Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Film Noir Series: The Killers (1946)

My latest Film Noir entry for Next Projection. The eleventh film on my list is The Killers (1946).

Back in 1927, right in the thick of the Roaring Twenties, Ernest Hemingway published a short story about two cold-blooded killers and the poor, unlucky soul they were hired to kill.

Director Robert Siodmak's noir classic uses the opening 15 minutes to adapt Hemingway's piece. The two titular killers wander into a late-night diner looking for a former prizefighter known as "the Swede". After tossing around a few threats, they leave. A young man, unnerved by the menacing strangers, heads off to tell his Swedish friend that the men are after him and asks him why. The Swede, cast in dark shadows as he reclines on his bed, appears resigned to his fate, telling his friend: "I did something wrong ...once."

Although The Killers credits Hemingway as the source material for its premise, in reality it's through the combined efforts of director Siodmak and screenwriter Anthony Veiller that this noir gets its chilling sense of dread. They set out to answer the questions that Hemingway left open-ended. Why didn't the Swede run? Why were the hitmen hot on his trail?

The Killers fleshes out the backstory, picking up the pieces from where Hemingway left off. It follows the downward spiral of Ole "the Swede" Andreson (Burt Lancaster, in his film debut) as he gets involved with a gang of thieves in an attempt to impress the enigmatic Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). The film opens with guns blazing as the Swede is killed in the opening frame, leaving his personal narrative to be told in flashback from a variety of different characters' perspectives. When insurance investigator Jim Riordan (Edmond O'Brien) tries to uncover the mystery as to why the reclusive Swede left his entire small fortune to a hotelier named Queenie (Queenie Smith), he unwittingly unravels a complex, twisted plot involving double-crossings, backstabbings and robbery.

With its natural, conversationalist dialogue, The Killers is a chilling example of noir at its finest. Siodmak and Veiller wisely chose to let some of Hemingway's original dialogue remain, as his short story provides a springboard from which the director and screenwriter flesh out a richly characterized story about a good man who ultimately chooses the wrong path. A man whose tragic flaw is his willingness to put his trust in anyone he comes in contact with.
Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster
With a fragmented, labyrinthine plot, The Killers seamlessly blends more than 10 flashback sequences -- each one more revealing than the last. The most compelling of these involves the Swede's initial introduction to the alluring Kitty, a slinky dame whom he first glimpses sharing a bench with the piano player at a late-night dinner party.

The sultry Gardner is a casting coup, with a soft voice and beautiful face that masks Kitty's rotten core. She's perfectly paired with then-newcomer Lancaster who gives a beautifully restrained performance that benefits from the subtle nuances he instills in his charactization of the Swede.

The Killers is a lushly filmed caper with an unrelenting score and absorbing melodrama to spare. The ultimate noir, the film uses recognizable tropes of the genre -- from the flashback sequences to the investigation headed by a hard-nosed authority figure -- to gradually build its story. The pacing is slow and deliberate, choosing to indulge in slow reveals instead of high-octane thrills.

And, in the end, it rewards the audiences patience by expertly weaving together all the loose narrative threads into a tragic, albeit satisfying, conclusion.