Tuesday, July 7, 2009

1946: The Killers (Robert Siodmak)

Released: August 28, 1946

Director: Robert Siodmak; Screenplay: Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks (uncredited), John Huston (uncredited) based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway; Cinematography: Elwood Bredell; Studio: Universal Pictures; Producer: Mark Hellinger

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Ole “Swede” Andersen), Ava Gardner (Kitty Collins), Edmond O’Brien (Jim Reardon), Albert Dekker (Big Jim Colfax), Sam Levene (Lt. Sam Lubinsky), Vince Barnett (Charleston), Virginia Christine (Lily Harmon Lubinsky), Charles McGraw (Al), William Conrad (Max), Charles D. Brown (Packy Robinson), Jack Lambert (Dum-Dum Clarke), Donald McBride (R.S. Kenyon)

No, I don’t intend to turn this into the Year’s Best Noir Countdown, but I can understand how someone could begin thinking that. That’s not my intention, but there is no denying the fact that film noir has always been a favorite genre of mine. This attraction to noir is largely responsible for me becoming interested in film and its history and starting down the path that has allowed me to become a full-fledged movie junkie. So it really should be no surprise that in these years of the 1940s and 50s that the countdown is going to be chock full of films from this golden age of noir. As great a year as 1946 was – and it truly was great – I just could not pick a film from this year that I enjoy more than The Killers.

As hard as 1939 was for me in making a selection, I think that 1946 was even more difficult. The roster of worthy films from 1939 may have been deeper, but there were always a few frontrunners that distanced themselves from the other possible choices. But I honestly changed my mind on this pick a few times while attempting to begin a review for the next entry. There are a number of iconic films from 1946. It’s a Wonderful Life is arguably _the_ Christmas film. The Best Years of Our Lives is legendary in its portrayal of the postwar malaise that troubled many returning veterans. The Big Sleep brought together the various talents of Hawks, Bogart, Bacall, Faulkner and Chandler. Great Expectations is often regarded as the best film adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel. And yet, each time I would nearly settle on one of these choices, I would always return to The Killers. All it took was re-watching that classic opening scene another time and the choice was made for me.

The aforementioned opening scene and the killing that follows are the only parts of the film based on Ernest Hemingway’s original short story. The biting dialogue and wisecracks of the two hitmen, sent to kill an ex-boxer named Swede for an unknown reason, is possibly the best part of film. The killers, Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad), banter with the owner and make clear that they are hired guns simply doing a job. I always smirk when Al asks “What do you do here nights?” and Max mockingly answers “They all come here and eat the big dinner.” The killers then proceed to fulfill their contract, bumping off Swede (Burt Lancaster) without incident.

Following these first 20 minutes, the story is entirely new. Screenwriter Anthony Veiller (apparently with uncredited help from John Huston and Richard Brooks), crafts a story to fill in the background of events that led Swede Andersen to willingly lay in bed and allow gunmen to kill him. The idea of taking a short story like this, which makes perfectly clear that our main character is murdered, and then creating a suspenseful mystery by filling in the details through flashbacks, is very interesting. It doesn’t matter that we know that the Swede will ultimately be murdered. As you follow insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) researching the life of the Swede, it becomes intriguing to discover how the Swede fell from a first-rate boxing attraction to someone who seemed to welcome his own death. In this sense, the structure of the film is very much like that of Citizen Kane, where we know where things will end but are absorbed in finding out how the story will reach that point.

The plot centers on the Swede after he realizes that his fighting career is over. No longer able to make his living in the ring, Andersen finds that the most lucrative career choice is to enter the numbers racket and work his way up in the underworld. In the process, he becomes enamored with Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), the girlfriend of powerful hoodlum Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). After Swede takes a rap for Kitty and goes to prison to keep her out of trouble, he emerges from jail and is drawn into a robbery scheme put together by Colfax. From there, double-crosses and backstabbing emerge as various members turn on each other. Kitty runs out on Swede and Swede in turn retreats to the small town life he was leading before his murder.

Director Robert Siodmak is not only a celebrated noir director, but one of my all-time favorite directors of any genre. Not knowing the specifics of the production, it is hard for me to pinpoint precisely who is most responsible for the look of this film, so I’ll go ahead and give co-credit to both Siodmak and cinematographer Elwood Bredell. The majority of the film is shot in interiors that are extremely dark. Just witness the image of the Swede lying in bed, surrounded by shadows, listening as his murders scale the stairs to his room. Such dark images are contrasted by the few scenes taking place outside, such as when Reardon visits Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) and they have lemonade on his roof. These scenes are much brighter, creating an interesting distinction between the two settings. These brighter images reinforce the dark underworld that the Swede has entered, and also offer a glimpse of the life that he could have led if he had followed in the footsteps of friends like Lubinsky.

I know people whose opinions I respect that feel scenes like the opening moments in the diner and other times in this film come across as cheesy. I cannot possibly disagree more, but I’ve realized that changing personal tastes is a completely futile exercise. The Killers will always have a special place for me, as it was the film that convinced me that Burt Lancaster was a truly brilliant actor and that Robert Siodmak is a man who deserves much more praise than he currently receives. It is still amazing for me to think that this was Lancaster’s debut film. Still, I am honest enough to admit that this is not a perfect film, as the sudden change in attitude of the Swede as he moves from pugilist to numbers man comes across as rather abrupt and not well-developed. But such a shortcoming is more than made up for by Siodmak’s deft direction and the way that Hemingway’s entertaining short story is expanded in reverse. It is among a handful of my favorite noirs.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1946: As I said earlier in the review, I find 1946 to be an absolutely monstrous year. There are a number of movies that were very near being chosen. The most iconic film of the year is undoubtedly Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. While I’ve reiterated many times that I am not a huge Capra fan, even I have to admit that I love It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart is superb as George Bailey. The winner of Best Pictures in this year, though, was actually William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives and it is the film that made the strongest bid to supplant The Killers. The trio of performances from Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell amazes me every time I watch it. William Wyler was such a consistently solid director it is amazing and it seems that I am always listing his films in this “Other Contenders” section.

There were also a number of other noirs from this year that I love and watch regularly. I mentioned Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep earlier and love the interaction between Bogart and Bacall. Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford work together in Gilda to create a film that I probably enjoy even more than The Big Sleep. I know many people that find The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett) to be boring, but I think that it is another great adaptation of a James M. Cain novel. Lana Turner is irresistible and stunningly gorgeous in this movie. While not necessarily a noir, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious contains similar elements and is a top-notch thriller.

There are two other films that I expect will receive support as the best of this year. David Lean’s Great Expectations is a very good film, if not necessarily a favorite of mine. I also suspect that there will be many admirers of the John Ford film My Darling Clementine. Surprisingly, this is one that I do not like. This is something of a shock because I love all of the following things: westerns, John Ford, Henry Fonda, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday. And I’m usually not a stickler for historical accuracy and often willingly overlook writers and directors taking liberties with facts. But being familiar with the actual story of Tombstone and Earp, this one just rubbed me the wrong way. I have never been able to warm to it.


  1. The Killers is a great film and reportedly one of the few Hemingway adaptions the man himself endorsed, presumably because the part of it that actually was his story was rendered pretty faithfully. But on my list for 1946 it has to yield to the Archers' A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven), the other great supernatural comedy-drama of the year and more dazzling in its imaginative sweep than Wonderful Life. You're going to see a lot of Powell and Pressburger for these next few years; I think they can take all comers in a succession of formidable fields, and if anything the competition gets tougher in 1947 and 1948.

  2. My #1 Film of 1946:

    It's A Wonderful Life (Capra)


    Shoeshine (De Sica; Italy)
    La Belle et la Bete (Cocteau; France)
    Great Expectations (Lean; UK)
    A Matter of Life and Death (Powell/Pressburger;UK)
    Five Women Around Utamaro (Mizoguchi; Japan)
    Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (Eisenstein; Russia)
    My Darling Clementine (Ford)
    Notorious (Hitchcock)
    The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak)
    The Big Sleep (Hawks)
    Voyage Surprise (Prevert; France)
    The Yearling (Brown)
    The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett)
    The Killers (Siodmak)

    The Italian SHOESHINE and the French LA BELE ET LA BETE make a very strong bid for the top position in this admittedly tremendous year, while both Samuel Wilson's adored A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and David Lean's GREAT EXPECTATIONS come close as well. My absolute favorite P & P though, is BLACK NARCISSUS, but MATTER is a masterpieces as well.

    IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is much more than a holiday film, it challenges THE WIZARD OF OZ as the most beloved of all American films, and it's Capra's greatest film of all. It's immense popularity over the last three decades should not be taken for granted, it is every bit as deserving of its reputation and accolades, and timeless in its implications.

    SHOESHINE is a shattering neo-realist masterwork, LA BELE ET LA BETE is one of the most beautiful and beloved films in all of French cinema, and the Charles Dickens-David Lean collaboration is one of the glories of British cinema.

    I respect your great love for THE KILLERS, which I do like, but oddly, my favorite Siodmak of the year is THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. The Hitchcock, Ford, Mizoguchi, Eisenstein, Hawks and others here are first-rate classics of the cinema.

    I just want to say that I am no fan of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, which I have always found stilted and very dated.

    The love you have for THE KILLERS is borne out in yet another insightful essay in what has become a most popular series, one that many here, including myself are hopelessly addicted to. I think its time for me to give the film another look, though the last time I saw it was maybe two years ago. As you mention, I know Hemingway himself validated it.

  3. Dave – as much as I love film noir and “The Killers”, I have to go along with “Shoeshine”, a brilliant work. I have not seen it since the 1970’s but it has stuck in my mind, much like DeSica’s later film “The Bicycle Thief.” Hitchcock’s “Notorious” is also way up there.

    You mention that you were not trying to turn this into a film noir countdown but that is difficult to avoid since the mid to late 1940’s were golden years for films from the dark side of town. The film also made Ava Gardner a star and Siodmak is one of the great noir directors!

    #1 Shoeshine

    Best of the rest

    The Killers
    It’s a Wonderful Life
    The Best Years of Our Lives
    The Big Sleep
    The Postman always Rings Twice
    My Darling Clementine

  4. Samuel - I have to admit to only being a moderate P&P fan. They have a number of films that I kind of like, but not much that I've really fallen in love with.

    Sam - Thanks for the kind words on the countdown... I'm glad that there have a been a number of folks who seem to be following it regularly! That is quite a list of runner-ups for this year, reinforcing what a great year this was.

    John - I have to admit that I have not seen your #1 film "Shoeshine." After seeing both you and Sam speak highly of, I'm going to need to try and track down a copy.

  5. Dave, I'm not an unconditional Archers fan -- I regard the likes of Tales of Hoffman and Oh Rosalinda with a shrug -- but we're into their peak years right now. I probably should reassure Sam that I do hold Wonderful Life in high regard, though I wouldn't call it Capra's best. Shoeshine is also an unknown quantity to me, though I ought to have seen it long ago. Once upon a time I assumed the neorealists were boring but I know better now.

  6. Thanks for that clarification on IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Samuel. Your love of the Archers is a beautiful thing, and I actually do love TALES OF HOFFMAN too.

    But when we are talking masterpiece, there is little difference. Who could argue with your choice of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH as best film of 1946? No serious film lover would or could. That is a tremendous film, no doubt.

  7. I think seeing those whose film opinions and tastes I very much respect (that being all of you guys -- Sam, John, and Samuel!) might make me revisit some films that I did not initially take to. I'm mainly looking toward "My Darling Clementine" when saying this, but Samuel's love of "A Matter of Life and Death" also applies!

  8. Without question, I'd go for It's a Wonderful Life this year. For any film, let alone for a "holiday classic" with a comic-relief angel and the infamous sentiment of the final scene, It's a Wonderful Life is really dark, really sophisticated, really resonant stuff. Precisely because it sets up the warmth of Bedford Falls and seems to believe in the happiness of the Bailey family, the film's depiction of George's breakdown rings truer than it would it in a more easily cynical latter-day film. That THIS George Bailey in THIS movie can lash out at his family makes it all the more powerful. Furthermore, the fact that this is not built around a conventionally melodramatic plot outline, but the painfully realistic problem of a misplacement of funds - a harshly mundane crime - only adds the realistic tenor of the plot. And the way the film builds up to this moment, establishing all the characters of the town, building the tensions and cultivating the agonies, laying out its history in correspondence to the familiar back stories of so many audiences of the time (the jaunty postwar liveliness of the Roaring Twenties, the tough grit and determination of the Depression years, the "we're-all-in-it-together" out-in-the-world spirit of World War II): all of this makes for what may be the most full-out, exacting portrait of America between the wars ever put on film, and an overwhelmingly powerful portrait of an individual, unique yet relatable - the dreamer everyone's known, for whom circumstances, both local and global, and the tug of his own conscience and sense of responsibility, prevent dreams from coming to fruition. In some ways, It's a Wondeful Life may be the great American film, not with the emphasis on film - there are certainly plenty of movies created in America which give it a run for its money, or surpass it in terms of flawless execution and technical or narrative sophistication, among other criteria - but with the emphasis on "American." I can think of few other films which provide as unerring, as comprehensive, as moving a portrait of the American character and American life.

    Ironically, of course, one movie which comes close ALSO came out this year: The Best Years of Our Lives is another phenomenal masterpiece, also a kind of reportage on the American state of mind and national character. But this film is a snapshot rather than a panorama, a portrait of current events rather than recent memory, and if It's a Wonderful Life captures a moment just passed (the era from 1919 to 1945) Best Years looks forward into the postwar future, especially with Dana Andrews' speech at the end of the film.

    I'd argue that perhaps 1946 surpasses 1939 as the greatest year in cinema - certainly it's one of the banner years for American movies, though foreign films come through with shining colors as well. The reason is easy to suppose - though amazing films were churned out during the war, with the bombs dropped, the Axis surrendered, and (some, anyway) economies booming, there were few distractions left. Plus, the war had changed the mood and this was the beginning of a long era of maturation for both American and European films.

    My Darling Clementine, Notorious, Great Expectations, Beauty and the Beast, and Ivan the Terrible Part II also place highly.

    And, now that we come to it, I have not seen The Killers!

  9. The Killers is a must! I'm sure not many people say this, but I'm obviously a huge Robert Siodmak fan, so I would say definitely seek this one out. It received a great Criterion release and the movie looks awesome on it.

    1946 certainly is a huge year... particularly with noirs, or films with at least noirish elements.