Director: Robert Siodmak
Producer: Mark Hellinger
Screenwriters: Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, and John Huston
Cinematographer: Elwood Bredell
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Studio: Universal Pictures 1946
Main Acting: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’ Brien
Since I already focused extensively on the opening scene of another noir on this countdown, I will keep my adoration for the beginning of The Killers brief and limited to a single paragraph. I will say that it challenges and even surpasses Kiss Me Deadly in effectiveness. Robert Siodmak (no stranger to this countdown) really comes out punching with that opening right cross to whichever “bright boy” you care to inflict bodily harm on. That first image is basically lifted by both Aldrich and Lynch in their own filmographies and put to extensive use. Focusing on a car barreling down a dark road with a behind-the-shoulder shot, we are quickly placed in the prototypical noir universe of a stylized and menacing Brentwood, New Jersey. Rozsa’s intense and rousing score sets up the mood perfectly, as Sodmak’s name on the screen can’t cover up the two figures stalking about in the background. Their initial destination is a service station that looks closed and empty. They instead walk across the street to Henry’s Diner which is open and accepting customers. Unfortunately, these guys are not really looking for “roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes.” What they really want is the whereabouts of The Swede (Burt Lancaster) and to plug him with enough holes that he looks like one of those old cartoon characters that takes a drink and begins to spout water all over his body. The tension elevates to almost unbearable proportions as the duo takes the whole eatery hostage and we wonder what these assassins will do next. Fortunately they go away without any bloodshed. They have only one intended target, and he sits hopelessly in bed, waiting for the end to come.
The other day, I mentioned how Jane Greer appearing out of the sunlight to enter Jeff Bailey’s shadowy cafe as my favorite scene in all of noir. I will hold myself to that, but also give a strong recommendation to what transpires in The Killers after the two henchman walk out of Henry’s Diner. We watch as one of the freed hostages goes running across town to warn the Swede of his dangerous predicament. As the soundtrack blares forth in a glorious racket of melding notes, we witness our protagonist already preparing for his funeral by refusing to save himself and run away. As his friend implores the sullen Lancaster to get the hell out of Dodge, his efforts are returned by the feeble retort of “there is nothing I can do about it. I’m through with all that running around.” Forget D.O.A., where Frank Bigelow recounts his final few hours before dying, this seemingly central figure in The Killers refuses to even put forth an effort to save his own life in any capacity. What can be more noir and fatalistic than accepting death as it arrives just outside your door and not bothering to lift your head off the pillow? Shockingly, the hitmen are successful in their endeavor, and the Swede gets a barrage of merciless bullets. His expression at the twelve-minute mark, just before the hail of little steel projectiles rip open his body speaks of unimaginable pain and existential detachment. Here, we have a guy who has felt the cold sting of life and cannot find his way back to salvation. A look of total apathy resides all over his face. He’s a sitting corpse, whose isolation has reached a fevered pitch. The end is near, my friend. Go forth bravely.
The death of the Swede has a shocking Psycho-like ripple effect throughout the rest of the movie. We can’t believe that Burt Lancaster has been bumped off in the first reel of the movie. At first, we think about how the rest of The Killers will fill out its running time with the main star in the credits already expired. Robert Siodmak, being the consummate film noir director decides to employ an impeccable flashback structure that recounts all the weighty moments that eventually lead to the first thirteen minutes and early dramatic conclusion. He frames this slow exposition by having Edmond O’Brien play an insurance agent looking for clues as to what actually happened that fateful night. O’ Brien’s Jim Reardon functions like a detective, as he goes on the hunt for some clarity over the particulars of Lancaster’s character demise. The Swede hangs over the picture like a wailing ghost trying to find some peace and justice. In life, he may have given up on finding an answer to his sorrow. But as a conduit through Reardon, he may finally get the last laugh and put to bed all the people responsible for his death. Double crosses, femme fatales, robberies, heists, boxing scenes….The Killers has it all within its 103 minutes. Classic film noir cannot be packaged any better.
Elwood Bredell had a relatively scant career as a cinematographer, lensing only 16 to 17 pictures throughout. No other feature in his resume matches The Killers, even Curtiz’s The Unsuspected. His efforts here should be applauded as he does a remarkable job turning Siodmak’s film into a visual feast for the eyes. So many brilliant moments make us glad we are watching this handsome film noir, which effectively merges the narrative strengths with its pictorial geometric perfection. The movie is also helped along by a complex, but rarely convoluted screenplay that was adapted from an Ernest Hemingway short story. In fact, the writer supposedly remarked that The Killers was the first film that used his work that made him proud and he could “genuinely admire.” John Huston also worked on the script uncredited and helped in including and shaping many elements that were not in the original story. The flashback structure adds an extra dimension to the narrative that propels it further than if the plot were told straight. The successful ploy of having Reardon interview succeeding people and then visualize their thoughts worked incredibly well. One of three main examples as to why Robert Siodmak is in the frontline of legendary film noir directors.
Lately Criss Cross has come forth to battle The Killers for Siodmak-directed supremacy in the eyes of many noir lovers. Both movies are five-star classics that reach the upper echelon of the genre. The Killers has had the longer reputation as a classic, however Criss Cross is the newer kid on the block when it comes to critical plaudits. Still, I confess to admiring the former flick more as it may very well be the greatest noir of the 40s for me. Making such a strong statement is telling when we are talking about the most rewarding decade for the movement. The Killers is that good and here it sits at the lofty position of number two.
Should also mention the great turns by Ava Gardner and Sam Levene. Both are effective in their roles and Gardner’s femme fatale is one of the most selfish and duplicitous in the genre. The 1964 remake proves why color and classic film noir mix even worse than oil and vinegar. Not a horrible film, but without B/W loses much of the malignant and oppressive atmosphere that Siodmak created with Bredell.