Friday, August 7, 2015

Before I Die #551: The Killers (1948)

The Killers (1946)

This is the 551st of the 1,160 movies on the "Before You Die" list which I am working my way through. 

Director: Robert Siodmak

A solid entry into the catalogue of classic noir movies, even if it doesn't beat out a few of my absolute favorite noir films.

The Killers is based on a (very) short story by Ernest Hemingway. In the original tale, a few assassins show up in a smalltown diner and prepare to execute a local man known as "Swede" (Burt Lancaster). After tormenting the owner, cook, and a patron of the diner, the killers learn that Swede won't be coming in that night, so they leave to seek him out. The patron, Nick Adams, races to beat the two executioners to Swede. Oddly though, when Nick does reach the Swede and warns him, he finds him oddly resigned and impassive. The Swede's only comment is "I did something once." Shortly after this enigmatic and fatalistic utterance, the killers arrive and quickly dispatch Swede. This is where Hemingway's tale ends.

The 1946 film uses roughly its first 15 minutes to tell Hemingway's original story. It then continues to fill in Swede's back story, using many elements and techniques very familiar to viewers of early noir crime movies. It's all done in a mostly satisfying way, never relying too heavily on already-beaten paths.

Once Swede is killed, we follow Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien), an insurance agent who senses something strange and extremely curious about the Swede's death, which resulted in a $2,500.00 life insurance policy being issued to an elderly woman who had barely known him. As Reardon starts digging into Swede's past, he discovers a sad and sordid tale of love and crime. Swede's real name was Ole Anderson, a former prizefighter who became involved in low-level crimes and associated himself with noted mobster "Big Jim" Colfax. Swede even gets briefly involved with Colfax's lady friend, the beautiful but greedy Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). Eventually, Swede, Colfax, and a few other criminals pull a stunning payroll heist; however, it soon becomes clear that someone in the crew is trying to double-cross the others. Colfax decides that Swede is to blame, sending Swede on the lam for years to follow. That is, until the killers show up to find the weary Swede ready to embrace death.

Like all leading men in noir movies, Swede's end is all but
certain after he falls for a dame. I guess if you have to buy it,
it might as well be for Ava Gardner. 
Of course, the story is actually more complicated in the telling, and there are more than a few twists and turns. True to noir-style narration, there are multiple flashbacks, incomplete pictures, and questions which go unanswered right until the very end. The question of who exactly betrayed whom and why is well-plotted and spun out deftly. While characters such such as Kitty Collins and Big Jim Colfax are fairly stereotypical of noir, being the femme fatale and looming arch villain, Swede is a bit unusual. Unlike the intelligent and capable protagonists of noir classics like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past, Swede is simply not very bright. He actually never stands a chance against Kitty's wiles or Colfax's power and cunning. In contrast to typical noir protagonists, it is the dark tale which surrounds Swede that propels the movie.

Director Robert Siodmak clearly had a very firm grasp of noir film techniques. There are shadows and cigarette smoke aplenty, which all set a satisfyingly sordid atmosphere. The acting, as you might imagine from seeing the cast list, is outstanding. In fact, this is the film that thrust Burt Lancaster into "star" status, a status he retained for the rest of his long acting career.

Though it doesn't top Double Indemnity or Out of the Past in my view, The Killers was a great entry into a rich and uniquely American film style.

Fun Fact: Highly influential Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky did a film adaptation of the Hemingway short story when he was in film school. It's available on the Criterion Collection DVD set, and it's well worth watching (just be ready to cringe when you see a young Russian man in blackface, playing the role of the African-American cook in the diner).

That's 551 films down. Only 609 to go before I can die...