With The Killing, we arrive at a very exciting moment in the career of Stanley Kubrick, just shy of his 28th birthday when the film premiered in June, 1956: his third feature and sixth project overall is the very first work of the director's career that he'd acknowledge existed in later years. That's not entirely fair to the previous year's Killer's Kiss, but there's really no two ways about it: The Killing represents a jaw-dropping leap in Kubrick's talents, ambitious, and thoughtfulness. Not too many filmmakers have ever experienced such a staggering step-up in quality between two projects; Killer's Kiss is a fine, wholly generic mid-decade film noir, but The Killing is a masterpiece, one of the undisputed high-water marks of the American crime film whose reverberations can still be felt in a number of ways, and even if Kubrick's subsequent career hadn't included a single project on this level, it would still be sufficient in and of itself to justify him a place in the pantheon.

On top of all that, it's also Kubrick's first film with a non-original source: the young director wrote a story treatment based on Lionel White's novel Clean Break, with the dialogue added to that skeleton by pulp author Jim Thompson. And this perhaps was critical; glancing ahead at Kubrick's filmography, which includes only one project that could even vaguely deserve the tag of an original story, and one project that so thoroughly changed the substance of its source that we might as well call it a new scenario, and both of those co-written by hugely important authors in other medium, we might conclude that for all his many indisputable gifts as a visual artist and cunning experimenter with the details of film language, the gift of imagining interesting stories was alien to him. At any rate, The Killing changes very little of Clean Break, mostly in the streamlining that comes from turning a novel built on a series of psychological vignettes into a chilly third-person thriller, though the climax is heavily shifted to amp up the cosmic fatalism and make the characters a bit less cruel. Both versions are otherwise process stories at heart: the depiction of high ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), after four years in prison, gathers together an assortment of downtrodden schmoes to act as his pawns in a singularly clever plot to rob the money room at a local horse track, watching with anthropological fascination as the various individuals observe their little corner of the plot play out, while we in the audience see the whole tapestry come together strand by strand.

Noir was a good fit for Kubrick's sensibilities, as they'd be more fully laid out in his future work; other than war films, it's the only genre he'd dabble in more than once. The Killing, a noir of the highest order, showcases the first appearance of what would become arguably the key theme of Kubrick's entire career: orderly systems being brought down by an inability to account for the human element. And while this is merely a facet or background element of films like 2001 (with its insane computer) or A Clockwork Orange (with its epically unsuccessful scheme of social conditioning), it's the driving force behind the entire plot in The Killing, which we might summarise as how the perfect crime is ruined because one dumb dupe couldn't keep his mouth shut around his wife in a feeble attempt to save his toxic marriage.

And that's all the more I'll say specifically about the film's plot, since it is a real and tremendous pleasure to see how it all unfolds. What I will say is that the plot structure that Kubrick devised for the film, though it contains nearly all of the same events as Clean Break, makes the movie vastly more exciting and tense: firstly because The Killing does not keep returning to all the characters over and over like the book does, and so we're allowed to forget about one major subplot during the bulk of the film's heist sequence, whereas the book's tendency to keep it fresh in our minds makes it easy to see the ending before it arrives (of course, this if this makes the movie more of a thriller, it also makes the book more of a tragedy; trade-offs do happen). The second and by far more significant and far-reaching change is that Kubrick tells the story in a discontinuous, overlapping chronology: we see an event in the afternoon, then an event from that morning involving different people, then an event involving a third set of people from in between. This fragmentary way of assembling the plot has influenced filmmakers ever since - Quentin Tarantino openly acknowledges his debt, for one - but I don't praise the film for its historical importance alone. The constantly shifting frames of chronological reference are one of the primary ways that the film keeps its headlong pace up; events spilling out in no real order makes everything that much busier and more frenzied, since we have to do so much work to keep up.

For it is a brutally fast film: at 85 minutes, it's neither especially long nor especially short by noir standards, but it screams by like a rocket sled. Even more than the way the plot is structured, this owes a lot to the way the thing has been assembled: editor Betty Steinberg has a marked tendency to end scenes without any kind of "button", a visual or dramatic beat that keys us in to realising that the moment is done now, and so scenes bleed into one another, frequently leaving it unclear what the relationship is until we've had a second to gather our wits (conversely, one fade to black, signifying a sex scene, comes as a purposeful and dramatic rupture in the film's integrity; which, given the nature of that scene in the development of the drama, is exactly appropriate). The result is a reckless narrative momentum that gives the plot the sense of, well, fatalism; a word I already used, and a word that can't really be overstated in regards to The Killing. It is a film where things, once they are started, seem like they can't possibly be diverted from their course; not until a pathetic, whinging argument over a suitcase at an airline luggage counter near the very end does it ever seem like there might be a moment when the choices a character makes will actually change the predetermined shape of the action, for good or for ill.

I am tempted, for this reason, to call it the most perfect of all caper films (I know, I know: Rififi would like to have a word with me). The subgenre is, of its nature, concerned with narrative-as-mechanism: the exact combination of flawlessly-planned coincidences that will trigger just the right results in the right order to spring the traps, silence the alarms, and leave the thief with a bagful of money and the cops with a locked door mystery. A really great one is exciting to watch precisely because of its clockwork precision, and that's a terrific thing to put in the hands of a storyteller like Kubrick, whose overriding personality as a director (some call it a weakness of his form, but that would imply he's doing it accidentally or to the detriment of his films, which is virtually never the case) is one of frosty detachment from his subjects, which causes him to always treat the characters in his films as cogs in a machine. Applying that tendency to this kind of story is a match made in heaven: The Killing is, in essence, a mechanism about the execution of a mechanism. Certainly, Hayden's performance - easily my favorite turn in the very gifted actor's excellent career - encourages this connection, with his mechanical-man patter as he describes his complex plans crisply, brisky, and without a scrap of emotion. So does the bossy narrator (Art Gilmore) whose flat elucidation of onscreen events always and obsessively includes the exact time, frequently noting the exacting precision of those times relative to the plan for the heist.

So does the camerawork, which finds Kubrick working with Lucien Ballard, the first of many cinematographers annoyed to find the photograpy-trained director treating him more like a glorified AC or camera operator than an artistic professional with his own decision-making process. Whatever it took to get it done, and whoever is responsible for the exact content of each shot, The Killing boasts an unerringly exact language of images: movements that glide from Point A to Point B on precise, emphatic beats; lighting (often with just one source) plays at times almost like bare-stage theater, where we are shown only the exact things we need to care about in that moment. Many compositions are totally flat, relegating every point of visual interest to a single line; this causes the handful of deep shots, in which both the action and another character's relationship to that action matter, to explode off the screen.

It is not, by any conceivable means, a warm movie. Every character is to some degree a fool and amoral; unlike the book and so many other films noirs, The Killing can't even bring itself to seriously follow-through on indicting Sherry Peatty (MarieWindsor) for the crime of being a sexual libertine and female, finding her no more capable of real self-directed activity than any of the men, and preferring to blame her dim husband George (Elisha Cook, Jr, also giving my favorite performance of an excellent career) for being gullible enough to believe she loves him, rather than blaming her for using it against him. But blame or not, everybody in The Killing suffers; it's a movie in which people are bugs, captured by a surgical camera lens in the act of being stomped on by a universe that's wholly unimpressed by cleverness. Kubrick would make other nihilistic films - Kubrick would make mostly nihilistic films - but The Killing deserves special attention for basing that nihilism in such grubby, real-world concerns (the documentary-style footage of horse races that opens the film leaves a veneer of realism over even the most baroque compositions to follow), and finding a way to turn even the acidic realm of film noir into something darker yet, where decent people can't be eaten alive by the venality of the world because there weren't any decent people to begin with.