The more I delve through the cinematic archives, the clearer it becomes that the 1940s was the decade for film noir. Like Double Indemnity two years earlier, The Killers, made in 1946, is a terrific example of the genre. Once again, I watched this classic for the first time a couple of days ago and am amazed that I’d never seen it before. I make it no secret that I’ve always been a great fan of the genre.
The Killers is the title of a short story by Ernest Hemingway and the first twelve minutes of the film which sees a pair of hit men enter a diner one evening in their search for and ambush of “Swede” Andreson is a faithful adaptation of his writing. Played by William Conrad (later of TV’s Cannon and Jake and the Fatman fame) and Charles McGraw, the two assassins open the movie with an incredible sense of menace and deadly intent. The dialogue is sharp and typical of tough guys of the era and you are immediately gripped by the tension and sense of foreboding.
Their mission is to kill Swede (Burt Lancaster) who they know comes in every evening at around 6pm for his dinner but tonight he’s late and the diner’s owner manages to convince the gun men that he won’t be coming in so late. So they leave the diner and head for Swede’s apartment. Swede’s co-worker, who was in the diner when the killers arrived, bolts out the back way and warns Swede that the men are coming for him but Swede, laying on his bed in a cold sweat of resignation, makes no attempt to escape. The killers break in his door and gun him down. Brilliant, brilliant opening.
The rest of the film (an original screenplay co-written by an uncredited John Huston) follows life insurance investigator Jim Reardon (the always excellent Edmond O’Brien) who has been assigned to locate and pay the beneficiary of Swede’s policy. As he tracks down and interviews the dead man’s friends and associates and slowly pieces together the puzzle of Swede’s life, we learn through well-constructed flashbacks that the Swede was involved in a $250,000 heist and then how he came to meet his demise the way he did.
Being a noir, the film obviously has a big cheese bad guy and a delicious femme fatale and Albert Dekker and Ava Gardner fill these roles superbly, respectively of course. Indeed, the entire cast is well put together and Lancaster, 33 years old and in his screen debut, plays his role of a pro boxer washed up through injury then falling for a mobster’s girl and mixing with the wrong crowd admirably. He has a likability and the unmistakable presence that would quickly make him a star.
The black and white cinematography, so often a defining trademark of the noir genre, doesn’t disappoint here. There are many moments of beauty where starkness, shadow and silhouette take turns to create mood and enhance the atmosphere. Sometimes it’s worth watching these films just to see what the director is doing and in this case, Robert Siodmark, a pupil of the highly influential school of German Expressionism really knew his beans. The lighting inside Swede’s apartment when Reardon encounters “Dum Dum” looking for the loot and then later inside the Green Cat night club towards the end of the film are just perfect. Check it out and see what I mean.
All in all, a great film and a great noir. The use of flashback gives it a different feel to the usual main character narrative but it takes nothing away. Full of colourful, untrustworthy characters and intrigue, it’s definitely another one worth watching.