Film Title: The Killers
Studio: Universal Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
Genre: Film Noir
- Burt Lancaster
- Ava Gardner
- Edmond O’Brien
- Sam Levene
A car enters the sleepy town of Brentwood, New Jersey. It stops in front of the Tri-State gas station and two men get out, one stout with a round face (William Conrad) and the other gaunt (Charles McGraw). They cross the street and enter Harry’s Diner by separate doors. While there they inform the nervous counterman (Donald McBride), “I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen. We’re going to kill the Swede.” They’ve been staking the place out and know that the Swede comes in every night at 6:00PM. They tie up the cook (Bill Walker) and the diner’s lone customer Nick Adams (Phil Brown). When it gets to be after 6:00 PM, the counterman convinces the gangsters that if the Swede isn’t there by 6:00 PM, he isn’t coming. The gangsters leave and Nick Adams races to the boardinghouse where the Swede lives to warn him. The Swede (Burt Lancaster) is lying on his bed in a darkened room. When Nick bursts in, the Swede thanks him, but tells him there’s nothing he can do. Nick asks him why these guys are looking for him and he replies, “Once I did something wrong.” Once Nick exits, we see the two men from the diner climbing the steps to the Swede’s room in the boardinghouse, which they enter, and indeed kill the Swede.
This describes the first ten minutes or so of the film. And that is, in essence, the plot of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story of the same name. Credited screenwriter Anthony Veiller and uncredited Richard Brooks and John Huston came up with a back-story that fills in the puzzle pieces as to why the Swede was murdered. The next day an investigator for an insurance company, Jim Reardon (Edmund O’Brien), arrives in Brentwood. His investigation uncovers discrete pieces of information that we then see played out on the screen, not necessarily in chronological order. We’ll meet: Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene): the Swede’s boyhood friend who is now a lieutenant on the police force, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner): a sultry shady lady, Big Jim Collins (Albert Dekker): a big time crook gone straight, Charleston (Vince Barnett): a boozy small time crook who befriended the Swede in the pen, “Dum-Dum” Clarke (Jack Lambert): a crook with a short fuse, Lilly Harmon (Virginia Christine): the Swede’s ex now married to Lubinsky, “Blinky” Franklin (Jeff Corey): a crook that used to have a monkey on his back but doesn’t anymore, and perhaps most tellingly, Mary Ellen Daugherty (Queenie Smith): the beneficiary of the Swede’s insurance policy and who may have once saved his life.
The Killers is a recognized early masterpiece of film noir. Of course, at the time director Siodmak and company had no idea they were making a film noir. It would be decades before that phrase was coined. If pinned down they probably would have said The Killers was a crime melodrama. But in the years after WWII, lots of American films that had been made during the war years, but had not played in most of Europe, were released. A bunch of French movie geeks and journalists writing about film noticed similarities among many of them and, after the fact, came up with the term film noir to describe them. These films were usually, but not always, in black and white, often, but not always crime melodramas, and always employed techniques borrowed from the German Expressionist movement. During the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, many German and other Eastern Europeans who had been involved in film in Europe immigrated to the United States, for a variety of reasons, many having to do with the war. Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios had brought Paul Leni over to make The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs, both of them drawing strongly on Expressionist styles and techniques. Karl Freund was hired to photograph Dracula in 1931. His work on that film set the tone for many Universal horror films to follow. Such directors as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, and Michael Curtiz followed these men. Expressionist style gradually made its way into genres other than horror, notably crime melodramas of the 1940s. While I guess the film noir moniker is useful, I’ve never fully embraced it. Foremost, it is a designation imposed by others on a group of disparate films made by folks who had no clue as to what film noir meant. And there are proto-noirs, semi-noirs, and Western-noirs. The phrase itself didn’t really touch down on American shores as most of the noir writing was in French and had not been translated, until Paul Schrader published an article in Film Comment titled “Notes on Film Noir” in 1972. It has sure caught on. In the city where I live there are two separate months-long film noir series each year.
So, as a film, noir or not, The Killers is noteworthy. Foremost, it introduced 33 year-old Burt Lancaster to movie audiences in his film debut. He pretty much never stopped working in film until his death in 1994. It also gave 24 year-old Ava Gardner her first significant role, even though she’d been under contract to MGM since 1941. Her appearance in The Killers launched her as a major movie star. It also gave veteran character actor Sam Levene what is perhaps his best film role. He’d go on to Broadway fame when he created the role of Nathan Detroit in the classic stage musical Guys and Dolls, although he’d lose out to Frank Sinatra when the show was translated to the screen in 1955. It also garnered director Robert Siodmak his only Oscar nomination. The film also picked up Oscar nominations for editing, scoring, and screenplay adaptation. In 2008, The Killers was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The Killers is a dark and entertaining movie. Beautifully shot by director Robert Siodmak and cinematographer Elwood Burdell, it also boasts wonderful performances by Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, Sam Levene and many great character actors of the period. It is especially fun watching Lancaster in his debut film performance. The script is taut and spare, and it is truly suspenseful watching as O’Brien’s character slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together. And the payoff makes it all worthwhile.
The Killers is available on a 2-disc collection from Criterion. The second disc includes the 1964 Don Siegel remake from 1964, which stars Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes and the final big screen performance by Ronald Reagan. Disc One of the set includes the original 1946 The Killers in a fine transfer. That disc also includes a number of extras:
– Stuart Kaminsky on The Killers, Kaminsky is a noir expert and offers an analysis of both films and insights into film noir.
– Biographies offer text biographies of all the major artists before and behind the camera on this production.
– Exploitations: Galleries of every shape and size relating to The Killers.
– Source and Adaptations offers audio reading of the original Hemingway story by actor Stacy Keach, a 1949 radio adaptation, AND Andre Tarkovsky’s 1956 student film version.
– “Notes on Film Noir” is a text rendering of Paul Schrader’s landmark article as printed in Film Comment in 1972.
Siodmak, Trailers includes trailers for Son of Dracula (1943), Cobra Woman (1944), The Killers (1946), Cry of the City (1948), and Criss Cross (1949).
If you’re a film noir fan, you probably already have this in your collection. If not, it is certainly a noir must see. If, like me, you enter the noir world from time to time, this is an entertaining film whether you are drawn to noir films or not. Seeing both Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner giving star-making performances is worth it. If you’re a fan of William Conrad’s television work, it’s fun to see him in an early role. And Sam Levene in anything is worth watching.
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