The Killers, 1946.
Directed by Robert Siodmak.
Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene and Jack Lamberto
A pair of hit-men carry out the murder of an unresisting victim. A partnership of insurance investigator and police detective try to establish the facts surrounding the crime.
Taking a classic Ernest Hemingway short story and expanding it to include a full variety of twists and turns, this crime drama directed by German émigré Siodmak was one of the originators of the film-noir genre. Starting off with the professional murder of its main star (Burt Lancaster, in his cinema début) is an ultra-modern approach to this whodunnit. A feast for fans of guess the outcomes, the motivations and fixations of the film’s main players are delicately balanced, and as a whole the piece benefits from a collection of superbly poised performances.
Lancaster brings a haunting quality to his role as ex-boxer tuned gangster Ole ‘Swede’ Andreson, with a bleak, doomed outlook to his final moments at the heart of the story. Matched to his almost existential levels of mis-fated action and endeavour is Ava Gardner’s tough femme fatale Kitty Collins. It is their story, mostly told through dreamy flash-backs, that contains most of the dramatic elements of the film. It is also her, that brings insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) and city cop – and the Swede’s old friend, Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) into the mystery.
With so many changes in direction throughout the story, it would be a deadly shame to reveal too much of the actual plot. Suffice to say that noir-style crime projects and deadly dealings are littered with broken promises and, in the Swede’s case, a broken punching hand (and worse). The essentials are that it keeps the audience guessing, always with a dramatic outcome.
Also, and I could be wrong about this, but it must also be one of the few films to include an insurance investigator as its main hero. This historical element is of an extra interest. Back in 1946, while Europe was nursing its post WW2 wounds, in the USA huge insurance companies could apparently afford to write off vast sums of money. This turning point in world superpowers is an extra element worthy of discussion, although perhaps not when being gunned down by gangsters.
In any case, the film is a classic example of a complex crime drama, pitted with tension and suspense.
The Blu-ray special edition of The Killers includes a video piece which introduces the film and offers a detailed commentary on four key scenes. Heroic Fatalism is a video essay adapted from Philip Booth’s comparative study of multiple versions of The Killers (Hemingway, Siodmak, Tarkovsky, Siegel. Three archive radio pieces inspired by The Killers: the 1949 Screen Director’s Playhouse adaptation with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters; a 1946 Jack Benny spoof; the 1958 Suspense episode ‘Two for the Road’ which reunited original killers William Conrad and Charles McGraw. Stills and posters gallery. Trailers for The Killers, Brute Force, The Naked City and Rififi.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.