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Just back from the war, John Huston did some writing before going to Mexico to resume his directing career with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Some sources say that Houston is responsible for most of the screenplay for Robert Siodmak's 1946 The Killers, enlarging upon Ernest Hemingway's slice of death short story about a pair of hit men terrorizing a lunch counter. If not Huston himself, one of the film's three scribes or its producer Mark Hellinger or its director Robert Siodmak came up with the idea of adding a convoluted flashback structure, directly from Welles' Citizen Kane. Films noir had already found that formatting a narrative as a painful, regretful flashback added a dimension of pre-ordained fate. It's said that movies of the 1940s also discovered psychology, and stories told in flashback seemed more sophisticated. Siodmak's keeps the hit men Al and Mac in its back pocket for almost all of the film's running time, while an insurance investigator pieces together a 100% grade-A fatalistic-romantic tragedy. The Killers is definitely a top-ten title in the noir canon.
"I did something wrong, once."
Ruthless hired killers Al and Max (Charles McGraw & William Conrad) show up in Brentwood, New Jersey looking for ex-prizefighter Ole 'Swede' Anderson (Burt Lancaster, in his first role), who makes no move to save himself even when tipped off. Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) doggedly pursues the mystery, as Swede might have been involved in a factory payroll holdup in which the money was never recovered. With the help of police Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), Reardon uncovers the truth about Ole's crooked dealings with femme fatale Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) and crook Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). Is the case cold, or can Reardon and Sam break it before the hit men catch up to them, too?
Robert Siodmak and Mark Hellinger put together a corker of a show in The Killers, a suspense thriller that made stars of newcomer Burt Lancaster and MGM contractee Ava Gardner. As in Citizen Kane, a mystery slowly unfolds through the testimony of several witnesses, each of whom relates a flashback explaining part of the story. The inverted narrative starts from a fated conclusion. We then dip back in time to watch the noir loser Anderson's struggle to recover the stolen money and possess the gangster's unfaithful girl friend, knowing he'll lose both. Director Siodmak was a director of consistently high quality, and this highly polished production earned him his only Academy nomination.
The ill-fated protagonists in Double Indemnity and Detour narrate their own sad stories, but like Charles Foster Kane, the Swede dies in the first scene and others must tell his sad story. This lends an overall pallor of doom to his love for Kitty Collins. The testimony Reardon hears can't possibly be as intense as what we see in the flashbacks. Kitty Collins' formidable erotic charge doesn't translate into words, and the gang of crooks assembled by Colfax has a specific creepiness that we need to see for ourselves. Siodmak films an entire daring daylight factory robbery in a single moving crane shot from an omniscient point-of-view, not the subjective POV of the flashback-witness. Reardon learns the dry facts of who cheated who, in a convenient chronological order. But only we are privy to the lush narrative vision of Ole's downfall. 4
Elwood "Woody" Bredell's chiaroscuro lighting sometimes seems to be bathing the show in pools of darkness and light. The opening scene is a static angle from the back seat of a car speeding through the night, with the driver and his passengers rendered as silhouettes. It would become a key noir visual, as repeated in Out of the Past, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, Kiss Me Deadly and referenced much later in Taxi Driver. The obsessive, destructive love of Ole for Kitty was already a noir staple, and would be further elaborated in Siodmak's followup with Lancaster, Criss Cross, a story about similarly doomed characters. The pairing of Lancaster and Gardner generated real sparks, as Burt's attraction for Ava's toxic beauty soaks right through the screen. Lancaster's initial screen appeal was as a beefy dreamboat prone to going without a shirt. I know Gable did the same thing, but did Burt initiate a new trend in overt male sex appeal?
The screenplay for The Killers gives an exciting answer for the big 'why' in Hemingway's short story. Along the way Siodmak and his stellar writers treat us to a gallery of grotesques, from Albert Dekker's dour Mr. Big to all-purpose bad guy Jack Lambert's moronic thug, appropriately nicknamed Dum Dum. In the present tense, O'Brien's cheerful insurance investigator and cop friend Sam Levene will eventually be tracked down by the hit men from the original short story. Al and Max are played by radio star William Conrad and newcomer heavy Charles McGraw. They're a lethal Laurel and Hardy, hardboiled angels of death. Their long absence from the story results in a big jolt when they suddenly re-materialze at a crucial moment, out of a neutral wide shot. They're ready to kill ... with a blast of Miklos Rozsa music recognizable as the later signature theme from Dragnet!
Edmond O'Brien alternated between feature leads and major supporting roles in pictures with bigger stars. Here he still has a touch of the post-adolescent kid in his smile. Every part is a great face delivering a nicely-observed performance: Jeff Corey, Vince Barnett. Policeman's wife Virginia Christine is quite attractive, twenty years before her days as Mrs. Olsen of the coffee commercials. Ms. Christine came back for Don Siegel's 1964 remake. Siodmak doesn't rush these people -- meek Queenie Smith (Show Boat) gets a great showcase scene with O'Brien, trying to remember why the Swede would list her as his insurance beneficiary.
Reardon wraps up the loose ends in the sad case off Ole Andersen, The Swede Who Didn't Run, running the last villains to ground. But the gnawing pessimism stays with us, as do Ole's last words: "I did something wrong, once." For another decade, Films Noir would make fatal losers into romantic martyrs.
Arrow Academy's Region B Blu-ray of The Killers improves greatly on Criterion's early DVD edition. The image looks extremely good, with only a random scratch showing through now and then.
The show overall is stable and has excellent contrast; I only noticed a couple of places where the whites were blown out a little. Some noirs affect a stock dark style or go for an occasional expressive lighting effect, but Woody Bredell (Phantom Lady) gives this one the works. Almost all of the flashbacks are stylized, and when Reardon and Lubinsky close in on their quarry the high contrast look invades the present tense as well. The strong audio track showcases Miklos Rosza's terrific music score, using his same urgent, suspenseful style that dominated the first seven years of noir. 2
Arrow again pays special attention to its extras. Frank Krutnik's piece analyzes several scenes from the movie, and Philip Booth goes even more acacdemic with an examination of the short story, Siodmak's film, Andrei Tarkovsky's 1956 Russian film school version, and Don Siegel's later 1964 remake.
The disc sleeve is reversible, with poster artwork on one side and Jay Shaw's new interpretation on the other. The extras begin with a Isolated M&E track, which gives us Rosza's music free of dialogue, if not sound effects. It's a pleasing, almost surreal way to watch the movie, as the music tracks the film's emotional tension with great precision. Arrow has produced two new visual essays. Frank Krutnik's piece analyzes several scenes from the movie, and Philip Booth goes even more academic with an examination of the Hemingway's short story, Siodmak's film, Andrei Tarkovsky's 1956 Russian film school version, and Don Siegel's later remake. 1
One of the three radio versions included is a Jack Benny spoof, with Edward G. Robinson as one of the nasty hit men. A gallery of stills and posters follows, and four trailers for Arrow releases wind things up. The 38-page insert booklet contains an essay by Sergio Angelini, who says that writer Richard Brooks was responsible for the storyline of The Killers, not John Huston. That's followed by some welcome contemporary English reviews, and reprinted articles with director Siodmak, producer Mark Hellinger and cameraman Woody Bredell. All in all, an illuminating and entertaining package. The disc and booklet producer is Michael Brooke.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Killers Region B Blu-ray rates:
1. One reason to hang onto the old Criterion disc: it contains the full Tarkovsky student film, intact. It's an impressive little movie... it's odd to think of Russians in the 1950s intrigued by the hardboiled American pulp style.
2. Most of Rozsa's noir tracks sound similar, if not interchangeable -- they're dynamic, forceful yet never overwhelm the visuals. When he rounded up movies for his noir spoof Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid Carl Reiner found that Rozsa composed many of them. The tracks he excerpted meshed quite well -- and he hired Rosza to compose new music to tie them together!
3. An interesting thing happens in the very last shot of The Killers. The story has wrapped up, Reardon is making an exit, and suddenly he turns and gives big farewell smile and tip of the hat to his boss in the insurance company. Although the movie is a serious drama, the filmmakers aren't taking it so seriously as to maintain a grim ending ... after all, the boss just delivered the equivalent of a joke curtain line. But Reardon's smile back to the camera is also sort of a personal 'See ya!" from O'Brien himself, a star exit (although he gets third billing).
Every time I see it, it reminds me of the end of Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, where William Holden exits down a hole in a prison barrack. It's a serious scene, but Holden immediately pops back up and gives a similar 'So long, pal!' salute, more or less to the camera. Is the character Sefton ust poking fun at his bunkmates? That seems unlikely, because they all hate each other. Or is it a personal thing from Holden to the audience, saying, 'I had the time of my life here, and after Sunset Blvd. I'd play any character for Billy Wilder anywhere, any time.' Critic Richard Corliss raked Billy Wilder over the coals for Holden's gesture, which Corliss said undermined the film's cynicism with more cynicism. Siodmak's finish isn't such a big deal, and you can't say for sure that Reardon/O'Brien is really breaking character. It's just a little coda, a happy gesture for the fade out. Perhaps producer Hellinger did it to make the front office happy -- the movie doesn't have a lot of laughs. Was it maybe a wild take Siodmak and O'Brien did for fun?
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.