The Film: The Killers (1946)
The Principals: Director: Robert Siodmak Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien
The Premise: Two thugs arrive in a small town, looking for Ole “The Swede” Andersen (Burt Lancaster) and threatening anyone who gets in their way. It’s the opening to a million movies, and one would fully expect the Swede to be loaded for bear when they burst into his room. But he isn’t. He just lies there, waiting, and lets them gun him down.
No one knows why. The townsfolk are baffled. The only clue to go on is that the Swede had life insurance, and named an Irishwoman his beneficiary. Insurance agent Jim Reardon (O’Brien — a staple of any good noir) is assigned to look into the claim. He delves deeper and deeper into the Swede’s sordid past, trying to discover who might have wanted him dead. Did the Swede really do “something bad”? And just how bad was it?
Is It Good: Indeed it is. It has everything! Failed boxers, heists, sullen gangsters, hardboiled slang, diners decorated with bullets, clouds of cigarette smoke, and double-crossing dames. The atmosphere reeks of sweat, dirty hotel rooms, greasy diner food, and Catholic guilt. It’s what makes The Killers one of the great noirs.
And it couldn’t have framed a better man than Burt Lancaster. This is the film that made him a star, and deservedly so. He just fills the frame. Anderson is a brooding and complex antihero, a man who actually refuses to become a cop in favor of a life of quick wealth, law, and disorder. He gets what’s coming to him. And yet, you feel so damn bad for the guy. There’s a streak of goodness in him that completely keeps him at odds with the underworld scum — it’s never manifested, exactly, it’s just there under the skin. He doesn’t belong with these people, he was meant for something greater, but he pursues big paydays with the grim determination he showed in the ring. No 9-5 job for him, even if it means prison or gunfire.
Of course, the dame doesn’t help things. With her sultry gift of an Irish handkerchief, she just makes things that much worse for him.
Is It Worth A Look: Absolutely. As I said, it has everything a good thriller should. The performances are great, the twists and turns are satisfying, and it’s all done so simply. I think it’s a mantra I repeat a lot in these MOD pieces, but in a Michael Bay world it’s never fails to astonish how blase an action scene was. They simply shoot at one another across restaurants or rooftops. No epic jumps. No explosions. No make-shift weapons. No parkour. I don’t know that every film can be shot that way (I do like a little flamboyancy now and again) but it is amazing how effective and tense a point-and-shoot gun fight can be.
The lighting and shadow in this film is pretty legendary. Siodmark was from the German Expressionist school, and it shows. The opening scene alone is a visual treat. I wish films today would be brave enough to wash out faces in a spotlight once and awhile.
Random Cinematic Anecdote: We like to pretend only modern actors do the Method thing, but Lancaster trained with a boxing coach for two months just for the one and only boxing scene. He played it against a real boxer, and if IMDB is implying what I think it is, the fight was essentially real. Maybe someone can confirm or deny that.