Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Killers (1946)

Robert Siodmak's 'The Killers' from 1946 is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Two hit men drive into a small town looking for a guy named the Swede. They end up in a diner and inquire about him. As it turns out the Swede has dinner there regularly, so they decide to wait for him. After it becomes clear the Swede, who is known as Pete Lunn in town, won't show up that evening, the hit men head for his apartment. One of the people in the diner, Lunn's co-worker Nick Adams, quickly takes a shortcut to Lunn's apartment to warn him. Lunn says that nothing can be done about it, that he made a mistake once and tells his co-worker to leave. The hit men arrive a bit later and unload their guns on Lunn. Only 12 minutes into the movie, this is where Hemingway's story ends and where the movie's second part starts.

After his death, insurance investigator Jim Riordan does a routine check into the Swede's death and the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. He is intrigued by the murder, Nick's recollection of Lunn's final words and a green handkerchief with harps on it that he finds among the Swede's belongings. The beneficiary turns out to be a lady who once rented out a room to Lunn, however she knew him as Ole Anderson, and he was desperate and almost suicidal last time she saw him. Riordan is now deadset on finding out what caused Anderson's death and starts an investigation into Anderson's past and the events that led to his untimely death. He meets up with a childhood friend of Anderson, police officer Sam Lubinsky, and together they start to unravel things, including an unsolved robbery Anderson was involved in, the stolen money which was never recovered, a gorgeous lady called Kitty Collins and all the doublecrossing that took place.

Ole 'the Swede' Anderson (Burt Lancaster in his first role) was a prizefighter once with a pretty girlfriend, Lilly Harmon (Virginia Christine) and a good friend called Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene). He's force to retire from fighting due to an injury, and turns to crime as a new career, despite Lubinsky being a cop, thus pitting them against each other. At a party that Ole attends with Lilly he meets 'femme fatale' Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner in one of her first major roles), and he falls head over heels for her, something which he doesn't even try to hide from Lilly. Kitty, being the seductress and vixen she so clearly is, doesn't mind pushing the dagger a bit deeper into Lilly's heart when Ole and Lilly are introduced to Kitty and briefly discuss Ole's prizefighting. After Kitty mentions she does not care for watching men fight, Lilly quickly remarks 'I saw all Swede's fights.' obviously trying to show her devotion to Anderson, whom she's in love with. Kitty however has the perfect rebuttal: 'How wonderful of you! I could never bear to see a man I really cared for being hurt.' Kitty is then called away and Ole adds insult to injury by casually and almost absent-mindedly remarking (more to himself than to Lilly): 'She's beautiful.' Auch, that's pretty damn harsh. Obviously Lilly knows the score by now. But Ole becomes even more oblivious to Lilly's presence as Kitty sings a song and Ole is standing close to her, admiring her, leaving Lilly to fend for herself. If this had been a scene from a cartoon, Anderson would have been standing in a pool of his own drool, he's that taken in with Kitty. I have to say, a fair amount of the more 'high end' film noirs feature a scene with one of the main female leads singing a song, which is something I don't really care for. Whether it's Marlene Dietrich in 'Witness For The Prosecution' or Ava Gardner in this movie, I find these songs to be rather dull and boring and not really adding much to the movie. Oh well...

Kitty plays a crucial role in Anderson's downfall, as expected. When Anderson's in prison (arrested by Lubinsky no less) she hooks up with Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) who is the mastermind behind the robbery, which is to take place shortly. After Anderson's out of of prison again he gets asked to join Colfax's gang for the robbery. Kitty is also present when Anderson first meets up with Colfax and the gang. As she lies on the bed and Anderson sits next to it, you can see Kitty delighting over Anderson's uneasiness at her presence. Her claws are still dug deep into him. Kitty Collins is played by Ava Gardner in one of her first major roles, and damn, what a vixen she is! She's stunningly gorgeous in this movie, with a cool demeanor and a look that screams sex (even though this could not be shown or mentioned in too direct a manner at the time, but seductive stares, and veiled innuendos more than made up for it). While Veronica Lake still tops my list of film noir femme fatales, Gardner is definitely up there.

Ole Anderson on the other hand is not the most clever criminal ever. His motives appear fairly basic, greed (for money) and lust (for Kitty). But he's not cold, determined or calculated enough to truly succeed as a criminal, or as Kitty's lover. And his feelings for Kitty (which some might call love, but which I think is more lust-motivated than anything else) definitely get in the way of him seeing that he's being used as a patsy by those around him, including by Kitty. He does eventually figure it out, but by then it is too late and he has no choice but to change identity and disappear to a small town. Burt Lancaster plays him really well. I don't know whether it was intentional or not, but Lancaster played Anderson with an almost absent-minded look in his eyes which to me is a good fit for Anderson's character. But the best performances in the movie to me are those of Ava Gardner and especially Edmond O'Brien. His Jim Riordan is exactly the kind of tough and almost hard-boiled character that you'd expect to find in a film noir. He smokes a lot, he addresses women as 'honey' or 'baby' and he's determined to find out what's going on. His lines could have been straight out of a hard-boiled detective story, except he's not a detective or a criminal, he investigates insurance claims. I loved his character and his tenaciousness.

The opening scene is amazing on more than one level. Everything about it is perfect. The two hit men, Al and Max (William Conrad and Charles McGraw), are as tough and hard-boiled as they come. Their faces show hardly any emotion as they spew rapid-fire vitriolic lines at the other people in the diner. Through words they turn the atmosphere at the diner around from pleasant to dark and menacing. While they do eventually show a gun, it is their use of words that truly terrorizes the people present. The shots, especially the outside scenes and those inside Anderson's apartment, are very dark and shadowy, also creating a tense atmosphere. Add to that the awesome soundtrack, scored by Miklós Rózsa. Its tone is as threatening as the scene eventually becomes and really draws you in. Parts of it are repeated again in key parts of the movie. The theme of the soundtrack really adds to the movie here and the overall feel of the movie.

One of the other standout scenes in the movie besides the opening scene is the flashback of the actual robbery of the hat factory. In one long continuous single take we see how the robbery takes place, from the moment the robbers walk through the hat factory gate to the moment they speed away in their cars. I hadn't realized until the scene was almost over that I was still looking at the same take, it is so smooth, captivating and natural-looking. It is one of the many scenes in the movie that shows the expert direction of Siodmak who also directed other notable film noirs and crime movies such as 'Criss Cross' (1949, again with Burt Lancaster), 'The File On Thelma Jordon' (1950) and 'The Spiral Staircase' (1945). I don't know how many takes had to be done for this, or why Siodmak decided to do it like this in the first place, but it works so well. A truly great scene.

It's an awesome, suspenseful and intriguing movie and a perfect introduction into film noir. I know this because it was my own 'formal' introduction into film noir. 'The Killers' was the first film noir I watched because of it being film noir. It's considered one of the great film noirs and it is easy for me to see why. The story, the way it unfolds through flashbacks that build onto each other, all the doublecrossing, Kitty Collins, the way it's filmed... Great, great stuff.

Here's the trailer, which also features the amazing soundtrack:

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