#488) The Killers (1946)

#488) The Killers (1946)

OR “Swede and Lowdown”

Directed by Robert Siodmak

Written by Anthony Veiller. Based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway.

Class of 2008

The Plot: In the small town of Brentwood, New Jersey, local gas station attendant Pete Lund (Burt Lancaster) is gunned down by two mysterious hitmen (Charles McGraw & William Conrad). When insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) attempts to pay out Lund’s $2500 life insurance policy, he pieces together the events that led to Lund’s murder, one flashback at a time. Real name Ole Anderson (aka “The Swede”), Lund was a boxer forced into early retirement who turned to a life of crime. After falling for the boss’ girlfriend Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), Lund double-crosses his accomplices and runs off with $250,000 from a payroll robbery. And out of this movie’s noir aesthetic comes two of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a classic example of film noir”, praising the work of composer Miklós Rózsa, editor Arthur Hilton, and Lancaster’s “electrifying film debut”.

But Does It Really?: “The Killers” is just shy of a minor classic. It’s a great noir film with a well-crafted mystery and star-making turns from Lancaster and Gardner, but you don’t hear too much about this movie nowadays. That being said, “The Killers” has enough of a pedigree to earn eventual NFR recognition, and is definitely worth a viewing or two.

Everybody Gets One: A filmmaker in his native Germany, Robert Siodmak left for Paris following the rise of the Nazis, and eventually came to California in 1939. A series of B-pictures got him a seven-year contract with Universal, where he helmed a series of notable film noir entries, with “The Killers” largely considered his greatest movie. After the troublesome production of “The Crimson Pirate” (again with Burt Lancaster), Siodmak returned to Europe, where he continued to make movies while collecting his share of European film festival awards.

Wow, That’s Dated: The usual ’40s stuff, like the phrase “take a powder”, and the statement that our solar system has nine planets. And adjusted for inflation, the heist money would be about $3.3 million.

Title Track: Shoutout to the killers of the title: Charles McGraw in an early film performance, and William Conrad, future star of “Cannon” and “Jake and the Fatman“.

Seriously, Oscars?: A surprise hit in theaters, “The Killers” received four Oscar nominations (Best Director, Screenplay, Scoring, and Editing), but lost all of them to unstoppable juggernaut “The Best Years of Our Lives“.

Other notes 

  • Longtime readers know my skepticism regarding short stories being padded out to a full-length film, but “The Killers” takes a unique approach. The first 20 minutes of the movie are a faithful adaptation of the original short story, and the rest of the running time is an original script fleshing out Lund’s backstory. Amazingly, it works. Hats off to screenwriter Anthony Veiller, with potential uncredited assistance from John Huston and Richard Brooks.
  • The entire opening sequence has a wonderful tension to it, which is amazing considering they really don’t reveal anything during that scene. All you know is that these two are looking for “The Swede” and that there are guns involved.
  • The supporting character of Nick Adams appears in 25 Hemingway short stories, typically as a stand-in for Hemingway’s own adolescence and coming-of-age. Nick is played in this film by Phil Brown, who would go on to play – and this is absolutely true – Uncle Owen in “Star Wars“. Look it up, I’m still in shock.
  • Although “Desert Fury” was filmed first, “The Killers” was Burt Lancaster’s first released movie. A former acrobat, Lancaster was spotted in a Broadway play by producer (and future business partner) Harold Hecht, and the actor headed to Hollywood. Lancaster was the third choice for Lund, and after seeing the rushes, producer Mark Hellinger allegedly declared “may all my actors be acrobats!”
  • Edmond O’Brien looks like if someone ironed out the lines of Bogart’s face. Also, thanks to Jim Reardon, we get another movie that depicts an insurance investigator’s life as one of non-stop mystery and danger!
  • Lancaster’s character spent time in an Atlantic City hotel after committing a crime? Why does this sound so familiar…?
  • Does every character in this movie get to tell a flashback? And are all these witnesses describing these scenes to Reardon in detail? “I remember when I met Lund. We fade in on Interior: Hotel Lobby, Day. A slow pan through the crowd…”
  • I didn’t realize “The Killers” was a boxing movie. It’s interesting watching young Burt Lancaster play a somewhat out-of-it naïve boxer, in contrast to the more intellectual characters of his later filmography.
  • Despite her prominent billing, Ava Gardner doesn’t show up until 38 minutes in. At this point in her career, Gardner was a contract player at MGM with only a few years of bit parts to her credit, and was loaned out to Universal to play Kitty Collins.
  • Until this viewing, the only other Ava Gardner performances I’d seen were her cameo in “The Band Wagon” and her work in “Earthquake”. Thank god “The Killers” is on this list.
  • My favorite unintentionally funny moment is when Lund’s former cellmate Charleston (as played by Vince Barnett) says he won’t tell Reardon anything about “The Swede”, and then segues into a flashback.
  • Shoutout to cinematographer Elwood Bredell. There are some lovely noir compositions throughout the film, culminating in an uninterrupted two-minute take of the robbery and getaway. Where’s his Oscar?
  • Revolutionary by 1946 standards: the flashbacks aren’t in chronological order, adding an extra layer to solving this mystery.
  • My main takeaway from this movie is that everyone in the ’40s had a pack of cigarettes and a gun on their person at all times.
  • What a weird ending. All the plot points gets wrapped up, but it all happens so quickly, followed by a comic relief epilogue between Reardon and his boss that doesn’t mesh with the rest of the movie.

Legacy 

  • “The Killers” was a hit and propelled both Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner to stardom. Among the film’s fans was Ernest Hemingway, who called it “the only good picture ever made of a story of mine.”
  • According to the NFR’s write-up: [Arthur] Hilton’s work on the fight scenes would stand as the vanguard of such fare until “Raging Bull” some 34 years later. …Sure.
  • There have been two other major film adaptations of the original Hemingway story. A 1956 short by Andre Tarkovsky sticks to the original story, while a 1964 update from Don Siegel was the final acting role for Ronald Reagan.
  • Perhaps the film’s most interesting legacy: In 1949, Walter Schumann composed the iconic instrumental “Danger Ahead” for the “Dragnet” radio series. “Killers” composer Miklós Rózsa felt the opening riff (“Dun-da-dun-dun”) sounded a lot like a selection from his “Killers” score, and made a copyright claim. A settlement was reached, and Rózsa received joint credit for the “Dragnet” theme.

Further Listening: As a college student in the mid-to-late-2000s I was legally required to enjoy rock band The Killers. They’re not named after the movie, but I’m still using it as an excuse to listen to “Hot Fuss”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s