The Killers (1946)
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Richard Brooks, Anthony Veiller, John Huston (based on The Killers by Ernest Hemingway)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene
Ernest Hemingway’s short story provided the inspiration for three separate, all pretty acclaimed and competent film noirs in the span of less than 20 years. Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation of The Killers is the first of those three, and perhaps the most celebrated of the three. Siodmak, a German born director who, along with countless talented artists, left the country during the rise of Nazism for greener pastures. This would lead him to directing various thrillers and film noirs, and eventually earning a nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards for this very film. The Killers stars the iconic Burt Lancaster in his very first feature, and future Oscar-nominee Ava Gardner in one of the most widely acclaimed film noirs of the 1940’s. The film, shot by cinematographer Elwood Bredell, is one of the best-looking film noirs I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, with every shot perfectly planned and composed, and best of all shrouded in dark, moody shadows. The Killers would go on to be nominated for Best Editing, Best Director, Best Adaptation, and Best Music at that years Academy Awards, coming up empty-handed in each category, all fairly beaten out by William Wyler’s terrific anti-war film The Best Years of Our Lives.
Robert Siodmak’s adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers immediately begins with two hitmen assassinating a former boxer Ole Anderson (the onscreen debut of the legendary Burt Lancaster) who also goes by the name of “the Swede”. After the Swede puts up no fight against the two hitmen, the men flee the scene and we meet our lead character, a life insurance investigator by the name of Jim Reardon (played by Edmond O’Brien), who has been assigned to investigate the murder of the young boxer. The investigation very quickly leads to the Swede’s friends, family, and associates, and through flashbacks we begin to piece together the pieces of Ole Anderson’s life, just as investigator Reardon is doing. From there, the film switches regularly between the current day investigation by Reardon, and the lead-up to the mysterious murder of Ole Anderson. In both timelines, we meet our femme fatale Kitty Collins (played terrifically by Ava Gardner), a former flame of Anderson’s, and the reason for so much of the mystery concerning the Swede’s death. Another lead player is the crime boss “Bim Jim” Colfax (Albert Dekker), a man who the Swede has become business partners with. Big Jim is a rich and powerful man who gets what he wants, and when the Swede takes the fall for a crime he didn’t commit and goes to prison, Big Jim takes his girl Kitty too. To find out anything more about The Killers’ complex web of characters and deceit, you’ll have to watch the film yourself!
I won’t claim to have been able to follow The Killers’ plot initially, as at times it can be incredibly convoluted and probably too complex for its own good, but it’s a damn fun watch despite that. Having now seen it a second time in less than a week, I can assure you that the plot is no more difficult to follow than most convoluted noirs of the time, you just have to fully dedicate yourself to figuring out the relationships between the large cast of characters. Despite a sometimes shaky story, Siomak’s The Killers features all the elements that I love about the genre of film noir. The cinematography and photography of nearly every scene is incredible, again shrouded in darkness, shadows, and harsh lighting. The opening ten minutes are probably one of the greatest starts to a film I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a great deal. Every movement and decision made by the two hitmen had me on the edge of my seat, and I desperately wanted to know what their involvement in the story was. Unfortunately, the rest of the film failed to live up to the impossibly high expectations set by the opening scenes, but I think few films could live up to them. For being in his first on-screen role, Burt Lancaster is very good at Ole Anderson, being at times slimey, and at other times incredibly sympathetic because of how conflicted his character is. He’s backed up by terrific performances by Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, and Albert Dekker, all of whom feel well-realized and with realistic motives and actions throughout.
While The Killers wasn’t the most original or well-written film noir I’ve seen, the performances throughout, the mounting tension, and the combination of the films direction and cinematography made for a very memorable experience. I’m very eager to see the other two adaptations of Hemingway’s The Killers, and it may become something of a side project for myself if I have time this month. If I can get around for them, look out for my thoughts in the coming weeks! The Killers may not be absolutely perfect, but it provided me with more than enough thrills and entertainment for its brief run-time (somewhere around 100 minutes). If you’re a fan of film noirs this is absolutely a must-see example of how a well-realized plot structure isn’t always the most important feature of a film. It’s recommended for fans of the genre.