When in his 20s, Stanley Kubrick frequented a chess parlor much like the one seen in The Killing (1956), the noir heist film considered to be the director’s first “major” film. Chess is a game of strategy and controlled chance, with each player trying to predict and compensate for the other’s moves. Symbolic of the game is the strategic heist concocted by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the man in charge of an operation set to loot $2 million from a horse track during the biggest race of the year. He meticulously plans every detail, many of which hinge on assumptions and estimations of human behavior, much like chess. But was his plan really that great? Did he include more people than were truly necessary? For the purposes of limiting the division of payout and maximizing his own reward, it seems he could have done without some of the men involved with the plan.
The Killing is presented in a nonlinear structure—an unusual and bold move at the time, and one which has inspired legions of chopped-up heist movies that followed (Reservoir Dogs (1991) may be the most relatable, as Tarantino has cited The Killing as a major inspiration.) Johnny’s plan goes something like this:
Early in the day, the track bartender Mike (Joe Sawyer) plants a gun in his employee locker, concealed within a flower box. When the races begin, everyone takes their positions within the racetrack—including Johnny, who’s idling about near the security door with a briefcase in hand. At the start of the $100,000 race, a former wrestler named Maurice, played by actual wrestler Kola Kwariani, starts a fight at the bar. He’s huge and easily defeats most of the ground-level guards policing the track. These guards call for backup, which draws the guards out of the security/cash room and down to the fight. At the same time, from a nearby parking lot, a sniper named Nikki (Timothy Carey) somewhat unnecessarily shoots the best horse in the race, mainly just to cause more panic and confusion distracting the guards from the heist. During this time a man named Marvin (Jay C. Flippen), who financed the operation, is waltzing around intoxicated. He doesn’t contribute anything to the actual heist but up-front money for hired muscle so his presence at the event is moot.
George (Elisha Cook Jr.), the track cashier, slips away and opens the security door for Johnny when the guards are gone. Johnny goes upstairs into the locker room, takes the gun from the flower box, puts on a mask, and goes across the hall to rob the cash office. The guys inside load up a huge duffel bag, and Johnny sends them all into the locker room as he adds the gun, mask, and clothes to the bag before pitching it out the window. A crooked cop named Randy (Ted de Corsia) awaits below to catch the bag and drive it to Johnny’s motel room. Johnny, wearing regular clothes, waltzes out of the track. He picks up the bag at the motel and drives to the intended rendezvous. A bunch of trouble happens at that point, but the heist is over, so that’s not relevant to this discussion.
Now, whether or not shooting the horse was necessary is a matter of opinion. As far as the confusion at the track goes, it doesn’t seem to have much bearing on Johnny’s success. We hear about it over the track loudspeaker, but at least within the scope of the film, nobody is responding to it in a way that impacts whether or not Johnny gets out of the cash room. However, the sniper wasn’t a major player in the heist—he didn’t get part of the take. He was paid up front for his work. He still probably didn’t need to be involved.
It seems the heist could have easily been pulled off (assuming all the coincidental variables at play with security still worked as expected) with at least one less man involved.
For instance, the bartender: His job was to stash the gun in the locker so that Johnny could pick it up. He has no further involvement. But in the scene where he stashes the gun, we see George already present in the locker room, getting changed for work. Why couldn’t he have stashed the gun instead, leaving Mike out of it?
Or, if Mike needed to be the gun-stasher, why have George on board? Literally the only thing the man does is open a door for Johnny, and the door quite obviously isn’t even locked. Johnny absolutely could have entered the staff area of the building after the guards rushed to the fight scene without the help of George. Either way you flip the situation, one of those guys could have been eliminated from the equation.
There’s also the argument that a gun didn’t need stashed at all. The briefcase Johnny carries is plenty big enough to conceal a broken-down shotgun, eliminating the need for a stashed gun altogether. That could arguably eliminate the necessity of both Mike and George, vastly slimming down the number of players involved—especially the ones receiving a share of the main haul.
Regardless of the necessity of all its players, The Killing is a great piece of noir from the early days of one of cinema’s finest directors. The narrative is compelling in its complicated presentation of a simplistic story, and the twists offered by the secondary players provide enough tension and drama to make it a classic heist piece. But the next time you’re planning a major racetrack robbery, consider the necessity of everyone involved. You could save a few bucks.