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The Killers (1946)
Two professional killers invade a small town and kill a gas station attendant, "the Swede," who's expecting them. Insurance investigator Reardon pursues the case against the orders of his boss, who considers it trivial. Weaving together threads of the Swede's life, Reardon uncovers a complex tale of treachery and crime, all linked with gorgeous, mysterious Kitty Collins.
Burt Lancaster ... 'Swede' Andersen
Ava Gardner ... Kitty Collins
Edmond O'Brien ... Jim Reardon
Albert Dekker ... Big Jim Colfax
Sam Levene ... Lt. Sam Lubinsky
Vince Barnett ... Charleston
Virginia Christine ... Lilly Harmon Lubinsky
Charles D. Brown ... Packy Robinson
Jack Lambert ... 'Dum-Dum' Clarke
Donald MacBride ... R.S. Kenyon
Charles McGraw ... Al
William Conrad ... Max
Phil Brown ... Nick Adams
Queenie Smith ... Mary Ellen Daugherty
Jeff Corey ... 'Blinky' Franklin
Along with Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity," this is the one that established what film noir was all about.
Robert Siodmak's classic thriller, along with "Criss Cross" are two of his best pieces of work, proof positive that crime dramas could rise above the mundane and the clichéd.
Based on one of Hemingway's Nick Adams short stories, it tells the intriguing tale of two hit men who show up in a small town (the film moves it from the Midwest to New Jersey), where they take over a diner and tell its terrified occupants they intend to murder a nobody of a gas station attendant when he comes in for dinner. When he doesn't show, they hunt him down at the rooming house where he lives and do the job there. That's where the short story ends, but the script by Anthony Veiller picks it up from there, pursuing the fascinating story of what makes a man give up on life to the point where he passively waits for a pair of gunmen to show up and blow him to smithereens.
The protagonist,called the Swede, is a guy who isn't a criminal by nature, just a guy who fell upon hard times, but sees a way out by committing one more crime. And of course, as in any good film noir, his greed is fueled more by lust than anything else. There's a girl involved and in order to get her, he has to get the loot.
Burt Lancaster, in his first staring role, comes off very well here, as does Ava Gardner, also top billed for the first time. Strong supporting performances by the great Albert Dekker as the top hood and Sam Levine as a cop with a heart of gold. And we cannot forget Charles McGraw and William Conrad as two of the most frightening cold blooded killers in film history.
Siodmak does a great job in the director's chair in this Mark Hellinger (The Roaring Twenties) produced drama, but it is cinematographer Woody Bredell who steals the show. His use of lighting goes beyond spectacular. All of the clichés we think of in film noir lighting spring from this one film, where they were done right. And watch for one of the longest tracking shots in film history, as Nick Adams flees the diner and races to the Swede's rooming house to warn him. It's an amazing, unbroken shot that runs more than a minute.
Watch, too, for the brilliant shoot 'em up scene in a restaurant at the end of the movie when the two gunmen reappear. It is just a textbook blend of all the movies are supposed to be about, great acting, camera movement that means something, and brilliantly layered music by Miklos Rozsa. Film-making doesn't get any better than this.
A four star film and one of the godfathers of the genre. Don't miss this one.
The Killers marked Burt Lancaster's screen debut, establishing the stoic persona that would sustain his long and luminous career. Along with Criss Cross (also starring Lancaster), The Killers also records the high-water mark of Robert Siodmak's work in film noir.
Starting with a Hemingway short story (the retelling of which constitutes only the prologue to the film), The Killers endeavors to fill in the "back story" which Hemingway left to his readers' imaginations. That back story explains why the "Swede" (Lancaster) passively, almost eagerly, awaits the nasty pair of torpedoes (William Conrad, Charles McGraw) who have come to hunt him down. The germ of this recreation is Lancaster's small, solitary bequest -- to a chambermaid in an Atlantic City hotel where he had once stayed. Insurance investigator Edmond O'Brien catches the scent of something unusual and can't let it go. His investigations, helped by an old buddy of Lancaster's who is now a police lieutenant (Sam Levene), uncover a botched stint as a prizefighter; a smouldering yet duplicitous temptress (Ava Gardner), and a payroll heist that ended in an elaborate double cross.
Siodmak, having disposed of the end right at the outset, takes a circuitous route through his telling by using a fragmented series of flashbacks. Paradoxically -- much as the false starts and averted climaxes in a Bruckner symphony pay off handsomely in the end -- the story thus gains depth and momentum. Woody Bredell's dark and meticulous cinematography fulfills Siodmak's vision, resulting in one of the central masterpieces of the noir cycle.
This is a beautifully made improvisation on a Hemingway story that screenwriters Tony Veiller, John Huston and Richard Brooks, along with director Robert Siodmak, have somehow turned into baroque film noir. The movie starts out with a couple of hired gunmen looking for a character named Swede in a small New Jersey town. They tie up some people they encounter in a diner where they expect the Swede to be, then go and look for him, as he has not turned up at his usual time. A young man they tied up breaks loose and goes and warns the Swede, who thanks him but does nothing, remaining in bed, smoking a cigarette, waiting for the killers to show, which in time they do. The rest of the movie is an exploration, conducted by an insurance investigator, into the murky issue of why the Swede allowed himself to be murdered, and who ordered the killing in the first place.
I can't say the movie's exploration of the Swede's character runs deep, or even that it's satisfactory in its psychology. It works so well because it's excellently written, photographed (by Woody Bredell), and acted (by Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien and Albert Dekker, among many others), and consists of flashbacks, and in some cases flashbacks within flashbacks, as its labyrinthine plot, full of double crosses and unexpected turns, drives the film with a relentless urgency that in the end has less to do with psychology than the workings of fate. There is an overwhelming feeling in this film that people behave the way they do because they are driven by forces they cannot understand. In this sense the story in itself is, as presented, shallow and depressing, and yet the movie is so well-crafted, with the action at times seeming to be choreographed, that the end result is akin to an existential roller-coaster ride, if not much to think about.
* The musical theme used whenever the killers appear was later used in expanded form as the theme music for the TV show "Dragnet" (1951)
* This was Burt Lancaster's first important movie role. He was the third choice for the part of The Swede, and was signed only after actors Wayne Morris and Sonny Tufts proved unavailable.
* In-joke: In the scene towards the end of the film where Edmond O'Brien arranges to meet Ava Gardner outside a nightclub, O'Brien stands on the street in front of the club, waiting for Gardner to drive up. On the wall behind him is a poster, beginning with "Sir Arthur Hilton presents..." Arthur Hilton, an Englishman, was the film's editor.
* The boxing match in the third flashback was filmed in a boxing arena for an audience of 2000 spectators. Burt Lancaster trained for two months with a boxing champion and played the part of the Swede with realism, against a real boxer, until his 2nd KD and TKO.
* Former Warner Bros. producer Mark Hellinger, who had started his own independent production unit at Universal-International, wanted Wayne Morris to star in this, his first picture. Warners wouldn't loan him out, so Hellinger cast the unknown Burt Lancaster in his first movie. It made Lancaster a star.
* "Screen Directors' Playhouse" did a radio adaptation of the story in 1949 with Burt Lancaster reprising his role as Swede. It was introduced by director Robert Siodmak and featured Shelley Winters as Kitty.
* After leaving Warner Brothers for Universal with The Killers (1946), producer Mark Hellinger initially wanted to borrow Warner director 'Don Siegel (I)' , but the loanout fee proved prohibitively high for a director of his limited reputation at that time, so Hellinger used Universal's Robert Siodmak. Ironically, almost 20 years later Siegel did go on to direct the remake, The Killers (1964).