HCF REWIND NO. 262: THE KILLERS [US 1946]
OUT NOW ON BLU-RAY: from ARROW FILMS’ ‘ARROW ACADEMY’
RUNNING TIME: 97 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Two hit men, Max and Al, come to a small town to kill Ole “the Swede” Andreson. The Swede’s co-worker warns him but, strangely, he makes no attempt to flee, and they kill him. Life insurance investigator Jim Reardon is assigned to find and pay the beneficiary of his policy. Tracking down and interviewing the dead man’s friends and associates, and aided especially by police lieutenant Sam Lubinsky, Reardon doggedly pieces together his story, a tragic tale of a professional boxer whose career was cut short by an injury to his right hand and who quickly got mixed up in crime….
Though it’s not so prevalent these days, writers used to tend not to like Hollywood adaptations of their work in the old days, chief among them Ernest Hemingway whose work was often adapted but hardly ever to his satisfaction. Prior to the release of The Killers, based on a short story of Hemingway’s, producer Mark Hellinger sent a publicity man to give Hemingway a private screening of the film. Hemingway, always prone to the booze, had a pint of gin in one pocket of his overcoat and a pint of water in the other so that he could sip from them if the film got bad. After the screening, Hemingway held up the full bottles, grinned and said: “Didn’t need ’em”. Indeed The Killers is a stunning piece of work which unbelievably I hadn’t seen up to now. It’s regarded as one of the classics of film noir, that fascinating sub-genre that was born out of post-World War 2 disillusionment and whose influence, from its flawed heroes on a road to hell to its duplicitous femme fatales to its expressionistic black and white photography, can still be been a lot today [Sin City, which is basically an exaggerated parody of film noir, wouldn’t exist without it], and I can without a doubt say that it deserves its reputation and ranks right up there with Double Indemnity, Out Of The Past and The Big Sleep as the very best of this type of film.
The director of The Killers was originally going to be Don Siegel, but the loan-out fee proved prohibitively high for a director of his limited reputation at that time, so Hellinger used Robert Siodmak, a director already well versed in this type of movie. Ironically, almost 18 years later Siegel went on to direct the remake of the same title in 1964, which, though inferior, is still worth checking out and is also available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video. Though credited to Antony Veiller, much of the script came from an un-credited John Huston and Richard Brooks. Its first 20 min are a close adaptation of Hemingway’s story, the rest of the film being wholly new. Originally Wayne Morrris [no, I haven’t heard of him either] was going to play the lead role, and Edmund O’ Brien was also considered for it until Burt Lancaster, whose movie debut this was, won the part, though O’ Brien, later to star in another classic film noir D.O.A., got the role of the life insurance investigator Jim Reardon who actually has more screen time than Lancaster anyway. The film was also Ava Gardner’s first major film role. The opening chords of Miklos Rozsa’s theme music later achieved immortality when they were re-used for the Dragnet TV series.
The Killers opens with a familiar shot often used in film noir of two men shown from the backseat of a speeding car, then gets into a lengthy scene of two gunmen taking over a diner and waiting for their intended victim to turn up. Though this is all largely derived from Hemingway, the often casual dialogue and attitude of the two killers, especially their taunting of the manager, and even the dialogue’s rhythm, reminded me a great deal of Quentin Tarantino’s stuff – in fact the whole sequence [with, perhaps, the addition of some fruity language] could have come from a Tarantino film with its long drawn out tension beneath lots of what is largely just banter, gradual escalation of the situation, and slight element of absurd humour [one of the killers keeps popping his head through the hatch]. It all feels very modern, but then actually quite a few of these films do if you take away the fashions and add mobile phones, their fatalistic attitude and moral murkiness feeling quite at home in the rather confused, troubled times we live in right now. Anyway, this fantastic opening sequence soon shocks us by having the Swede, the character played by Lancaster and top billed, being the guy the killers are looking for, be shot dead, and he’s certainly dead, no doubt about it!
The rest of the film does something very similar to what Citizen Kane did a few years before but which was still relatively new for the time. Rather than follow the conventional flashback noir structure established in Double Indemnity and Detour of the man at the centre of it all either telling his story to someone else or just remembering it, we follow the insurance investigator Jim Reardon as he sets out to solve the mystery of the killing. He does this by tracking down and talking to people who were involved with it, and their recollections from lots of flashbacks comprise much of the rest of the film. The film seems a little laborious in doing this at first, but it soon picks up as it begins to tell a classic noir tragedy of a man’s downfall, but from the point of view of other people, which means that we don’t get to see quite a few scenes a more ‘conventional’ telling of a film story would tend to show us and there are still gaps for us to fill in even at the end. The film’s main protagonist tends to come in and out of the tale than be the centre of it. Firstly there’s a sweet landlady who saw the Swede in some kind of emotional agony, then the Swede’s childhood pal who is now a cop and once had to turn in, then various crooks and ex-crooks, while it’s not long before Reardon is himself in some danger. Of course there’s a femme fatale and a load of money at the centre of it all, and a hell of a lot of double crosses. Gardner plays Kitty Collins, one of the most devious of all femme fatales, and her introductory meeting with the Swede is superbly handled in the way it shows the Swede becoming hooked almost immediately while she pretends not to notice but you still all-but see her purring. The script, which is intelligent throughout especially in terms of characterisation, makes sure it gives her one scene where she virtually explains herself and the viewer feels like he or she almost understands her.
Director Siodmak keeps a tight control on the complex story and only sometimes lets the pace slip, though I rather enjoyed seemingly unimportant moments like the Swede’s prison inmate talking to him almost poetically about the stars. Aided immensely by Woody Bredell’s stunning cinematography, virtually creating great artwork with its vivid and complex contrasts between light and dark, Siodmak often stages things in an unusual way, like having cops bursting into a house being shown from the point of view of the crook on the stairs being shot as he sees them enter, his falling body eventually slipping into the frame from the bottom. There’s one fantastic tracking shot early on, and a whole robbery shown by the camera following the robbers as they enter a building, then going up the wall of the building to show them committing the actual robbery, then showing them going back out the door and getting involved in a gun fight as they try to escape. Stunning stuff, and a good example of the kind of thing you just don’t see much of nowadays – it’s more about fast cutting and close-ups – though there’s actually expert use of some almost jarring close-ups in The Killers too.
Burt Lancaster broods magnificently- his acting often seems much more naturalistic than many performers of the time – while else Albert Dekker and Jack Lambert are the most memorable of the bad guys, respectively curiously dour and moronically thuggish. Rozsa’s score, which also knows when to hold back, increases the tension while emoting in that great intense way only Rozsa could. Though if you think about it too much the story has flaws – some people never seem to know what other people are doing to them – The Killers is still a fine piece of intricate storytelling which requires your full attention but totally rewards it, as well as being perhaps the ultimate film noir – this one really has everything. I don’t think it’s quite the perfect film that Double Indemnity is, but if you want an encapsulation of noir in just one film, it’s probably the best movie to check out. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray, which comes with some interesting extras, slightly alternates between superb and just good in terms of picture quality, though that could be because of flaws with the source material considering the effort Arrow tend to put in to its transfers.
*Newly restored High Definition (1080p) presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by Universal
*Original uncompressed PCM mono 1.0 audio
*Isolated Music & Effects soundtrack to highlight Miklós Rózsa’s famous score
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
*Frank Krutnik on The Killers, a video piece by the author of In a Lonely Street, which introduces the film and offers a detailed commentary on four key scenes
*Heroic Fatalism, 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
*Reversible sleeve featuring one of the original posters and newly commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw
*Collector’s booklet containing new writing by Sergio Angelini and archive interviews with director Robert Siodmak, producer Mark Hellinger and cinematographer Woody Bredell, illustrated with original production stills