Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pantheon movie of the month - THE KILLERS

If there's one thing in this world I hate, it's a double-crossing dame.THE KILLERS is a great film noir, originally released in 1946, and back on release as part of the British Film Institute's Burt Lancaster retrospective. It's now seen as the film that launched Lancaster's career, and one of the best examples of Ava Gardner's explosive screen prescence.

The movie opens with a prologue taken from an Ernest Hemingway short story. Two assassins enter a simple diner in a small town and menace the owner, his chef and an innocent bystander. They're waiting for a garage mechanic who evidently had a previous life running with wrong crowd. Echoes of HISTORY OF VIOLENCE abound. It becomes apparent that the mechanic won't be coming in and the assassins leave. The bystander then runs through the town of picket fences to warn him. It's an exhilerating scene but culminates in an outstandingly dark, brooding scene in a boarding house. The friend bursts into the mechanic's room. He's lying on his bed, his face entirely in shadow. With a morbid passivity, he thanks his friend for coming, sends him away and wait to die. Echoes of JESSE JAMES offering his back to the coward ROBERT FORD.

The rest of the movie is, like that film, a "whydunnit", penned by Anthony Veillor and John Huston. Why did the mechanic, known as the Swede, aka Ole Andersen aka Robert Lund, refuse to run? Why didn't he want to live? The answers will be uncovered by an insurance investigator played by Edmond O'Brien. And really, this is his film in terms of screen time. In a series of CITIZEN KANE style flashbacks, he'll interview people who knew the Swede and recreate his motives.

Burt Lancaster is a charismatic presence but is only ever refracted in other people's memories. He's the boxer, forced onto the sidelines by an injury and a brutally capitalistic manager. He's the dumb lug patsy hooked by Ava Gardner's gangster's moll - so obvious and vulnerable it's painful to watch. He's the fall guy for her crime, and even upon release, when she's left him for another man, he goes along with a heist in order to be close to her. Finally, he's a broken man, violent with rage, intent on self-harm.

The supporting cast is absolutely cracking and the story hangs together in a way that a Raymond Chandler novel never does. The feel of the movie is cool and detached, maybe because it's told through the eyes of the dispassionate insurance man. All the time, this tragic love story is reduced to an irrelevance - almost daring the audience to feel involved. The insurance boss tells the investigator that all he's achieved in solving the mystery is to lower the insurance premium in 1947 by a fraction of a cent. Such is the worth of The Swede. Behind the camera, we get a great orchestral score by Miklos Rozsa and superb cinematography from Woody Bredell. There's a lot of use of crane shots and characters on different levels of a building - allowing interesting perspectives and depth of vision. The continuous crane shot of the heist is particularly memorable.

It all adds up to a great film noir, not so much because of Lancaster - although he's great in it - but because of Robert Siodmak's superb ensemble cast and bleak vision.

THE KILLERS was originally released in 1946 - the year of BRIEF ENCOUNTERS, NOTORIOUS and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. It was nominated for Oscars for Best Director, Best Editor (Arthur Hilton), Best Score (Miklos Rozsa) and Best Screenplay (Anthony Veiller) but lost out not to any of these great films but to the Myrna Loy WW2 romance, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES! THE KILLERS is currently playing at the BFI Southbank as part of the Burt Lancaster retrospective, and is widely available on DVD.


  1. I'll be honest, I've actually got both versions of this on the Criterion 2 DVD set, but I've only watched the Lee Marvin/Ronald Reagan version. Should really watch the other one.

  2. Ah, man, you have a treat in store! The remake's not bad - Cassavetes is good - but it's not a patch on the original!