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October 3, 2010


Movie Review – The Killers (1946)


The Killers (1946)

As the film opens, the first thing that we notice is that the cinematography depicts a stark and dreadful time and place. It’s a small town and two men enter the light from pitch darkness. They make their way into a nearby diner and accost the owner, a patron, and the black cook. They tell them that they’re looking for “The Swede” and that whenever he arrives they’ll kill him. When asked what he’s done to them one of the killers replies: “He’s ain’t done nothing to us, he’s never even seen us before. But he’ll only see us once.” That’s the setting, taken almost word for word and step by step from Ernest Hemingway’s short story.

This film is referred to as the Citizen Kane of film noir and rightfully so, because the story structure of the film is terrifically similar and because it’s one of the definitive film noirs in movie history.

Shortly after the diner scene, the killers track down The Swede and put eight bullets in him. Right after the murder of The Swede we follow insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) as he tracks down the beneficiary of The Swede’s insurance and Reardon happens upon an elderly lady that had once rented him a room in her hotel. He follows the puzzle pieces, one by one and tracks down all of The Swede’s friends and enemies.

Ole “The Swede” Andersen (Burt Lancaster) is tall, strong, and remarkably average upstairs. He’s not naive, he’s simply ordinary and not too bright, which makes for a tragic hero. We find out that he was a boxer, but during his last fight his right hand was so swollen that he couldn’t throw right punches or win the fight. Not being able to fight anymore Andersen eventually buddies up with four gangsters, their leader being Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). Colfax’s beautiful wife is Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). Andersen falls hard for Kitty, as permitted and expected by all film noir rule books and a heist is concocted by the five of them. Double crosses ensue.

We follow the flashback story through the point of view of Reardon. We learn what had happened to the group, who killed who, and why Andersen was eventually assassinated. As the second act nears its conclusion, Reardon begins to partake in the story of the four remaining con artists and we follow him still in order to find out who the real bad guy is. We know that Andersen will eventually be killed but we don’t know why and as we approach the climax of the story our hearts race, and we find ourselves caring for Reardon, as well.

Director Robert Siodmak was a German immigrant to Hollywood and so we can understand the origins of his study of the use of noir lighting. Reminiscent of German Expressionism, there is little variation in the gray scale of the film’s color; it seems to be almost entirely just black and white. Dutch angles are sprinkled here and there and darkness is visually present, causing the audience to feel isolation and dread.

This film features a devastatingly beautiful femme fatale. Ava Gardner takes control of each of the scenes in which she appears and the male audience is entranced as if under the influence of opium. We all can understand how Andersen had felt every time that they’d shared a room and the audience can sometimes also feel it, due to her excellent performance. The Swede is Burt Lancaster’s first film appearance and he’s terrific. He plays his character like a real human being and not a theatrically trained actor, and every single other actor in the film plays it for keeps, as well.

Sidenote 1:

Master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film was a 19 minute short titled The Killers, the second film adaptation of the famous Hemingway short story. He filmed it while enrolled in the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, a prestigious Soviet film school. His was the first film in which the teachers had allowed foreign influences in the curriculum and he’d shot it like a German Expressionistic, American-style gangster film. The characters were played by fellow students but the look and feel of the film is what counts. Tarkovsky’s short also depicts the diner scene, the first scene in Hemingway’s and Siodmak’s classic novel and film adaptation. Hemingway’s short story, Siodmak’s film, Tarkovsky’s short, and eventually Don Siegel’s remake (starring Lee Marvin as one of the killers) are all important and masterful examples of the noir setting and its storytelling approach.

Sidenote 2:

But why is it that we’re so attached to constantly rediscovering the femme fatale, the good guy who’s wrongfully punished and/or accused, huge and labyrinthine dark cities, and dark shadows that swallow up pride and oppress innocent men and women? Why is it that after the Second World War, these types of films began to appear wholesale and influence many auteurs, who borrowed from even earlier pictures that depicted the darkness of the human soul?

It was a form of art that was ahead of its time and it’s an even stronger form of art now. We love a good drama or tragedy and what is a better way to display dread and dismay than by painting the town black and coating it with sweat and bullets? The stronger the contrast between black and white, darkness and brightness, the easier it is to explain dreadful situations. After all, film is a visual medium and we relate shadows to death as we relate a lighthouse to salvation. The darker the film, the darker the shadows and the stronger their hold is on the unsuspecting.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. miriam
    Oct 3 2010

    The Killers is an absolutely gripping, wonderful movie. I think one reason for the renewed interest in the noir canon is reaction to the shallow ‘I’m ok, you’re ok just be happy’ content of popular culture. There’s a fascination with the look of black and white cinematography, too, which is so distant for most viewers as to seem exotic.

    I enjoy the more technical analyses you often include in your reviews but you use a term here that is unknown to me. Can you tell me what a Dutch angle is?

  2. Oct 3 2010

    Sure thing: a Dutching an angle means to skew it diagonally. The Third Man (1949) is chock full of those types of angles and it’s a useful visual approach that inflicts a psychological fear in us. In our subconscious mind we can tell that something is wrong but we don’t know why, and it works just by tilting the camera slightly to the side. :O)


  3. miriam
    Oct 3 2010

    Thanks! I was puzzling over the ‘Dutch’ attribution but it must be the common americanization of ‘Deutsch’. Surely the German Expressionists were the earliest to tilt their cameras to such good effect.

  4. Oct 3 2010

    They sure are. :O)
    Great examples, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr” (1932).

  5. Helen
    Oct 6 2010

    The term “film noir” is thrown around so much and applied so broadly anymore that it’s hard to know what people mean when they use it. Fortunately we still know what it means when it comes to a classic noir like The Killers.

    Lancaster really is terrific. You see a debut performance like this one and you know you’re watching a born star. And that first shot of him, when the Swede’s in his hotel room waiting for the killers, is an iconic film noir image.

  6. Oct 6 2010

    It’s true. It may misinterpreted to be the face of a scared man but in fact it’s the look of a man who’s not afraid anymore because deep down inside he’s already dead.