The Killers (1946)
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Produced by Mark Hellinger
Screenplay by Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks (uncredited), John Huston (uncredited)
Based on the short story “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway
Cinematography by Woody Bredell
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Edited by Arthur Hilton
(1:43) Criterion Blu-ray
The second film in the Noirvember Film Noir Festival at the Severna Park Library
The second feature at our Noirvember festival drew an even bigger crowd than we had last week for Double Indemnity. Maybe this film noir thing is catching on…
The year was 1946. WWII was over and servicemen had returned home, proud to have won the war (and rightly so), but many thought they would return to something of a utopia. What many of them found was just the opposite: a world filled with doubt, anxiety, and dread. Something was wrong. Such feelings began to be reflected in American films from that year, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep, Gilda, and at least two films dealing directly with the plight of veterans returning home, The Blue Dahlia and Somewhere in the Night. Audiences were clearly ready for harder-hitting films that exposed the dark underbelly of American society and film noir movies certainly fit that bill.
The Killers is sometimes called the Citizen Kane of film noir, since both movies begin with deaths shrouded in mystery with investigators (a reporter in Kane, an insurance investigator in The Killers) seeking to discover the truth with the audience. Insurance man Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) can’t understand why a man called the Swede (Burt Lancaster) would refuse to run, knowing that two killers are on their way to end his life. “I did something wrong once,” the Swede confesses to his friend Nick Adams (Phil Brown) and Reardon spends the rest of the film finding out what that wrong thing was.
Like last week’s Double Indemnity, The Killers involves an insurance man, a femme fatale, a score by Miklós Rózsa, and flashbacks. Although Double Indemnity involved primarily one long flashback, The Killers makes use of 10 (or 11, depending on your definition) flashbacks. “But don’t worry,” I informed the audience, “you’ll be able to keep up.”
The cast is a who’s who of film noir: Burt Lancaster, Charles McGraw, William Conrad, Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert, Edmond O’Brien, and Jeff Corey, all of whom you’ll see again many, many times if you continue down the dark, rain-soaked streets of film noir. You’ll also encounter director Robert Siodmak on these travels in such films as Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Spiral Staircase, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, The File on Thelma Jordan, Criss Cross, and more.
The film is based on an Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name, and although the film is done with the Hemingway source material after the first 15 minutes, Hemingway went on record stating that The Killers was “the only good picture ever made of a story of mine.”
Although you’ll see in the opening credits that the screenwriter for this film is Anthony Veiller, he didn’t write it. The script was written by John Huston, who was uncredited because of his contract at Warner Bros., and Richard Brooks, who went on to write screenplays for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood, and many others. Hellinger didn’t credit Brooks because he was a first-time writer. Veiller, a writer under contract at Universal, got the credit even though he probably didn’t write a word of the script. That’s how Hollywood sometimes worked then (and probably does now).
After the film, we talked a bit about Lancaster’s career, including the fact that while The Killers was the first released movie to star Lancaster, he actually filmed Desert Fury first, but that film wasn’t released until a year later. That was probably a stroke of luck for Lancaster, since Desert Fury (a film noir in color) wasn’t well received and didn’t offer the actor the showcase he got in The Killers.
If the woman playing Lily, Swede’s first girlfriend, looks familiar, that’s because she’s Virginia Christie. You’d know her as Mrs. Olsen from the Folgers Coffee commercials.
I also mentioned Hellinger’s unlikely transition from East Coast journalist to Hollywood producer, his elevating Ava Gardner from an underused actress at MGM to stardom, and his untimely death one year after The Killers (at age 44) as he was on his way to becoming a major Hollywood producer.
One gentleman in the audience commented, “I must’ve been looking too closely at Ava Gardner, since my wife kept poking me in the ribs every time Gardner was onscreen.” Who could blame him? Gardner looks fantastic in the film (as does Lancaster). They literally don’t make ‘em like Gardner and Lancaster anymore. If we’d taken a poll last night, I’m betting most of the guys would willingly go ahead and steal for Ava Gardner.
The audience thought the story was terrific and enjoyed trying to piece everything together through the flashbacks. One lady in the audience commented that she was somewhat surprised that the film didn’t take place in either New York or Los Angeles. Hey, noir can happen anywhere.
We didn’t take a vote as to whether Phillis Dietrichson or Kitty Collins would win the “Most Evil Femme Fatale” award, but it would’ve been a good contest. Since almost every femme fatale doesn’t want to work for a living, and would rather spend some man’s money, leaving him (usually to die) when the money’s all hers, it’s hard to determine which woman has hit the lowest depths.
Although everyone agreed that the Swede is a hopeless dope for falling for Kitty, some still felt sorry for the lug. I mentioned that if you continue to watch film noir, you’ll see Lancaster fall into the same trap again (although with a different actress), and even with the same director at the helm.
We’ll wrap up our Noirvember series next Thursday at 6:15pm with Out of the Past (1947). If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll join us.
Photos: DVD Beaver, IMDb, Hollywood’s Golden Age, Wikipedia, Fold3, Sense of Cinema, Flickr