by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Robert Siodmak
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien (and William Conrad in a small role…and yes, he was a big fella even then)
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100%
PLOT: An insurance investigator tries to get to the bottom of a strange case involving a man who waited calmly for two men to find him and kill him.
Over the last several months, I’ve been digging a little more into the film noir genre, specifically going back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, and I’ve discovered some gems. Pickup on South Street (1953), for example, featuring one of the most violent fight scenes to be found outside of a Tarantino film. Or The Killing (1956), an early Stanley Kubrick film depicting the kind of ruthless behavior that I didn’t think was permitted at the time. I’m discovering that, for the adventurous moviegoers back then, there were films available to see that might have made their parents or grandparents gasp in horror.
Take the movie I watched today, The Killers (1946), the film noir that introduced Burt Lancaster to the world. It’s based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway that was also adapted into a film in 1964, starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and, in his last film role, Ronald Reagan. [Watch this space for a review of that film, coming soon.] At the beginning of this movie, we’re introduced to two thugs who walk into a small town, cloaked in the kinds of shadows and light that only film noir can get away with. After terrorizing the patrons of a small diner, they walk to a nearby boarding house and up the stairs to a room occupied by Ole Anderson, aka “The Swede” (Lancaster), who has been alerted to their arrival but makes no effort to escape or call the cops. He simply awaits his fate.
And what a fate. The two thugs burst into the room and obliterate the Swede in a hail of gunfire that goes on for quite a long time, even by today’s standards. (Later, the coroner describes the Swede’s body as being nearly “cut in half” by the barrage…yikes.) This being 1946, we don’t see any of the actual carnage, but the implication is there.
The movie proceeds in a series of flashbacks. An insurance investigator named Jim (Edmond O’Brien) tries to find out two things: why the Swede named a kindly hotel maid as beneficiary of his life insurance policy, and what happened to the $250,000 payroll that the Swede helped steal from a hat factory. Now that I think about it, The Killers is almost like a thick-necked, brass-knuckles, gun-toting variation on Citizen Kane. We never see anything about the Swede that wasn’t directly observed by someone Jim tracks down, and as Jim continues to dig, things just get mysteriouser and mysteriouser.
Figuring prominently in the Swede’s backstory is Kitty Collins, played by the ravishing Ava Gardner. This was not her first film, but The Killers is the movie that put her on the map for good. We first see Kitty when the Swede goes to a fancy party with his girlfriend, Lilly. Alas, Lilly is no match for the sultry Kitty, who is wearing the kind of stunning black gown that inspires poetry when it isn’t simply driving men crazy. How crazy? At one point, when Kitty is caught by a cop wearing shoplifted jewelry, the Swede claims responsibility, slugs the cop, and winds up doing three years in jail for her. Talk about being Kitty-whipped.
Naturally, as Jim, the insurance guy, meets more people, the Swede’s story comes more sharply into focus, but there’s still the mystery of what happened to all that money. The robbery was indeed pulled off by the Swede with three other guys, but none of them have the money, and the Swede doesn’t have the money, so where is it? As it turns out, the hat factory they stole from is insured by the same company that provided the Swede’s life insurance policy, so it’s in Jim’s best interest to get to the bottom of everything and recover the money, even if it means getting involved with the same kinds of thugs who killed the Swede in the first place. That’s okay, though. Jim is prepared. He carries his own piece, and he comes up with a cool plan to get the guilty parties to confess as much as possible before they wind up dead…or he does.
The Killers is an example of a film that helped define, or at least refine, the relatively new film noir genre. Similar films centering on crime, criminals, and punishment had been around since the ‘30s, but the real granddaddy of them all, The Maltese Falcon, had only been released five years earlier in 1941. Since then, World War II came and went, and as dark as noir had been, it got even darker and more violent than Bogey was when he slapped Peter Lorre around. With this film, director Robert Siodmak turned everything up to eleven. The shadows aren’t just dark, they’re black, which of course makes the periodic pools of light that much more striking.
And the characters mean business, too. Among the bad guys, there’s one named Colfax who doesn’t look like much – sort of like a moderately well-built school principal. But when a genuine thug threatens to fight him, he doesn’t posture like a bully. He just sits back in his chair and calmly tells the thug: “You’ve got quite a reputation yourself. You’re supposed to be a troublemaker. Okay. Make some.” And you just know that if the thug so much as lifts a finger, he’ll get it broken for his trouble. It’s an interesting scene that reminded me of Goodfellas: “Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.”
(I should also mention the flashback involving the payroll robbery. In today’s films, when we marvel at long takes involving complicated camera moves, it’s good to be reminded that, three-quarters of a century ago, The Killers gave us a heist sequence that starts at ground level, follows the robbers up a staircase, shows the actual robbery, follows them back down into their getaway cars, and even provides a small-scale shootout as they drive away – all in one uncut take, using a camera about the size and weight of a SmartCar.)
While I thoroughly enjoyed The Killers, I wouldn’t quite put it in the same weight class as, say, Out of the Past or The Big Sleep, but it’s got all the right ingredients, it tells a good story well, it gives us Ava Gardner in that gown, and it provided a great springboard for the films that came after. Good film noir is fine; GREAT film noir is better. This is one of the great ones.
[P.S. The scene near the beginning of the film where the two thugs terrorize the people at the diner reminded me strongly of the scene in No Country for Old Men when Anton Chigurh quietly tells the store clerk to “call it.” They were just as calm and serene and tightly coiled as Chigurh. Pretty creepy.]