top-Ten lists for the year. Time magazine wrongly predicted that it would "make a killing at the cash booths", asserting that Kubrick "has shown more audacity with dialogue and camera than Hollywood has seen since the obstreperous Orson Welles went riding out of town on an exhibitors' poll"—recording a loss of $130,000. A. H. Weiler, film critic for The New York Times, wrote, "Though The Killing is composed of familiar ingredients and it calls for fuller explanations, it evolves as a fairly diverting melodrama. ... Aficionados of the sport of kings will discover that Mr. Kubrick's cameras have captured some colorful shots of the ponies at Bay Meadows track. Other observers should find The Killing an engrossing little adventure."
Variety magazine liked the acting and wrote, "This story of a $2 million race track holdup and steps leading up to the robbery, occasionally told in a documentary style which at first tends to be somewhat confusing, soon settles into a tense and suspenseful vein which carries through to an unexpected and ironic windup ... Hayden socks over a restrained characterization, and Cook is a particular standout. Windsor is particularly good, as she digs the plan out of her husband and reveals it to her boyfriend." Although Kubrick and Harris had thought that the positive reception from critics had made their presence known in Hollywood, Max Youngstein of United Artists still considered them to be "Not far from the bottom" of the pool of new talent at the time, but Dore Schary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was impressed with the film, and offered the duo $75,000 to write, direct and produce a film, which became Paths of Glory (1957).
Rotten Tomatoes rates it 97% fresh, based on 33 reviews compiled retrospectively. It has gained a cult following, among other works by Kubrick. For example, Eddie Muller placed the film at 15th among his top 25 favorite noir films, saying, "If you believe that a good script is a succession of great scenes, you can't do better than this. Hey, that scene was so good, let's do it again from somebody else's perspective".
In 1999 film critic Mike Emery wrote, "Kubrick's camerawork was well on the way to finding the fluid style of his later work, and the sparse, low-budget circumstances give the film a raw, urgent sort of look. As good as the story and direction are, though, the true strength of The Killing lies in the characters and characterizations." The same year director Peter Bogdanovich, writing for The New York Times, noted that while The Killing did not make money, it, along with Harris-Kubrick's second film Paths of Glory, established "Kubrick's reputation as a budding genius among critics and studio executives."
On January 9, 2012, Roger Ebert added The Killing to his list of "Great Movies." In his opening remarks, Ebert writes, "Stanley Kubrick considered The Killing (1956) to be his first mature feature, after a couple of short warm-ups. He was 28 when it was released, having already been an obsessed chess player, a photographer for Look magazine and a director of March of Time newsreels. It's tempting to search here for themes and a style he would return to in his later masterpieces, but few directors seemed so determined to make every one of his films an individual, free-standing work. Seeing it without his credit, would you guess it was by Kubrick? Would you connect Dr. Strangelove with Barry Lyndon?"
Quentin Tarantino has said that The Killing was a significant influence on his 1992 film, Reservoir Dogs.
NominationsBAFTA Film Award, Best Film from any Source, USA; 1957.
A digitally restored version of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection.