Friday, February 14, 2014

The Killers (1946)

In 2003, Criterion released 2 filmed adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" in one cool set.  Here is the older....

(the review of the newer version can be found at The Killers (1964))

The stage is set as well as I have ever seen in a noir. Perhaps for any film. The opening moments of director Robert Siodmak's THE KILLERS from 1946 follow a pair of tough talking hitmen named Al and Max as they intimidate proprieter and customer alike in a diner in a non-descript town. They're looking for a guy named Ole Anderson aka "The Swede" who works at the gas station across the way. Their words are terse and clipped, much like the style of the Hemingway story upon which this film is based.  As menacingly played by Charles McGraw and William Conrad, the killers of the title announce with rapid fire dialogue the sort of story we're to witness, a mean tale about to unfold in language that is of the streets yet clinical, and heartless. A brutal poetry. Full of portent.  In the next scene, they track down their target in a dingy room; Anderson makes no effort to escape and is gunned down. As if Swede (Burt Lancaster, in his feature debut) had resigned his fate and was even expecting them.  His expression recalled for me a line Clint Eastwood uttered in a movie, "We all got it comin', kid."

Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmund O'Brien), hired to find Swede's beneficiary, wonders why. Why the guy didn't flee and what lead him to such squalor. In the process he becomes fascinated and obsessed with this curious scenario, asking his patient boss for extra time to go far beyond the scope of his job to play detective. THE KILLERS features a gallery of colorful players who figure into the plot, beginning with Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), an old friend of Swede's, and a group of petty criminals with nicknames like Blinky (Jeff Corey) and Dum Dum (Jack Lambert). Their ringleader Colfax (Alfred Dekker, excellent) has more than a passing acquaintance with Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), for whom Swede falls in a multitude of ways.

Directors Richard Brooks and John Huston are two of the screenwriters (along with Anthony Veiller) for THE KILLERS, and the lines they give their characters crackle from those opening sequences straight on to fadeout. Each bit of speech giving punctuation to a serpentine crime drama that rings like hot ammo. Their plotting is sharp. This is a flashback laden story, each character recalling the Swede with sad faces, as if they are barely surprised to learn of what became of him. He coulda been a contender, a boxer with talent until he broke his hand. What else can a has-been fighter do but turn to the other side of the law? Especially when there is a dame to woo?

Gardner blows smoke, drapes herself over beds, crosses her legs, and beguiles everyone; she is one of the best femme fatales to ever burn up the screen. She does the duplicitous temptress with a vengeance, though never overdoing things, edging into camp.  I'm sure Linda Fiorentino studied her closely for her own memorably wicked portrayal in THE LAST SEDUCTION. 

Miklos Rosza's score perfectly accompanies and even accentuates the action. Fans of a certain Jack Webb series may recognize a familiar element to it.

Siodmak directs several masterful moments, including a restaurant sequence which gives viewers a perfect scorecard for each character: Kitty tries to hide stolen earrings in a bowl of soup, Lubinsky catches on, and Swede takes the rap. It's left to Reardon to piece together the final plot/scheme. By the time we reach the final scene on the staircase nearly every character in the story is revealed to be a victim in one way or another. Perhaps THE KILLERS (and Hemingway) were arguing such a metaphor for Life Itself? Is it indeed pointless to run when the shadows of an Al and Max darken your door?

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