The boys said it couldn't be done - knocking over a racetrack. Too much security. Too much money to handle. Too many obstacles. But Johnny Clay knew, if anyone did, how to mastermind a daring robbery. You just had to have the right people to work with, a few ringers on the inside who could keep their mouths shut, and a diversion. A big diversion. Like taking out the favorite horse on the most anticipated race with a high-powered rifle. Things can go right, and things can go wrong. But Johnny knew his plan could work. If only everyone did his part without cracking.
The Killing (originally titled Clean Break) by the master of capers, Lionel White, is what many people consider the greatest heist novel of all time. Stanley Kubrick liked the book enough to option it and make a classic noir film of it, co-scripted with the great Jim Thompson.
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A thrilling noir heist
They don't write books like this anymore
The Killing is probably best-known as one of the finest examples of the noir film genre ever made. Directed by a young Stanley Kubrick, it was adapted from the novel Clean Break by Lionel White. Starring Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray, it tells the story of a newly released con, Johnny Clay, and the crew he has patched together to pull off a race track heist which he’s been planning for years while cooped up in the joint. The plan relies on Clay finding a number of otherwise honest men with money issues who he can cajole into ignoring their consciences for just a few minutes during the biggest horse race of the year in order to reap a huge payoff.
Things go awry when one of the team’s members, George Peatty, a mild-mannered bet window operator with a wife too hot for him by several degrees, let’s slip to his unfaithful bride, Sherry, that he’s due to come into a big score. The story in the novel is told in third person, and the plot is slowly unveiled one chapter at a time until all of the pieces come together in the third act when the heist goes down without a hitch but somehow Johnny Clay’s dreams still manage to fall apart.
A huge Kubrick fan, I watched the movie years ago but had never bothered to read the book, even though heists and noir are among my favorite pastimes. Then I saw that Mike Dennis had released an audio version of the classic novel using the more familiar movie title, and I was in. Mike gifted me a copy, and I devoured it in three days.
Mike’s voice perfectly captures the mood. He has a somewhat classic tone in the narration, like a 60’s period news reader, his cadence is smooth and unclipped, but the pacing never drags. Meanwhile the nuances of Peatty’s meakness and Clay’s bravado shine through in the dialog. In fact, the entire cast comes off as individuals despite all being voiced with only subtle variation by the same narrator.
Mike has cleverly begun carving out a niche in the narration biz, finding old properties that fit his voice which the right’s holders haven’t bothered to give the audio treatment, and working out a deal. They don’t make movies like this anymore. They don’t write books like this anymore either. But thanks to talented and clever men like Mike Dennis who see the opportunity, an entire new generation can still be teleported back to the days when they did, and the world is all the richer for it. I seldom give full star ratings, but there’s really nothing in this nostalgic production to complain about.
- J. David Core "author"