Tuesday, April 20, 2010

#5: The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

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; Music: Miklós Rózsa; Producer: Mark Hellinger; Studio: Universal Pictures

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)

After rereading my entry in the annual countdown for 1946, I feel very satisfied and proud of the entry. There isn’t a whole lot that I feel like I can add without getting repetitive. Instead, my thoughts once again turn to the fact that Robert Siodmak is, in my opinion, the most underrated director of the 1940s. He seems to routinely be pigeonholed – The Spiral Staircase is a great horror movie, The Killers is a great noir – but is never talked about in the same breath with the likes of Welles, Ford, Hawks, and others. Certainly the bulk of his work in this period took place in noir, but his greatest movies transcend genre classification. The Killers, Criss Cross, The Spiral Staircase are flat-out great movies. No qualifier needed.

But… since this is a countdown devoted exclusively to film noir, I will go out on a limb and make another bold statement. Robert Siodmak, in my opinion, can make the greatest case to being the finest director to ever work in the genre/style/whatever you want to call it. His best work is of that high of quality.

So I re-post my original review here and once again marvel at how that opening diner scene never ceases to give me goosebumps each time I watch it.


All it took in deciding to place The Killers this high in the countdown was re-watching that classic opening scene another time. 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.


  1. Wow! I am shocked! I was thinking this was going to be your number 1 film, so I am a bit shocked here (lol). Oaky,now that I am over that, THE KILLERS is one great film, a dark gritty noir that imagines what happens after the Heming way short story ends. The openings scenes are photographically superb. A great essay on your part, Dave.

    ...and I agree about Siodmak, he is underserved.

  2. Dave, I'm totally with you on this one! A great pick. I also have to give a shout out to another great score by Miklos Rozsa.

    I'm excited for the final four. Amazing work, Dave!

  3. Cool. My favorite Siodmak movie. Unfortunately, in my country virtually all his awesome films are unavailable, one can buy only some pirate crap with Burt. (The Crimson Pirate? Shudder. It's not VERY bad, and the stunts are pretty cool, but it's very difficult to imagine it was made by the very same Robert Siodmak. Poor man! The same happened to Jacques Tourneur who also had to shoot mainstream adventure crap like The Flame and The Arrow, again with Burt -- instead of making more cool noirs.)

  4. Dave, it's a unique film, as far as I know, in its approach to literary subject matter. It gives us the Hemingway story as is as a base upon which to build its own story and manages to be both faithful and creative in a way that, from what I've read, Hemingway himself approved. As far as noir goes, it's close to definitive what with Rosza's anticipation of the "Dragnet" theme and Ava Gardner in that dress as my own femme-fatale icon -- and it has Edmond O'Brien in it. It'd be in my top five, too.

  5. Its getting repetitive saying this but another great movie lol. This is my favorite Siodmak film. He really is underrated and along with Tourneur, Dassin and Mann should be recognized and heralded more by film history. The Killers and Criss Cross are flat out masterpieces. They Embody everything great about noir.......M.Roca

  6. Yeah, The Killers surely is Top 5 stuff - it is that good a movie. What a marvelous movie this was - everything from the now legendary opening scene to the finale work as good as it possibly could.

    And while Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson was one of the most iconic femme fatale characters, Ava Gardener's incredibly beautiful & (casually) seductive, and even more duplicitous & conniving Kitty Collins was, in my humble opinion, the greatest femme fatale characters ever brought to screen.

    How about a listing of greatest femme fatale characters in the history of film noirs?

  7. My absolute favorite Siodmak film is THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, which of course you've given the red carpet treatment in your exceptional review here, (CRISS CROSS is undoubtably a great film as well) but who's to argue with this placement, or with the general estimation of this underrated director as one of film noir's visionaries. Certainly not me, and I kinda of expected this would place just about in this position, though I keep hedging on what I think the final four will be, and if our beloved Melville will be showing up here. (if indeed his work qualifies, which is still inconclusive). However, I am very confident I do know what #1 will be, though my lips are sealed.

    It could be argued that this film's story is conventional and dated, but the brilliant atmosphere and dialogue and excellent performances are really what count, and as has been mentioned here a number of times it was based on a popular Hemingway story.

    I second Jeffrey's special mention of Miklos Rozsa's score, and then there's Elwood Bredell's superlative cinematography, which is a necessary ingredient for great film noir.

    I love that passionate lead-in, Dave!

  8. John - This was certainly a strong contender for the top spot, but falls just a bit short. This is certainly an all-time classic.

    Jeffrey - Agreed, Roszla is outstanding in this one, as is virtually every other principal.

    Quirky Character - That is a shame, but at least you were able to see this classic!

    Samuel - Love seeing the agreement on the Top 5 placement. Gardner really is spectacular here, and really the entire cast is top flight. I was tempted to move this one just a nudge higher, but couldn't do it based on the competition. And I agree with you about how intriguing the script is, taking just a short story and using it as a springboard to a fully fleshed out tale. I'm surprised this isn't more common than it is/was.

    M.Roca - I agree completely. If I ever did a ranking/list of favorite directors (future idea for a series?!), the men you mention would all be involved and Siodmak would probably rank higher than all of them.

    Shubhajit - It's hard to argue about Gardner here being the ultimate femme fatale - her role here and Phyllis Dietrichson would certainly be the top two contenders (although Jane Greer might have something to say about that too, I suppose!). Excellent thoughts as usual!

    Sam - Yes, The Spiral Staircase is another classic. Siodmak was such a stylist, which shines through in both your favorite of his films and The Killers. As for my #1... well, we will see!