The Killers (1946)

*. It’s been called the Citizen Kane of noir, and for good reason. We are introduced to the central character at the moment of his death. The only clues to the meaning of that death are his enigmatic final words and a silk handkerchief he had with him. That will be his Rosebud. Enter an insurance investigator who will attempt to backtrack and piece together his story by way of interviews with the people who knew him.
*. The inspiration wasn’t Kane though but Hemingway’s story, and it’s one of the more interesting cases of adaptation I’ve seen. The story is presented, quite faithfully and in its entirety, in the film’s opening act, so that it can then be used as a launching pad for a wholly original tale involving gangsters and a femme fatale. I can’t think of another literary source being used in this way. From Beyond comes to mind (which is really comparing great things to small), but the pre-credit material in From Beyond, which is all that connects the film to the story, is only very tenuously connected to what Lovecraft wrote.
*. The opening does raise some questions too. How well is it incorporated into the rest of the film? As a prologue, doesn’t it go on too long? I think most people would reject this, but I think it’s an issue. All that tough-guy talk about the bright boys doesn’t have much of a point. I think it’s all very nicely realized, but it’s a bit too much like a separate movie, a short that plays before the feature.
*. As for the new material bolted on to the Hemingway story, well, perhaps “wholly original” has to be qualified. It’s bog standard noir. David Thomson: “the plot of The Killers feels mundane and pedestrian.” That’s because, at least by the standards of noir, and maybe any standards, it is mundane and pedestrian. The hero who finds himself on the wrong side of the law falling hard for the wrong gal. The heist. The double-cross. The fallout. Run credits.
*. The arrangement of these familiar elements is a big part of what makes the film work. I don’t think anyone in the audience is in any doubt about what happened, but the way it’s revealed makes it interesting.
*. What makes it really interesting, though, is its look. Noir yes, but I want to look a little deeper into what that means. Here’s Paul Schrader, from his seminal essay on the subject, addressing the noir style: “Compositional tension is preferred to physical action. A typical film noir would rather move the scene cinematographically around the actor than have the actor control the scene by physical tension.”
*. I think there are a number of examples of what I think Schrader is talking about in The Killers. The whole opening in the diner does an incredible job of working up that set from different angles and exaggerating mundane matters, like the door that keeps slamming (why hasn’t somebody fixed that?). Nothing happens, but there’s a sense of threat established through “compositional tension.”

*. Another good example is the scene in the prison cell between Ole (Burt Lancaster) and Charleston (Vince Barnett). There is no action here. The two characters maintain static positions throughout. But by presenting the scene in a sequence of beautifully composed shots Siodmak creates a powerful sense of fate and tragic destiny. The stars and the bars are enough for that.
*. But what does this scene tell us? Nothing. How does it advance the plot? Not at all. It’s just atmosphere, but what atmosphere!
*. Burt Lancaster’s debut, and what an odd star-making role. He’d become famous later for his physical presence, but here, despite playing a boxer and sporting a wifebeater, he’s downright ethereal. Manny Farber: “He has a dreamy, peaceful, introspective air that dissociates him from everything earthly.” Lying in bed he looks a bit like the Dying Gaul.

*. Ava Gardner’s gets her start here too (not her first film, but her first major role). She is, of course, stunning. I mean Virginia Christine (playing Lilly) looks great too, even in her Puritan dress, but she clearly doesn’t have a chance as soon as Ole locks eyes on Kitty.
*. That first scene together probably tries too hard in underlining how hard Ole is falling though. The way Lilly looks at him when he first sees Kitty is enough. But this is a movie full of scenes of people looking at other people in knowing ways. It’s a movie of glances.

*. Kitty isn’t a great part. She’s left too vague. Does she really care for Colfax? He seems so far beneath her. Does she have any genuine feeling for Ole? Or is she just a narcissist? Her final lines, wailed to the dead Colfax, begging him to save her (while referring to herself in the third person, if “Kitty” really is her name) suggest the latter. I don’t think she’s a real femme fatale who’s pulling the strings here. I think she’s a good-looking but naive kid.
*. Among the supporting cast the heavies steal the show. Jack Lambert as the deep-voiced Dum-Dum is great. Albert Dekker is good as Colfax. You wouldn’t want to mess with either. The two investigators — Edmond O’Brien’s Reardon and Sam Levene’s Lubinsky — are suitably dull in comparison. When Reardon tries to get the drop on Dum-Dum we know he’s way out of his league. He may be a great insurance investigator, but he doesn’t know how to handle a gun.

*. I found it amusing how Reardon has to apologize for asking the police to help him . . . with a murder investigation! That whole scene where he’s introduced to Sam struck me as odd. At first Sam seems unconcerned at the news of Ole’s death, as though he was just some guy. Then he reveals that they were actually childhood friends!
*. “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into Hell.” That’s a memorable line, even if I’m not entirely sure what it means. Surely Colfax is going to hell anyway. Covering for Kitty might be seen as him trying to do a good turn (depending on Kitty’s culpability, which remains vague).
*. When Ole gets the drop on the other gangsters after the robbery he calls out for them to “Heist ’em!” Meaning put their hands in the air. I’d never heard the word “heist” used this way before, but I guess it makes sense as heist is a bit of American slang that only dates back to the 1920s and is derived from “hoist.”
*. That score by Miklos Rozsa really sounds like it’s coming to get you. Later he’d do the theme music for Dragnet, and you can hear something of that here. It’s another element that fell into place.
*. I really like The Killers, though I feel like it’s missing something. Lancaster has that ghostly quality, and Gardner’s Kitty isn’t sharply drawn. The investigators, whose pursuit of Ole is presumably meant to recall the pair of “killers” we see in the opening, are too bland. The story, despite it’s interesting arrangement, is too conventional. It looks wonderful, and is one of the most interesting noirs ever made, but I can’t rank it as one of my all-time favourites. Making my top ten for this stacked genre though is pretty good.

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