Tuesday, October 14, 2014
THE KILLERS (1946)
Robert Siodmak, 1946
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien
A man known as “the Swede,” Ole Andreson, is warned that two men are coming to kill him, but he simply accepts his death and is murdered. An insurance investigator, Jim Reardon, is set on the case, primarily to find the Swede's beneficiary, but he begins to unravel the man's story as he interviews his friends and coworkers. He learns that the Swede had a career as a boxer, which ended with an injury. He got caught up with a group of gangsters led by “Big Jim” Colfax, partly because of Colfax's girlfriend, the alluring Kitty. He's becomes so obsessed with her that he serves time for a minor crime so that she can avoid punishment, and when he gets out he's convinced to take part in a heist organized by Colfax. Predictably, everything goes wrong and someone has double-crossed the Swede, setting him up for his doom.
The Killers is undoubtedly Robert Siodmak's most famous noir and is the synthesis of a number of perfect elements. To begin with, the film is based on a story (of the same name) by Hemingway and the script was co-written by the great John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen), though he remained uncredited due to a conflicting contract. This marks the debut performance of film noir regular Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity, Brute Force, I Walk Alone). Though Lancaster has an incredibly physical presence, he's not the most consistent or capable of actors. But he is perhaps at his best here, which his hulking, gloomy presence is not given the bulk of the running time, but he looms over it just the same.
Ava Gardner also had her breakthrough performance here as Kitty Collins. Though she had several bit parts and uncredited roles before this, The Killers was her first major film and launched her – almost overnight – to stardom. In many ways, she's the quintessential femme fatale and it's easy to see why the Swede and other men are so smitten for her that they will believe any deception. Gardner's stardom generally kept her out of future noir, but she's certainly one of the genre's top bad girls. There are some other solid supporting performances, such as Edmond O'Brien (White Heat, The Wild Bunch) as the investigator, Albert Dekker (Kiss Me Deadly) as Colfax, and Sam Levene (Crossfire) as a police officer and the Swede's friend. William Conrad (Body and Soul) and Charles McGraw (The Birds) basically steal the film as the pair of killers who occasionally engage in sarcastic humor.
The film's doom-laden opening is perhaps its most memorable scene. It sticks closely to Hemingway's story, then fleshes out the main narrative to create a mystery about why the Swede was killed and why he went so willingly to his death. The plot becomes incredibly intricate and involves red herrings, flashbacks, and an interweaving series of crimes, punishments, and retributions. The pace is quick and these disparate elements aren't too difficult to keep track of, but the remainder of the film never surpasses its opening. Like some of the best films noir – Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard – the protagonist is a man doomed, dead, or dying, which is both a compelling and difficult premise. The Swede remains a near mythic figure, a tragic scapegoat bound and chained by his unrequited love for an unfaithful and immoral woman.
The Killers is one of the most highly rated films noir and deserves to be seen by all fans of the genre and of crime cinema. Available on DVD from Criterion, The Killers comes highly recommended. In addition to solid direction from Siodmak, a number of fine performances, and a tight, compelling script, Miklos Rozsa's memorable score is also worth a mention. Part of it is used as the Dragnet theme song, so if you're from the Nick at Night generation, it might sound familiar. The film contain all the standard noir hits: a plot built around flashbacks, a protagonist doomed to die, a knock-out femme fatale, a detective (the insurance investigator), a heist, a double-cross, and more. If you're only going to see a handful of films in the genre, this should definitely be on your list.