Ernest Hemingway is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of all time, but when talking about his work, rarely is his 1927 short story “The Killer” one of the first works that comes to mind. Fortunately, director Robert Siodmak decided to direct an adaptation of this story, The Killers (1946), and it has become a memorable and important film throughout the world.
In one of the greatest opening scenes in the history of film, two gangsters (William Conrad & Charles McGraw) come into a small town diner and begin to question the man behind the counter. We quickly discover that these men are here to kill a local gas station attendant called the “Swede” (Burt Lancaster). When the diner employee informs the killers that the “Swede” isn’t coming in tonight, they leave the diner in an attempt to discover where the he lives. Another customer from the diner heads out the back and runs to the “Swede’s” house in order to give him a chance to escape, but confusingly the “Swede” says that it doesn’t matter anymore and he just lays in bed and waits for his murderers.
An overly enthusiastic insurance investigator, Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), is brought in because of a $25,000 life insurance policy on the “Swede”. He begins an investigation that through a series of flashbacks shows each mysterious puzzle piece falling into place, in order for Reardon to understand what drove the “Swede” to be so accepting of his own death.
The “Swede” was once a boxer, who after suffering an injury, turned to a life of crime in order to make his fortune, as well as win the heart of the lovely and dangerous Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). He teams with “Big Jim” Colfax (Albert Dekker) for a daring robbery, but with loyalties running thin, everyone seems to be involved in at least one double cross.
Film Noir in the mid 1950’s had just reached the point of perfection. With Double Indemnity (1944) and Detour (1945) the genre had reached a highpoint that would continue throughout the next few years. These great crime dramas were extremely popular and remarkably well made films that had an intenseness that seemed to be lacking in other crime stories in the previous years. 1946 saw the release of Orson Welles’ The Stranger, The Big Sleep and then the highpoint came with the release of The Killers. Each of these remarkable films helped define the film noir genre, but The Killers stands out as not only a brilliant film noir, but along with Double Indemnity, a landmark in filmmaking as well.
The film was edited together so that the mystery is revealed slowly, as we see the events of the “Swede’s” life unfold. Much like Citizen Kane (1941), different characters tell each of their parts of the story of “Swede’s” life, and the structure of the film makes the anticipation build so that the viewer seems to invest personally in the serving of justice to the “Swede’s” killers.
Writer Anthony Veiller was nominated for his work on the screenplay, but much of the success is owed to uncreditted writer John Huston, who was under contract at Warner Bothers at that time. The Killers was also deservingly nominated for Academy Awards for Best Film Editing (Arthur Hilton) Best Music: Dramatic (Miklos Rozsa), and in a somewhat unusual but wholly justified choice, Best Director for Robert Siodmak.
Besides the obvious film quality that The Killers achieved, it is also responsible for bringing two of the greatest film stars into the world’s spotlight. It was Burt Lancaster’s first screen appearance, and instantly it became clear that he was a celebrity waiting to show his talents to the world. Filled with a rugged toughness that seems to ooze from within, Lancaster powers through the film with a commanding presence combined with a sensitive touch that captivated the audience and left them needing and wanting more. He went on to solidify himself as one of the greatest actors of all time and leave behind a filmography that would make any actor jealous. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him the 19th greatest Actor of all time.
Ava Gardner, on the other hand, was not new to the movie business. By the time she was featured in The Killers she had already appeared in 20 movies, although none of these roles were memorable. The Killers was her first real opportunity to show her more then capable abilities to the world, and she didn’t miss her opportunity. Ava’s limited screen time didn’t even effect the world’s desire to see more of her. Siodmak took advantage of her natural beauty and did a remarkable job portraying Ava not as an up and comer, but rather as an already established star presence on the screen. The first time her character is revealed it is not as if she is seen in the background, but rather she fills the screen and makes every eye in the room take notice of her. Even Lancaster’s character, who is with his girlfriend at the time, can’t take his thoughts or eyes off of Ava. The moment she is seen, the “Swede” is enamored by her very appearance and it is obvious that she has won the devotion of him from then on. Ava’s career quickly took a turn for stardom, and she ended up becoming one of the greatest and most sought after actresses ever. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Ava Gardner the 25th greatest actress of all time.
Today, The Killers stands out as a landmark in cinematic achievement. It is not only extremely well made, but it also is highly entertaining. It fits into so many genres that any viewers can find it enjoyable. The Killers is the very definition of a “classic” masterpiece.Back to Home for More Reviews