The Killers (1946)

the killersTwo hitmen arrive in a small town under cover of darkness, their shadows stretching out before them like spectral fingers of Doom. Investigating a gas station to find it closed, they go across to a lonely Diner looking for their quarry within. They harass the staff and its lone customer there, looking for a man nicknamed the “Swede” (Burt Lancaster) before finally leaving, frustrated. The customer is Nick Adams, who works at the gas station, and as soon as its safe to leave he rushes out, dashing over backyards to a nearby hotel to warn his friend the Swede. But the Swede refuses to flee or call the police, as if he’s been expecting the hitmen and is resigned to his fate. Nick leaves, confused, and soon after hears a blaze of gunfire from behind him- his friend is dead…

So begins Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, an absolutely first-rate noir that totally lives up to its reputation as being one of the very best of its kind. I’m gradually working my way through the genre and its wonderful just gradually coming across its greats. There really isn’t much I can say about the film, except that its one of those rare films that feels quite perfect: cast, direction, story, cinematography, it all just comes together. Yeah, all for intents and purposes, quite utterly perfect. As a film lover, I just watch this kind of film and soak it up- its why I love movies.

Although highlighted as “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers,” that’s possibly misleading, as the films grim prologue is essentially the entire content of the author’s original short story upon which the film is based; an eight-page story that describes the killers coming to a town and killing their quarry. It sets up a question in the readers mind that its film adaptation tries to answer. Curiously, a subsequent film adaptation from Don Siegel in 1964, starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Clu Gulager, had a quite different tale to unwrap (allegedly, as I haven’t seen the later film yet).

In Siodmak’s film, which none other than John Huston had a hand in writing, the Swede’s last words: “I did something wrong once…” are as intriguing as Kane’s “Rosebud”, and the film goes off into a series of dark, Citizen Kane-like flashbacks and stories, gradually revealing through the memories of those that remember him the truth about the Swede and why he accepted his fate. Its a fascinating tale with some fine twists and turns and memorable characters (and a particularly impressive heist filmed in one crane shot that is really quite ambitious and comes off brilliantly). The Swede is ultimately revealed to be one of the great doomed losers of all noir; another guy who loved the wrong woman and never stood a chance- but there is a real depth to both the character and Burt Lancaster’s performance (in his first movie, no less). His screen chemistry with Ava Gardner is sizzling; yet again here is an actress of whom I am rather unfamiliar, no matter her reputation (just like I am of Rita Hayworth; yeah I have plenty of catching-up to do). Gardner’s Kitty Collins is wonderful; stunningly beautiful and terribly dangerous to any man who can’t resist her. From the moment Lancaster’s character sees her and instantly forgets the woman he walked in with, his fate is sealed. Gotta love these noir.

This is a fantastic film, one of those genuine classics and really anyone who loves film needs to see it (just don’t take as long as I did).

Some connections:

Robert Siodmak next made The Dark Mirror.

Burt Lancaster also appeared in noir I Walk Alone and later one of my favourite films, The Swimmer. Not to mention, of course, his role in the sublime Field of Dreams.

Don Siegel also made the cracking noir film The Lineup.

Edmond O’Brien also appeared in noir 711 Ocean Drive.

Jack Lambert also appeared in noir Kiss Me Deadly.

7 thoughts on “The Killers (1946)

  1. This is a marvelous movie and essential noir, using Hemingway’s story as a jumping off point and building a terrific piece o dark cinema around it. I used to think it was Siodmak’s best noir, and it may well be but I’ve come to believe Criss Cross runs it close and perhaps even shades it.

    1. That’s what impressed me so much with The Killers. The original story is just so short -only 8 pages according to one of the extras on the Arrow disc-and while its a great premise (killers arrive at small town and their target is just waiting for them) its remarkable that they managed to create such an involving and deep storyline from it, and tell it in that Citizen Kane-way which just endlessly fascinates me (Kane is one of my very favourite movies, and a noir copying its structure just seemed a perfect approach to a mystery like this).

      Criss Cross is definitely on my watchlist- there’s an MOC Blu-ray here that I’ll be picking up sometime soon, I just need to get a bit of the backlog cleared once this enforced Wimbledon nonsense is over.

      1. I unreservedly recommend Criss Cross whenever you get around to it and that Blu-ray is very fine, although the movie has always looked pretty good in any format.
        I also recommend hunting down Hemingway’s short story that inspired The Killers, much of the dialogue in the opening sequence is a direct lift, and that dialogue is some of the most effective in the whole movie.

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