Featuring the great Burt Lancaster in his very film debut, The Killers is a compelling noir-crime drama of an ex-fighter, based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story.
The plot follows the prevailing American film noir structure of the 1940's, exploring such themes as the treachery of love and murderous impulse. The unlikely death of a filling station attendant prompts an insurance investigator to solve a puzzle of events that end with the murderer's death.
The film's opening sequence is staged just like Hemingway's story: a man utters his last words, telling the story of how a woman double-crossed him.
Charles McGraw and William Conrad, two killers with a murder contract to execute, enter a diner in search of Swede (Lancaster), about to arrive.
Nick Adams overhears the killers’ plan and goes to the boarding house to warn Swede, who listens to the plot but strangely remains indifferent. Lying on his bed passively, he confesses: “I did something wrong…once).
Cut to insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), whose company has to pay off on the death of Swede. Jim interviews Swede’s friends and associates in an effort to reconstruct his troubled wife.
The Killers presents a narrative that includes multiple flashbacks, all of which must be comprehended to understand the opening scene. The use of flashback is a dominant device in the vocabulary of film noir.
We first see Swede as a young boxer, pulled into the corrupt world of organized crime, headed by Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). Soon, Swede becomes infatuated and obsessed with the sexy Kitty (Ava Gardner, at her most alluring), one of noir’s most seductive femme fatales.
Kitty promises to leave the boss for Swede, if he helps the gang to execute an armored car robbery, after which they would take the loot and elope together.
Burt Lancaster, who was 32 but looked younger, became an instant movie star after generating great reviews for his portrayal of Swede, the ex-boxer turned grand larcenist. Bosley Crowther, the influential film critic for the New York Times wrote: “Lancaster gives a lanky and wistful imitation of a nice guy wooed to his ruin.”
Director Robert Siodmak had a major influence on the evolution of American film noir. Born in l900 in Memphis, Tennessee, Siodmak spent his childhood in Liepzig and Berlin. After a short career in banking and in magazines, he began working as an assistant director for a German company. In l936, he managed to escape Nazi Germany for Paris and five years later arrived in Hollywood.
In many of his films, through taut, hard-edged and moody direction, Siodmak explored the criminal or psychotic impulses of his characters. His most typical narratives portray a gloomy world of fate, passion, obsession, and compulsion.
Some of the other noir films Siodmak is known for are: Phantom Lady (l944) The Suspect (1945), Uncle Harry (1945), Criss Cross (1949), and The File on Thelma Jordan (l949), starring Barbara Stanwyck.
This was the first Universal film, produced by Mark Hellinger, a former reporter. Reportedly, author Hemingway admired Gardner’s portrayal and later became a huge supporter of her appearances in other screen adaptations of his book, such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Sun Also Rises.
The Killers is still one of the few film noir to earn so many Oscar nominations.
Oscar Nominations: 4
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Anthony Veiller
Scoring of Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Miklos Rozsa
Film Editing: Arthur Hilton
Oscar Awards: None
In 1946, William Wyler's “The Best Years of Our Lives” swept most of the Oscars, including Picture, Director, Robert E. Sherwood's screenplay, Hugh Friedlander's score, and Daniel Mandell's editing.
Running Time: 102 minutes
Swede (Burt Lancaster)
Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner)
Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien)
Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker)
Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene)
Lilly Lubinsky (Virgina Christine)
Jake (John Miljan)
Charleston (Vince Barnett)
Packy Robinson (Charles D. Brown)
Kenyon (Donald MacBride)