I did something wrong…once.
So says the Swede (Burt Lancaster) as he lies in bed bereft of all hope, and calmly awaits his end. I love that scene near the beginning of the 1946 version of The Killers. It is one of the great moments of film noir and says so much about the genre – if you can even call it a genre. A good deal of its bleak power comes from the fact that it seems to run contrary to all normal human instincts. If someone were to burst into your room and breathlessly inform you that a couple of mean-looking hitmen had just rolled into town with the express aim of rubbing you out, most people would take the opportunity to make tracks fast. But Lancaster just remains prone in the shadows and delivers that line in the detached tone of a man already dead; when fate pays that last call there’s no ducking out.
Robert Siodmak’s film takes Ernest Hemingway’s short story (and it’s a very short story) and uses it merely as the jumping off point. The rest of the movie follows insurance investigator Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) as he tries to find out why the Swede ended up in a small New Jersey town waiting passively to greet a hail of bullets. The story is revealed by a succession of characters who had known the Swede, and a number of flashbacks gradually piece together all the events that brought about his demise. The Swede starts off as a medium grade fighter who, after breaking his hand and ending his career, begins the slow descent into the criminal underworld. This culminates in a payroll heist, the aftermath of which leads to the eventual downfall of just about everybody involved. The character of the Swede is basically a good-natured oaf whose desire for easy money allows him to be dazzled and duped by the grasping and predatory Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). In a sense the whole film is as much about Kitty as anyone else; as we see her manipulations provide the catalyst for the betrayals that litter the story.
The Killers marked the screen debut of Burt Lancaster and his tough vulnerability is shown to good effect in the movie. There’s enough innocence in the Swede for you to genuinely sympathise with him and despair at the big lug’s stupidity as Kitty plays him for the ultimate sucker. Ava Gardner’s Kitty gets the classic femme fatale intro; we first see her as the Swede does – seductively clad in black satin and vamping for all she’s worth in a night club. Her character is rotten all the way through – effortlessly hooking the smitten Swede, playing the gang off against each other, and finally, tearfully begging a dying man to save her neck by damning himself. The role of Edmond O’Brien is to offer perspective and lead the viewer through the labyrinth of deceit; he’s really the linking device between all the small episodes that make up the whole. O’Brien’s own guide along the way is police lieutenant Lubinsky (Sam Levene from the Thin Man movies) and there is good support from gang members Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert and Jeff Corey. However, two of the most memorable turns come from William Conrad and Charles McGraw as Max and Al, the killers of the title. Their roles don’t extend much beyond the first ten minutes of the film, but those are ten truly magical minutes. They get some of the choicest dialogue (and deliver it perfectly) as they simultaneously mock and menace the occupants of the Brentwood lunch counter.
Robert Siodmak made some of the best noirs of the forties and I feel The Killers is his standout work. This is one of those films where plot, direction, characterization and photography all seem to come together harmoniously. Deep, dark shadows are everywhere and only the policeman’s terrace, where the ideal wife serves lemonade on a hot day, seems to rise above the murkiness. I should also say a word about the powerful score by Miklos Rozsa which is especially effective whenever Messrs Conrad and McGraw make an appearance.
The Killers is out on DVD from Criterion in R1 and from Universal in R2. I can’t comment on the presentation on the R2 disc as I haven’t seen it but bitter experience has taught that Universal’s UK releases are a hit and miss affair, with a high proportion of misses. The Criterion is everything you would expect from them with a beautiful, clean transfer to show off those deep, black shadows. As you would expect, the film comes packed with useful and informative extras – and, best of all, it is paired with Don Siegel’s 1964 remake (and Andrei Tarkovsky’s student film version). All in all, this represents the definitive presentation of what is probably my favorite film noir.