If you’re planning to rob a racetrack of a few million dollars, it’s good to have a thorough plan. In The Killing (1956), crafting such a plan is a responsibility that falls on Johnny Clay (1956), a recent release from Alcatraz Prison who is looking for an opportunity to cash out and disappear. He has connections with a horse track facility and an organized plan to lighten the track’s vaults on the biggest money event of the year. [SPOILERS AHEAD]
Johnny’s plan factors in every angle of the robbery. He charges two people with creating diversions, ramping up the atmosphere of confusion and creating a distraction from the heist. Johnny also has men helping him get into the track offices, others planting weapons, and even a crooked cop responsible for driving the loot off-site, thereby enabling Johnny to steal the money without having to exit the building with the cash in tow. The plan seems perfect, and the film’s nonlinear structure keeps the viewer on their toes, analyzing the plan from every angle as it’s seen through a different perspective. And from each angle, everything works. You expect to see something in one of the perspectives that causes alarm, or indicates the plan won’t work, but it never happens. As far as the heist itself is concerned, everything works without a hitch. It’s later on when things get complicated.
The real trouble Johnny and his gang encounter comes after the big sack of money is stealthily removed from the scene. An underlying “rob-the-robber” plot lingers in the background during the picture, and while Johnny’s crew awaits at the safehouse post-robbery, the crew is jumped by a fellow with a gun (who is the secret lover of a crewman’s wife). Fortunately for Johnny, he’s running late, and neither he nor the cash has yet to arrive at the safehouse. Guns are fired, bullets fly, and everyone involved but George (Elisha Cook Jr.) ends up dead. HopkinsCinemAddicts says “There’s a round of shots and several fall to the ground. The suspense is released in a single moment. The perfection of the crime is lost in an instant. It’s brilliant.”
The robbery’s contingency plan stated that if any trouble happened, whoever had the take in possession was to disappear and keep it safe. Doing exactly that, Johnny buys a big suitcase, fills it with the money, and finds himself waiting to board an airplane to Boston, accompanied by his gal Fay (Coleen Gray) and the suitcase packed with the cash. What eventually brings Johnny down (as the Hays code active in Hollywood at the time required crooks to be punished) ends up being the shoddy piece of luggage and a rambunctious runaway toy poodle, who takes off onto the runway, startles the luggage transport driver, and causes the suitcase with cash to fall off the cart and bust open. The money flies around in the pull of the airplane turbine, scattered in an instant.
It’s bitter irony that Johnny’s carefully crafted plan, which even accounted for something like the entire crew being murdered, is thwarted by a tiny dog and a suitcase. Some variables in his failure, certainly, are thanks to his own stupidity. Johnny was savvy enough to devise a plan for moving the money if trouble happened, but he didn’t consider how to properly store and transport $2 million in cash. A easily-breakable pawn shop suitcase and an airplane weren’t the smartest ways to go. But Johnny isn’t that smart—someone says so during the film—and when his escape plans crack, he doesn’t know what to do. He has no ability to act spontaneously.
The film’s narration helps establish the scrutinous craftsmanship of the film’s events and the meticulous nature of the heist. It also serves as a contrast against the ending. However, once Johnny is required to freestyle his behavior, he’s lost. In the film’s final moments, Fay tells him to run. “What’s the difference?” he replies, surrendering to his failure. It’s as if he is admitting he doesn’t have the brain power to operate without a plan, and knows he’ll be caught eventually.
The heist itself went off without a hitch, only to be scuttled by a renegade man, a dog, and a suitcase. It’s the type of twist one doesn’t expect and a great ending to the film.